Thursday, April 17, 2008

“[Jesus] said to them, ‘Do you not know
that I must be in my Father’s house?’”
(Luke 2: 49)

Feast of St. Joseph (transferred)
Jan Robitscher
All Saints Chapel
March 31, 2008
2 Samuel 7:4, 8-16
Psalm 89:1-4m 26-29
Romans 4: 13-18
Luke 2: 41-52

Alleluia. Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.
When I was a child I used to listen to my father’s LP collection, which included a wonderful Christmas recording by the Robert Shaw Chorale, happily now on a CD. I remember listening (and trying hard to imitate) the wonderful contralto, almost tenor voice of Florence Kopleff singing The Cherry Tree Carol to the beautiful Kentucky Harmony tune.
When Joseph was an old man.
an old man was he,
he married Virgin Mary
the queen of Galilee.
He married Virgin Mary,
the queen of Galilee.
(from The Cherry Tree Carol)[1]
I’d love to sing it all, but that would make a long sermon, indeed! Not until later did I discover other versions of this carol, my other favorite being one sung by King’s College Choir. I was Presbyterian, and it was through this carol that I became acquainted with Joseph as an important biblical character in his own right. Perhaps this seems strange, as the carol (with it’s many versions) tells a story much embellished over the scant biblical accounts--but it was a way into the lives of Mary and Joseph, whose feasts (transferred) we celebrate today and tomorrow. We will hear much more about Mary tomorrow. For now, let’s take a moment and dwell on Joseph.

Joseph was a man of royal lineage, from David. In spite of this, he was a person of humble work as a carpenter. So he has become the patron of workers, especially appropriate on this Cesar Chaves Day. He is only mentioned some 15 times in the Gospels and, at that, is silent. In the Western Church, Joseph was almost completely absent from the celebrations of Christendom until the 14th century, and only added to the Litany of Saints in 1729. In 1870 he was named Patron and Protector of the Universal Church, and many churches and cities bear his name, including our own San Jose. He still remains in the background of Eastern Orthodox spirituality (where he is called Joseph the Elder), though he does appear in iconography and his supporting role is considered essential to the working out of the divine plan.[2] In the Counter-Reformation, however, his image was recast as a younger, more vigorous man, but this never really “took”.

That we know so little about him may be the reason behind the profusion of apocryphal stories, carols and customs about him, among them that he was a widower before marrying Mary. He is often pictured with a walking staff with lily blossoms, indicating that he was divinely chosen. And customs range from the “Joseph Table” which Italians and others used to to thank St. Joseph for favors granted and to feed the poor, to burying a statue of St. Joseph upside-down in your yard to sell the house!

So what is it about Joseph that we are celebrating? What draws us to him?

Throughout the biblical narrative, Joseph was open to hearing the voice of God and was obedient, without knowing the final outcome. When the angel of the Lord revealed to him in a dream that Mary was with child “from the Holy Spirit” and that he would be called Jesus, he immediately and without question took Mary for his wife and took up his role as Jesus’ foster father. (Matt. 1:20-21) So he is also the patron of fathers, families and doubters.

When the angel warned him again of Herod’s impending slaughter, Joseph gathered his family (the name Joseph means “God gathers”) and fled to Egypt until he was told it was safe to return.

Joseph respected God. He went to Jerusalem to have Jesus circumcised and took Mary and Jesus to the Temple for her purification. And every year they went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.
In today’s Gospel reading, we hear the story of young Jesus in the Temple, with his parents searching for him “in great anxiety for three days for him. (Luke 2:48). Jesus’ own explanation “...I must be in my Father’s house” must have been bewildering and even hurtful for Joseph--as for any parent who wants to give their child “roots and wings”--or perhaps by then he understood who and whose Jesus was. That Joseph treated Jesus as his own son is attested in several places where the people of Nazareth say of Jesus, “Is this not the son of Joseph?” (Luke 4:22)

Perhaps most of all, Joseph was a person who, through his own love for Jesus, gave him the primary metaphor for God: a patient and loving Father.

We have no record of Joseph during Jesus’ public life, his death and resurrection, so most historians believe he died sometime before then. For this he is the patron of a “happy” (or peaceful) death.

Of all these qualities of openness and obedience to God, compassion and faith, what is it about this simple, silent man that attracts us to him? In the end, it is Joseph’s self-giving love that draws us most: Love of his family in spite of the stupendous circumstances that brought them together; Love of the honest work of his hands, which dignifies all labor; love of Jesus, who was himself Love Incarnate. Would that we could all be mirrors with such a reflection!

And if you are wondering by now what the connection is between St. Joseph and the Easter season. Well, there isn’t any--at least not directly. We will find it in another version of The Cherry Tree Carol. Several years have passed since Joseph married Mary and, by a miracle, she had her cherries from the tree. Joseph has faded from the scene. Mary asks Jesus “how the world will be”. He foretells his death and then says:

4. On Easter Day My mother
My rising will be,
O the sun and the moon, mother,
They shall uprise with Me.

The Cherry Tree Carol
Kentucky Mountain Ballad[4]

When Joseph was an old man,
An old man was he,
He married Virgin Mary
The Queen of Galilee.
Then Mary spoke to Joseph,
So meek and so mild:
“Joseph, gather me some cherries,
For I am with child.”

Then Joseph flew in anger,
In anger flew he:
“Let the father of the baby
Gather cherries for thee.”

Then Jesus spoke a few words,
A few words spoke He:
“Let my Mother have some cherries,
Bow low down, cherry tree.”

The cherry tree bowed low down,
Bowed low down to the ground,
And Mary gathered cherries
While Joseph stood around.

The Joseph took Mary
All on his right knee,
“What have I done Lord?
Have mercy on me.”

Then Joseph took Jesus
All on his left knee:
“Oh tell me, little baby,
When thy birthday will be.”

“The sixth day of Januar[y]
My birthday will be,
When the stars in the elements
Will tremble with glee.”

[1] transcribed from a field recording by John A. Lomax in the Archive of Folk Culture, Library of Congress, AFS 1010 Al, Joseph and Mary, sung by Jilson Setters (James W. Day) at Ashland, Kentucky, 28 June 1937. From Elizabeth Poston and Malcolm Williamson, A Book of Christmas Carols. (New York: Prentice Hall, 1988).
[2] Sandra Miesel, Finding St. Joseph.
[3] The Cherry Tree Carol Part 3: Mary's Question Terry: Words (adapted) from various collections. Melody traditional.
[4] from Christmas with the Robert Shaw Chorale , CD from the Musical Heritage Society.

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