Marking the 150th anniversary of St. Joseph being declared patron of the universal church, Pope…
Honoring St. Joseph the Worker through art
When Pope Pius XII added the feast of St. Joseph the Worker to the Church’s calendar in 1955, the celebration highlighted the Church’s esteem for workers and human labor. Originally intended to coincide with secular International Workers’ Day or “May Day” observances, the Church’s feast roots the dignity of work in God’s creative work. The feast affirms that work is sacred because it is the privileged path by which we participate, through our daily work, in the creative work of God in the world.
In this Year of St. Joseph, announced by Pope Francis, the feast of St. Joseph the Worker is an invitation to reflect on the virtues of the humble carpenter to whom God entrusted his divine son, Jesus, and his Blessed Mother. With his hands, Joseph built the home and crafted the livelihood that provided for the earthly, practical needs of Jesus and Mary. And with his virtues, Joseph crafted out of his life a masterpiece for God, radiant with faith, creative courage and love in action. A tour of these artistic masterpieces is a “visual catechesis” on the ordinary virtues of St. Joseph, who teaches us to dedicate our daily work to God in humble service to others.
A man of expectant faith
The two human beings who were closest to Jesus in his incarnation, birth and childhood were his mother Mary and his earthly father, Joseph. And while it is rare to see artistic depictions of Mary during her pregnancy, this rare painting from the 15th century shows us a fully pregnant Mary. Clothed in deep blue robes trimmed in gold, Mary is surrounded by angels as she holds the sacred book of Scripture in her right hand. Above Mary are two angels ready to place a large golden crown on her haloed head. And standing close behind Mary we see St. Joseph, who looks over her shoulder in a tender embrace. In his left hand, Joseph holds the word of God close to his heart as he and Mary wait with expectant hope for the coming of the Christ Child, the eternal Word made flesh. One can almost hear both their voices joined in prayer — “Come, Lord Jesus!”
Mary’s hopeful expectation of the birth of her divine Son Jesus was an intimate experience she shared with St. Joseph. As Mary and Joseph awaited the wondrous birth of Jesus they grew in expectant faith. In this rare image, St. Joseph invites us to recognize and to wait in expectant hope for God’s transforming work to unfold in our lives each day.
A man of God’s word
At her annunciation, Mary was afraid and confused when she first heard the words of the Archangel Gabriel. Yet it was God who spoke through the Archangel Gabriel, and Mary kept the word of God close to her heart always. So when the Holy Spirit overshadowed her, Mary’s fears and doubts gave way to trust and faith in God. Mary responded with her fiat, her yes to the plan of God. Her fears and questions were replaced with faith.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph experiences a parallel annunciation as he is visited by angels in a series of four dreams while wrestling with the “astonishing motherhood of Mary,” in the phrase of St. John Paul II. In this vibrant painting, “The Dream of St. Joseph” by Luca Giordano, we see the parallel annunciations to Mary and Joseph, surrounded by humble tools in his carpenter’s workshop. And just like Mary, Joseph is, at first, afraid and confused when the angel tells him to take her as his wife and to give the name Jesus to Mary’s son. As the Gospel tells us, Joseph was a just man, and because he was unwilling to put Mary to shame, he resolved to send her away quietly.
But Joseph was also a man of God’s word. So he sets aside his own plan to put God’s word first. The humble carpenter of Nazareth accepted God’s word as true and responded with his “yes” to God’s providential plan. So that when Joseph awoke from sleep he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took Mary as his wife.
As Pope Francis notes, “In every situation, Joseph declared his own ‘fiat’ like that of Mary at the annunciation and that of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane” (Patris Corde, No. 3). Joseph teaches us to remain close to God’s word that brings the grace of faith needed in times of anxiety and self-doubt. With eyes of faith we can, like Joseph, move from fear to trust and interior peace that comes from God.
A man of prayer and adoration
As they worked in their fields, the shepherds were the first to hear of the birth of Jesus, announced by a host of angels. The good news that God was reconciling the world by sending his divine Son came to the shepherds in the midst of ordinary working moments. At the joyous news, the shepherds’ work transformed into prayer as they left their fields to adore the newborn Jesus.
It is this Gospel moment that the talented Venetian painter, Giorgione, captures in this beautiful 16th-century scene of “The Adoration of the Shepherds.” Clothed in tattered garments with feet soiled from working in the fields are two shepherds who kneel with folded hands before the newborn Jesus. God humbled himself by entering the world in radical poverty. The infant Jesus lays on the bare ground resting his sacred head on a pillow of straw, protected by Mary’s blue cloak. Her divine son is poor in the things of this world but rich in the light of God’s love radiating into the darkness of the world.
With heads bowed and hands folded in prayer, Mary and Joseph are deep in adoration before the divine child entrusted to their care. Mary’s translucent veil and Joseph’s yellow cloak and wispy hair shimmer with light reflecting the precious stones ground into the paint used by Venetian artists of the day. Joseph’s faith took the form of prayer and adoration in the presence of Jesus. This saintly man of constant prayer invites us to do the same.
A man of creative courage
Pope Francis highlights several virtues of the foster father of Jesus in his recent apostolic letter, Patris Corde (“With a Father’s Heart), which announced the Year of St. Joseph. One of those virtues is the “creative courage” of St. Joseph, who turned the problems the Holy Family faced into moments of God’s grace and providential care. God relied on Joseph’s courage to protect Jesus from the murderous intentions of Herod. Having been warned in a dream, Joseph takes Jesus and Mary to Egypt as they flee the wrath of the jealous king.
In this 16th-century painting “The Flight into Egypt” from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., the artist, Vittore Carpaccio, sets the Gospel scene in a vibrant natural scenery of rolling hills, winding streams and forest trees. Fast moving clouds accompany the figures as they travel across the landscape. Mary, clothed in ornate garments of gold, blue and red, holds the Child Jesus close to her heart as they flee on a donkey, evoking that future moment when Jesus will enter Jerusalem on a donkey. St. Joseph, with a walking stick in his left hand, guides the donkey on the rocky road as they flee to safety. A sense of urgency in the face of danger is captured by the serene, yet there is a courageous look on Joseph’s face.
Pope Francis highlights the creative courage of St. Joseph that “emerges especially in the way we deal with difficulties. In the face of difficulties, we can either give up and walk away, or somehow engage with it. At times, difficulties, bring out resources we did not even think we had” (Patris Corde, 5). When faced with difficulty, St. Joseph’s creative courage safeguarded the Holy Family from danger. Before the many challenges of life, we may be strengthened by this virtue of the saintly guardian of the redeemer.
A man of silent strength
Every family struggles through hardships of one kind or another, as did the Holy Family. Hardships can strengthen the love and unity of a family or divide and weaken family bonds. When Jesus, Mary and Joseph were forced to flee and leave behind home, community and family, they experienced the fear and disorientation of families whose experience of war, violence and poverty leads to displacement and breakdown. They also experienced the silent strength of Joseph who guided this family through the dangers of exile from home and country, as recounted in the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.
This bronze sculpture of the “Holy Family at Rest” captures the reality of the physical stress of fleeing to another country out of fear. The intensely realistic sculpture is the creation of Anna Hyatt Huntington, who donated her work in 1963 to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, D.C. There it can be seen at the East entrance to the Basilica’s Crypt Church.
Set against a large bronze cross, we see Mary holding the infant Jesus closely as they rest together drained from the physical demands of their dangerous journey. On the left is St. Joseph, staff in hand, crouched in exhausted sleep, while a donkey rests on their right. One can almost feel the searing heat of the day as the Holy Family, exhausted from forced travel, pause to rest on their flight to Egypt. The stirring sculpture is a reminder of the physical hardships and the fear of the unknown that Joseph must have experienced as he journeyed to a distant land with Jesus and Mary, who God entrusted to the care of his silent strength.
A man with a father’s heart
Prayer and work were inseparable in the home of Nazareth, built and sustained by the humble manual work of St. Joseph. Work was a form of prayer, as the labor of Joseph’s hands provided for the earthly needs of Jesus and Mary. Joseph loved Jesus with “a father’s heart,” so that Jesus saw the face of God’s tender love in Joseph’s fatherly care. As Pope Francis notes, “Joseph saw Jesus grow daily ‘in wisdom and in years and in divine and human favor’ (Lk 2:52). As the Lord had done with Israel, so Joseph did with Jesus: he taught him to walk, taking him by the hand; he was for him like a father who raises an infant to his cheeks, bending down to him and feeding him (cf. Hos 11:3-4)” (Patris Corde, No. 2).
Joseph also taught Jesus to work with his hands as they built, from natural elements and tools of wood and metal, the craft of a carpenter’s trade. It was at the carpenter’s bench of Joseph that Jesus sanctified all work as a participation in his heavenly Father’s ongoing, creative work.
In this evocative 17th-century painting titled “Childhood of Christ” by Gerrit van Honthorst, we see the close relationship of the Child Jesus and St. Joseph centered around the work of the saintly carpenter of Nazareth. Set in the intimate room of his carpenter’s workshop, Joseph works diligently in the presence of the young Jesus, who leans on the table while holding a candle to illuminate the room. The warm golden light radiating from the faces of Jesus and Joseph lends serene dignity to the humble work that provided for the daily needs of the Holy Family.
A man of faithful love in action
“Is he not the carpenter’s son?” (Mt 13:55). While we hear these words spoken by the crowds in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, there are no recorded words of St. Joseph in the four Gospels. None of the Gospel writers chose to record any spoken words of the carpenter of Nazareth. His silence points to the most valuable lesson we learn from St. Joseph.
St. Joseph did not need words to express his faith in God and his love for Jesus and Mary. There was no need for words to show his creative courage in the face of the trials the Holy Family experienced. Joseph spoke with his actions. His faith was always translated into action. So Joseph’s actions spoke louder than any words he may have spoken or could have been recorded in the Gospels.
Joseph’s humble and daily acts of loving service in the home of Nazareth spoke more eloquently than words, as we see in this beautiful painting of “St. Joseph the Carpenter” by the French Baroque painter, Georges de la Tour. Radiant, warm light emanating from the candle held by the young Jesus evokes the love of Joseph that warmed the home of Nazareth. For Joseph loved Jesus with a father’s heart, protected him from danger, raised him in God’s ways, and provided for his family’s needs by the work of his hands. And Joseph loved Mary with a husband’s heart, in faithful self-giving love.
Joseph contemplated the face of Jesus in the home of Nazareth. His holiness consisted of becoming a living reflection of the face of Jesus through his humble actions in service of the Holy Family. Joseph’s virtues show that daily deeds of love in the ordinary moments of our day speak louder than the flood of words that fill our inboxes, the airwaves and digital spaces around us.
On his feast day may we learn from the virtues of St. Joseph the Worker to speak the language of love with actions that reflect and make God’s mercy and compassion present in a world in need.
Jem Sullivan, Ph.D., teaches Catechetics in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America, and is the author of “The Beauty of Faith: Christian Art and the Good News” and “Believe, Celebrate, Live, Pray: A Weekly Walk with the Catechism” from Our Sunday Visitor.
|CELEBRATE THE YEAR OF ST. JOSEPH|
A new site, catholicyearof.com, from OSV, will help enhance your Year of St. Joseph, proclaimed by Pope Francis to last from Dec. 8, 2020, to Dec. 8, 2021. On the site, you can learn more about St. Joseph, discover ways to celebrate the Year of St. Joseph, access prayers and more. You may also sign up for a monthly Year of St. Joseph newsletter to make the most of this special time.