A Way of Salvation: St. Joseph the Workman and Labor
by Omar F. A. Gutierrez
On this feast of St. Joseph the Workman I thought I would quote a bit from Mother Teresa. It’s something I found in the book Where There Is Love, There Is God edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk, MC.
Mother Teresa wrote:
[St. Joseph] was a just man; that means a holy man. He gave to God what belonged to Him and to the creatures what belonged to them. Being ‘just’ means to give every person their due. We must show them love because they all belong to God. God loves us and the others also. We believe that we are tabernacles of the living God; the other sisters also; the people also. …Saint Joseph [had] two talents – faithfulness and love – to serve Jesus. He was a common carpenter and became the foster Father of Jesus and spouse of the Mother of God. In all sincerity everybody must say I have used what I have got. I must be ‘just’ to others. …People who want to become holy must pray to St. Joseph.”
Yup, that sounds just about right to me. It’s an important truth about this day. Though it is caught up in all the business of May Day and the mud-splashed history that makes up that remembrance, we should keep before us the fact that it was in the labor of St. Joseph that he worked out his salvation. He used what he got, and we now recognize him worldwide as a model for the just man. This ought to be a comforting thought for parents.
We would like to give our lives over to our children with the kind of sage advice of the boy Jesus in the Temple who had all the scribes hanging on his every word. We would like to be the prudent caregiver who can squeeze a dime out of a half-penny. We would like to always be the calm and self-composed adult in the room who never loses their cool. But we’re not. Like St. Joseph, we are burdened by the same happy yokes of every day life.
So it ought to be comforting that this day celebrates the tempering of our interior steel through good old-fashioned labor. Instead of fretting over grand plans for a catechetical tool that will instantly make a child understand the Trinity, we can revel in knowing that changing the diaper – even the half-asleep diaper change in the middle of the night with a screaming baby and an irked spouse just glaring at you through the darkness sure they can do it better and faster and quieter – this change of the diaper is what God wants of you right now so it is part of His plan so it is part of your salvation.
And what if you fashion some wildly speculative catechetical lesson from the diaper’s three points (the flap and the two tabs)? That’s a bonus. All you know is that you’ve done the Lord’s work, and that is enough. The principle carries forward to the work in the factory, the work in the office, the work of being a role model to your child’s playmates, the work of being a patient spouse, the work of wonderful participation in God’s creative hand.
So must St. Joseph have thought about his work and the chance to teach his son about the craft of carpentry. All he knew, as Mother Teresa puts it, was that he was given a task, a job, a role, a vocation and he was to live and work and toil without counting the cost and without heeding the wounds. He gave what was due to Christ Jesus, which of course was everything. He was a just man, because he knew how much and to whom to give of himself.
This also means, of course, that we cannot be lost in our work to the detriment of the family. My little reflection here is not meant to mount the argument that “my prayer is my work,” “my worship is a job well done.” No no. We can be relieved and joyful at the opportunity to love Jesus in the little things done well, done with love. But we cannot believe that the little things can replace time with Jesus or time with our families.
There is a wonderful line in Familiaris consortio which talks about the educative role of the parent. Bl. Pope John Paul II teaches that no one, that is not one other person can ever fully replace you, and you can never fully delegate your role as a parent to another. Our children, then, no matter how poor a father or mother we might think we are, our children are due us. They have a right to us. So to be just we must provide them with the gift of being with and loving us.
I like to believe that on particularly warm nights, and as is the wont of the people in the Middle East, Jesus and St. Joseph went onto the roof of their home to escape the heat inside the house. I like to believe that the young boy Jesus would rest his head on the arm of St. Joseph who had tucked his wood-hardended palms underneath his head. I picture them both laying down to stare up at the sky and together, silently, wonder at the creation before them. At the end of a long day’s labor, such repose would have been very refreshing for St. Joseph the Workman, especially as Mary’s quiet song drifted up to them and filled their much needed night of rest with dreams of many more such evenings.
Happy Feast of St. Joseph. Happy day of labor to you no matter what it might be. May we all work out our salvation in the just labor given to us by God.