Today is the Solemnity of St. Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
We all know that Joseph is a powerful saint and a tremendous example to husbands and fathers everywhere.
[Full Disclosure: Joseph is my confirmation name, and I picked St. Joseph as my saint for confirmation because I felt badly for him. Between Jesus and Mary, Joseph often looked to me like he was “forgotten.” Out of pity, I asked him to be my companion–and he has shown himself to be a powerful advocate and friend throughout my life.]
As I was saying, we generally view St. Joseph through the lens of fatherhood and familial love, but today on his solemnity, the Church offers us an opportunity to see within his life a fundamental principle of the Gospel. If we embrace this opportunity, we will “right-side” St. Joseph. In other words, instead of taking an image of St. Joseph and burying it upside down so that we can sell a home [can we STOP doing that, please?], with the right openness, we can allow the image of Joseph to turn our own lives (and the lives of our parishes) upside down with the power of the Gospel.
What do I mean? Let’s take a little dive into today’s readings!
In Chapter 4 of his Letter to the Romans the apostle Paul takes some time to reflect on the fruitfulness of Abraham’s life. In it, Paul writes: “It was not through the law that the promise was made to Abraham and his descendants that he would inherit the world, but through the righteousness that comes from faith.” (Romans 4:13) Paul understands that the new life promised to Abram by God in the Old Testament did not manifest simply because Abram carried out God’s commands. In other words, Abram became Abraham, the father of many nations, not because of Abraham’s actions, but because of something called righteousness.
Righteousness really means “right relationship” with God–a real and intimate union and integrity with the One who created us. Because of the Fall, this union with God has been ruptured beyond our human ability to repair it. Any restoration of this relationship must come from God, and St. Paul identifies this divine restorative action upon us as righteousness. Because righteousness originates entirely with God, it cannot simply be produced by our actions and activities. This is why Paul acknowledges that Abraham’s righteousness “comes from faith.” At some point, Abram entrusted himself to the Lord, and that intentional decision to make the Lord the center of His life allowed him to receive the righteousness of God.
I can already hear you thinking “But Deacon Keith, by your own words it is the activity of Abraham that produced righteousness. He did something (turning his life over to God) and then was transformed.” That might be true if Paul didn’t follow up his statements on Abraham’s faith with more reflection: “For this reason, it depends on faith, so that it may be a gift, and the promise may be guaranteed to all his descendants, not to those who only adhere to the law but to those who follow the faith of Abraham . . . .” (Romans 4:16)
Both Scripture and Tradition are clear that Faith does not originate in the human will, but rather it is a gift from God. Therefore, even our desire and ability to make this act of entrustment to the Lord comes from God, from the Divine Life he offers us (which we call grace). The action of God’s grace upon us before any engagement of our own will is called Prevenient Grace in our Tradition. This grace gives us the desire and openness to say yes to the Lord, and this desire is transformed into the theological virtue of Faith at our baptism. In God’s goodness, we can continue to cooperate with that virtue of Faith throughout our lives, and this cooperation will bring us closer to union with God.
The Trap of Performance
Why is this such a big deal? Why am I even spending this much time on righteousness, grace, and activity? The truth is that many of our Catholic brothers and sisters, those we serve at the parish level, and those we know in our own lives, have fallen into the trap of “performance Catholicism.” In other words, they believe that Catholicism is primarily about following rules. As long as they do Catholic things, as long as they simply fulfill their obligations, they’ll be “safe.” This kind of faith becomes almost entirely transactional. I do “Catholic Thing A” so that I will get to heaven. I push this button by doing “Catholic Thing B,” and I pull this lever by doing “Catholic Thing C” and the gates of Heaven will open. But what Jesus Christ and my relationship with Him has to do with it is very, very unclear.
Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI had some powerful things to say about this kind of performance Catholicism:
We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. —Deus Caritas Est, 1
For Pope Benedict XVI, there is more to Christianity than just intellectual propositions, moral truths, and proscribed actions. Rather, the heart of Christianity is Jesus, who is the Father’s Love Incarnate. This Jesus invites us into relationship and no amount of “doing Catholic things” (even things like the Mass, devotions like the Rosary or the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, or activities like scripture study, etc.) without intentionally entrusting ourselves to Jesus and living out this relationship will, ultimately, save us. The activity that flows from that relationship, our “works” are the manifestation of that saving faith in our lives.
Calling All Patriarchs!
But what does all of this have to do with St. Joseph? Well, today’s gospel reading from Matthew takes on new dimensions in light of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Through this epistle, we can see the remarkable parallels between Abraham, our Father in Faith, and St. Joseph. Like Abraham, to whom the Lord spoke and through whom He promised new life would flow, St. Joseph also hears from the Lord in a dream. Joseph, being a good Jew is troubled by Mary’s pregnancy, and since they were betrothed but not yet married, he planned to set her aside quietly, so as not to place shame upon her. But the Lord counsels Joseph not to “be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.” (Matthew 1:20-21) The Lord’s promise to Abraham is new life, the generation of a people, and the Lord’s promise to St. Joseph is that through the Holy Spirit, Mary will bear the one who will offer new life to the world–and it is through Joseph, that this messiah will receive a name (1:21).
Like Abraham, it isn’t simply the following of God’s commands that allows Joseph to bear this fruit, but the intentional decision to follow the Lord and place his trust in God as the central relationship in his life. Through grace, Abraham became our Father in Faith, and in a very real sense, through grace St. Joseph becomes the Father of our Faith in Jesus Christ. If we look to his image in scripture today, the invitation over our life becomes clear: God is speaking to each of us personally and calls us to make an intentional decision to surrender our hearts to him. This is the Gospel of Righteousness . . .that salvation comes not through our own goodness or efforts, but through our relationship with the one who left heaven in search of us and merited for us the new life of God’s Kingdom. We don’t earn it, and all we need to do is receive it and allow it to take more and more possession of our hearts.
Our journey through this earthly pilgrimage is not simply a solitary one, we are called and saved as a people (1Cor 12:27). As those committed to the transformation of our parishes how can we help change the very culture of our parishes so that they become places where our brothers and sisters regularly have the opportunity to be changed by the power of the Gospel? St. Paul is pretty clear later on in Romans when he proclaims that “faith comes through hearing.” (10:17) Therefore, a critical question we must ask ourselves as leaders and committed disciples of Jesus is “Where in our parish life together is the gospel message (The Great Story of Salvation) being proclaimed in such a way that people have the opportunity to respond to it?”
One way to answer this question is to do the following:
Gather together as parish leaders, ministry coordinators, or concerned disciples and make a list of all the parish ministries, activities, and offerings.
Then identify those specific ministries, activities, and offerings that explicitly proclaim the gospel message and invite participants to respond. It is important here to be very honest and clear. Make this determination not based on what the ministry should do or is supposed to do, but answer based on what is actually happening within that area.
When that is complete, go through those areas that are not currently proclaiming the Gospel and discuss what changes could be made to 3 or 4 of those areas in the next 6 months to make them proclaim the gospel message.
After those areas have been modified, return to your list and take a look at 3 or 4 more areas that aren’t proclaiming the Gospel and work on them.
The reality is that we can never proclaim the Gospel message too many times. Often, it takes people 7 or 8 exposures to The Great Story of Salvation before people start to seriously wrestle with it. As we begin to shape our parish life together around proclamation of the Gospel, we will see the culture of our parish start to shift and change.
So today, let us “Right-Side” St. Joseph, and ask him to pray for us so that, like him, we might intentionally entrust our hearts to God and cooperate with the righteousness that is ours in Jesus Christ!