Monday, 31 May 2010
I love St Joseph.
Statues of St Joseph come in several main types:
Holding the infant Jesus with one arm and a white lily in his other hand.
The white lily is the symbol of purity, innocence and integrity. It is often associated with Mary the Mother of Jesus, so had an obvious connection with Joseph who became her husband. But the other saint often depicted with a white lily and holding the infant Jesus is St Antony. He was a preacher (a Franciscan friar) and so this depiction of him carrying the Infant Jesus shows him as a bearer of the Word of God. In the case of St Antony, there is also a story of him having been seen with a radiant light emitting from his cell, holding the baby Jesus on his knee and chatting to him.
We are all aware of the problems within the church about child sexual abuse, and that is not a modern danger. Children have always been vulnerable to predatory adults. St Antony and St Joseph carry the lily as a sign that they are trustworthy: that what is innocent, pure and fragile can be entrusted safely into their care, because they are people of integrity.
Kneeling to adore
Where you see a statue of Joseph kneeling to adore, or standing and bending forwards holding a lantern, you’re probably looking at a figure from a Christmas Nativity set, where Joseph is shown adoring the newborn baby Jesus, and holding the light in the stable. What an honour, as Christ who is our light comes into the world, to be the one who is chosen to hold the light for him.
Striding along with a walking staff
In the gospel stories, Joseph makes three important journeys: to Bethlehem, where Jesus is born; to Egypt, in flight from Herod’s massacre of the infants; back home to Nazareth when it is safe to return. In each case he is shepherding his little family, taking care of them and protecting them.
At his carpenter’s bench
These are the statues of Joseph the worker: the man who fulfils his vocation and provides for his family by the practical skill of his trade. Experience, pride in his work, patience, perseverance, application and aptitude are all implied: and these statues remind us that our plain everyday work is holy; that trade is holy; that putting bread on the table is holy; that muscle and sweat and rolled-up sleeves and learning a craft are holy – it’s not all eyes turned heavenwards and incense wafting in the morning light.
Simply holding the infant Jesus
This is my favourite. This is the statue of Joseph that speaks to me. The infant Jesus here is the Word of God, and Joseph is the bearer of the Word: he carries the Word through the world.
The French poet Paul Claudel says:
The Word is the adopted son of silence,
for St Joseph passes through the pages of the gospel
without uttering a single word.
And that’s what I love: the relationship between silence and the Word. That the Word of God is carried and nurtured by silence and in silence. The Word of God is held and loved in silence. The Word of God cannot flourish in a life that is contentious or gossipy or garrulous or always drawing attention to itself.
The quietness of St Joseph: walking alongside the donkey so others can ride; bearing his staff to defend them; holding the light for them; refraining from accusing or complaining or criticizing; accepting responsibility; holding on to integrity; sheltering and upholding innocence; working steadily at an honest trade; and having the humility to recognize in a little child something greater than himself, which he kneels to adore – I think even if I live to be a hundred I will never cease to love and learn from the beautiful example of St Joseph. And Joseph is often shown as an older man: which is to suggest to us that he is wise: that silence, forbearance, kindness, sheltering and protecting and nurturing others, understanding, humility, working to support our families – these show us the way of wisdom.
When I posted yesterday, I said I didn’t have a statue of St Joseph, and that’s true: I don’t yet have one that is my own and that I can relate to. But I realized that I do believe we actually have one in our house.
Tony the Badger (my husband!) had a sea-faring grandfather, who brought home curiosities from the Far East, including the statue posted here, which came from China. We think of China as an atheist country, but it does have a strand of Christian tradition, and its other religions have been Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism.
It could be that the statue we have is just a pleasing representation of a grandfather and child, or belongs to a Confucian, Buddhist or Taoist symbolism that I am not familiar with: but until I manage to find a statue of St Joseph that shows him how I imagine him – and just carrying the baby Jesus, not cluttered with the other accoutrements of lantern, lily, carpenter’s equipment, walking stick or anything else – this Chinese wood-carving has the honour of representing beloved Joseph, the man whose gentle quietness carries and nurtures the Word of God.