Saint Joseph

Joseph, Husband of the Virgin Mary and Guardian of Jesus

(2 Sam 7:4, 8-16 / Ps 89:1-4, 19-29 / Rom 4:13-18, Lk 2:41-52)

Collect

O God, who from the family of your servant David raised up Joseph to be the guardian of your incarnate Son and the husband of his virgin mother: Give us grace to imitate his uprightness of life and his obedience to your commands; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I’M A BABY BOOMER, though I resist — and sometimes resent — the caricature of Boomers that is often presented in the media. The main use I see for such a generational designation is the historical context it provides; it reminds me what I have in common with that group of people culturally. I knew it was time to retire from teaching high school when all the formative events of my life began appearing in my students’ history books. With a group of Boomers, at least I know they know — and have experienced — what I’m talking about.

What we Boomers share is pretty remarkable. Some early Boomers remember duck-and-cover drills in elementary school and all Boomers remember the Cold War, the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall. Boomers lived through the tumult of the 60s: civil rights protests, assassinations, the Viet Nam War, the peace movement, Woodstock, and yes, disco. We went from the Mercury Program with Alan Shepherd and John Glenn, the first American in space and the first American to orbit the earth respectively, to Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, to the Challenger disaster and the de facto end of American dominance in space. We went from slide rules to calculators, to room-sized computers, to PCs and Macs, to the internet, to TiKTok, arguably a downward trajectory. We lived through the hyper-inflation of the 70s and the AIDS epidemic of the 80s. Boomers made fortunes in the tech industry in the early 90s and lost fortunes when the tech bubble burst in the late 90s. We survived Y2K — do you still remember that? — with essentially no consequences, only to have our lives radically changed just a year later on 11 September 2001. We lived through the longest war in United States history in the aftermath of 9-11. We went from the Voting Rights Act to the first African-American President to the new attempted suppression of voting rights. We have lived through, and, please God, we’re coming out the other side of what may be the world’s first global pandemic. And now some think we are facing World War III. All of this in the span of seventy years.

The Millennials have their own stories to tell, though there is some overlap surely: the Gen-Xers, too. Even with all the generational differences in these groups, I suspect there is at least one thing we all have in common: from time to time — probably much of the time — we have all felt at the mercy of powers and events and forces beyond our control. With the 24/7 news cycle and the constant access to global news, we just know too much. And given that the media only reports catastrophic news, we are constantly bombarded with gloom, despair, and agony: on our televisions, radios, streaming services, cell phones, and now even on our watches. It’s hard for even a Luddite like me to tune it all out.

And here’s the problem with that. We feel like we are somehow responsible for the world, that there is something we should be doing. Combine that with the fact that we are just ordinary people — not the elite, not the powerful, not the Uber-wealthy — just ordinary people, and we experience this great cognitive and even moral dissonance. What can an ordinary person like me — and, dare I say, like you? — do in the face of the enormity of the world’s problems?

All of this was rumbling around in my head as I began to reflect on the life of the saint whose life we commemorate today: St. Joseph, husband of the Virgin Mary and guardian of Jesus. Is our world really more complex, more dangerous, more disorienting than his was? He was an ordinary man caught up in a world that must have seemed chaotic and beyond his control: Roman occupation with their brutal dominance, poverty, early and often violent death. He faced family scandal and persecution by political powers. He he was forced to take his family into exile, to live with a wife and young child as refugees. Joseph was just an ordinary man. What was he supposed to do? I suspect that was his question, just as it is so often our question.

This is precisely where the witness of Joseph’s life offers us a way forward in the mess that is our world. Let me suggest this lesson from his life:

God does not need extraordinary people. Rather, God chooses and uses ordinary people who are faithful, and by choosing them and by using them, God makes them extraordinary.

This is not a tenet of our faith that we’ll find in any creed or catechism; I can’t prove it by quoting a specific Scripture. But I can, from Scripture, heap up example after example in which God has worked in that way. It is the witness of the entire story that leads me to that conclusion.

God does not need extraordinary people. Rather, God chooses and uses ordinary people who are faithful, and by choosing them and by using them, God makes them extraordinary.

Joseph was an ordinary man. Those in his village of Nazareth — itself a very ordinary town — knew him as a tekton (cf Matt 13:55), a word and occupation we often translate as carpenter. But a tekton was more like a general construction handyman, a jack-of-all-trades among builders. Do you need a stone wall built? Call Joseph. A door framed in and hung? Joseph can do it. A wooden chest made or stones cleared from a field? Joseph is good at that. Joseph was a tradesman, what we would call a blue collar worker, willing to do any fitting work with his hands to provide for himself, and later for his family. Ordinary work from an ordinary man. My dad was a tekton: anything needed doing, he could do, provided it was with his hands. Those aren’t my skills. I work with ideas and words, water and oil, bread and wine. But, I’m no less a tekton; I’m building things and making both a life and living. That’s true of many of you. And, like Joseph, in the best sense, we are — most of us — just ordinary working people.

Joseph was poor, like most of the people in his village. I heard recently that the majority of families in the United States have less than one thousand dollars in the bank. Joseph would have thought them fabulously wealthy. He almost surely lived hand-to-mouth or job-to-job. Today, we call people like that the working poor: honest, hardworking folk, who often hold down multiple jobs and still barely make ends meet. We know about Joseph’s poverty obliquely through Luke’s Gospel. Forty days after the birth of Jesus:

when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons” (Luke 2:22-24, ESV throughout).

But, the Law actually requires the presentation of a lamb a year old for a burnt offering. Only if the family cannot afford a lamb, may it offer instead two turtledoves or two pigeons (cf Lev 12). In the offering for Jesus, the Son of God, Joseph must appeal to God’s concession for the poor. He was an ordinary man.

Joseph was a Jew in a land occupied by Rome. Think of an Indian under British rule in the last century, or a Georgian under Russia. Joseph was a son of David. He had royal blood running through his veins. But to the Romans he was just another Jew, just another subject, just an ordinary peasant, just another source of taxes. And like so many other ordinary Jewish men of his generation, he was forced by Rome to return to his ancestral village to enroll himself and his family and to pay taxes that he couldn’t afford. Worse still, he was required by Rome to take his pregnant wife with him — a woman about to give birth any day — on this difficult and perilous journey. There was no appeal, no exemption for Joseph, because he was nobody, just an ordinary man. And to top off this humiliation, when he arrived in Bethlehem at Rome’s command, when his wife went into labor with her first child, Joseph could not even provide a proper place for the birth. He had no money. He had no power. He had no prestige. He was an ordinary man.

I suspect that Joseph had the ordinary dreams of an ordinary man: a small but well-built home in his village, a good wife, steady work with sons to help him, a good name among his neighbors, a place in the synagogue — just a good, ordinary life. But even these ordinary hopes were dashed when Mary, his betrothed whom he had kept in purity and chastity, told him she was was pregnant, told him some bizarre story of an angel and the Holy Spirit and the Son of God: something far out of the ordinary. Joseph responded as an ordinary man would, though perhaps with an unusual amount of grace:

Matthew 1:19–23 (ESV): And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

23  “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,

and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).

This is it. This is when God chooses an ordinary man, chooses to use him in the great plan of the salvation of the world. What will it be, Joseph: an ordinary life with ordinary dreams, or an extraordinary life with angels and visions and much more besides?

God does not need extraordinary people. Rather, God chooses and uses ordinary people who are faithful, and by choosing them and by using them, God makes them extraordinary.

24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus (Matt 1:24-25).

This ordinary man chooses to be made extraordinary in the will of God, having no idea what that meant beyond love and trust and obedience. And those are the very things that transform an ordinary life into the most extraordinary life: love, trust, obedience. The faithfulness of ordinary men and women is the stuff of salvation, tools in God’s hands for the redemption of the world.

And so Joseph’s journey begins. This ordinary man will dream more dreams, will encounter magi from foreign lands and be given valuable gifts probably beyond anything he would ever earn in his lifetime, will be forced to flee — along with his wife and child — flee the rage of a paranoid king, will become a refugee in the ancient land of Jewish slavery, will return home to resume his ordinary life, which he now knows is anything but ordinary.

Is our world, are our lives, really more turbulent, more chaotic, more confusing than his? What can we do in the midst of climate change and political discord and #blacklivesmatter and #MeToo and pandemic and Russian military aggression and just possibly World War III? We can live our ordinary lives, go about our ordinary work, live in our ordinary communities with love, trust, obedience. We can be faithful to the calling God has given each of us knowing that such faithfulness makes ordinary lives extraordinary.

Go to church. Say your prayers. Remember God. Repent. Rejoice. Hope. Have faith. Love — extravagantly. Those are extraordinary things that ordinary people can do. And I am foolish enough to to believe that God can use them, and ordinary people, for the salvation of the world. That’s what the life of St. Joseph tells us.

Joseph, an ordinary man: chosen by God the Almighty as bridegroom for the holy Virgin, father of the Word, guardian of our salvation, protector of him whom the heavens serve and in whose presence hell does tremble.

I am an ordinary man. Perhaps you are ordinary, too? When the world seems too big, too complex, too disheartening, too confusing for ordinary men and women, think of St. Jospeh and the lesson of his life:

God does not need extraordinary people. Rather, God chooses and uses ordinary people who are faithful, and by choosing them and by using them, God makes them extraordinary.

Amen.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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