Common sense dreamers

Anthony Towey

In his Apostolic Letter Patris Corde, ‘with a Father’s heart’, Pope Francis has declared this a year dedicated to St Joseph. It recalls his establishment as Patron of the Universal Church by Pius IX in 1870, and his feast of 19 March was augmented by Pius XII who famously instituted the celebration of St Joseph the Worker in 1955 as a counterpoint to Communism’s international Mayday celebrations. Boasting (I am reliably informed) more statues in Catholic churches than any other saint, one might question why Joseph needs any more publicity. Yet it is perhaps because such popular piety identifies him in ascetic terms that we need to refresh our understanding of this wonderful saint, who is at once father and guardian, dreamer and husband, craftsman and wanderer, householder and refugee.

The theological need to emphasise the marital restraint of the Holy Family was and is understandable. However, the ubiquitous depiction of Joseph with a lily as a necessary corollary to the virginity of Mary has tended to obscure the more dynamic biblical picture of Joseph. His name connotes the famous dreamer of Genesis, and it is on the basis of the first of four dreams that he acts in a fashion contrary to the strict instructions of his own tradition (Mt 1.19). It is almost unthinkable for Catholics to consider that without his love, his dreams and his good sense Mary would have been stoned to death along with her unborn child (Deut. 22.21) – so we tend not to think about it.

There is a resilience and good sense in this couple further evidenced by their journeying. Displaced by bureaucracy, they make the best of straitened circumstances, using a manger as a cot for their baby (Lk 2.7). With Herod in the Pharaoh role, Joseph’s dreams reverse the Exodus and sensibly take this tiny Israel into exile, crossing hostile land and water, asylum seekers fleeing for their lives (cf. Gen. 37.12–36; Exod. 14.1–31; Mt 2.13–18). Return is eventual, not immediate. There is contingency as well as autonomy in their lives, as is the case for the poor who have choices done to them. The arrival of Joseph in the Galilee is the result of another dream/asylum sequence (Mt 2.19–23) but has been paralleled with economic migration as the building of new cities such as Sepphoris made pressing demands for skilled labour. Determining the best for one’s family, to find work and to provide – Joseph knew the anxiety of a life lived off-balance long before the foreshadowing of the tomb – when Jesus was lost during pilgrimage to Jerusalem (Lk 2.41–52).

As noted in these pages before, part of our problem is a tendency to mistake a tidy life for a holy life. Indeed, our preference for purity has meant that we don’t see a Joseph with a sick patch on the shoulder of his tunic, nor lifting house-frames with workmates, still less dancing with his beloved. Our association of purity and delicacy can all too easily become a rejection of virtues traditionally associated with the masculine. In our non-physical modernity, how often do we place the sacred host in the cradle of calloused hands, worn by labour beneath our status? We fail to see God in the muddles and contradictions of our lives and, still worse, can succumb to a pastoral disposition whereby the gospel is preached only to the choir, on condition they are in tune. Pope Francis is surely aware of this, and in Patris Corde #4 writes:
Just as God told Joseph: “Son of David, do not be afraid!” (Mt 1.20), so he seems to tell us: “Do not be afraid!” We need to set aside all anger and disappointment, and to embrace the way things are, even when they do not turn out as we wish. Not with mere resignation but with hope and courage. In this way, we become open to a deeper meaning. Our lives can be miraculously reborn if we find the courage to live them in accordance with the Gospel. It does not matter if everything seems to have gone wrong or some things can no longer be fixed. God can make flowers spring up from stony ground. Even if our heart condemns us, “God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything” (1 Jn 3.20).

Anybody involved in pastoral ministry knows the truth of these sentiments. They are at the root of what Pope Francis calls in his letter ‘Christian realism’ for which Joseph is a potent example – a dreamer with common sense. This man of faith, who accepted his responsibilities in trying circumstances, epitomises the Old Testament ideal to ‘act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly’ (Mic. 6.8). For us, called to proclaim a message of Good News which is beyond all dreams, may the Year of St Joseph renew our determination to craft a better world, despite the splinters of our lives.