Feast of St. Joseph
by V. Rev. Chrysostom Baer, O.Praem.
Just inside the doorway from the abbey cloister to the chapter room, there hangs an icon of St. Joseph written by our own fr. Philip. Not unlike the secco in the center south shrine here in the nave, the carpenter of Nazareth is depicted with the Christ child on his shoulders. Just a few days ago I looked at the icon and thought, “Carries the Son of God on his shoulders for fun—Terror of Demons.”
The contrast seems incongruous. With lighthearted joy St. Joseph plays with his Son; with intense fury demons seek the damnation of mankind. St. Joseph is concerned with his work so as to feed his family, shelter them, and clothe them. Satan and his minions are obsessed with a cosmic struggle they know they will lose forever. St. Joseph is a man of flesh and blood, doomed to age and weariness and death. The devils are pure spirits, subsistent intellects, incapable of extinction. Why then should this humble handyman from a useless town in a backwater client state at the borderlands of the civilized world cause in the demons something akin to stark dread?—where the panic is existential and unmitigated precisely because they’re pure spirits?
We see in the mosaic of the triumphal arch that Satan has a long, long tail—so long, in fact, he is the largest creature depicted on the wall. And it swept a third of the stars from the sky. A third of the angels followed their leader—into hell for their punishment and onto earth for their revenge. The fallen angels are still pure intellects, not material beings so amazingly stupid they wouldn’t understand anything at all if it weren’t for their bodies—like man. Yes, pure intellects, and order is a work of reason. The demons understand and submit to order, to authority. They have no choice.
In a diocese, the exorcist ex officio is the diocesan bishop. He or the local ordinary, for example the vicar general, who draws his authority from the diocesan bishop, delegates a priest to perform an exorcism “who has piety, knowledge, prudence, and integrity of life,” as Church law says. If you don’t have this delegation, you can say all the same prayers, but the demons know they don’t have to obey you, and then things will turn…bad—very bad indeed.
The diocesan bishop, however, is the Vicar of Christ for the diocese he governs. It is Christ’s own authority he shares, even over demons. God-made-man shares His power and authority with His high priest who in turn delegates another priest. The demons draw the straight line, and they can’t argue with it.
But whom does God obey? St. Joseph, even more than His Virgin Mother. Joseph is the head of the Holy Family. Yet in his role, he sets the example that his Son will later enunciate: “The greatest among you must be your servant.” Hence, the new invocations in the litany of St. Joseph rightly call him “Servant of Christ” and “Minister of Salvation” because Jesus is salvation. So, the Son of God obeys mere man, who in turn uses this authority at the service of the Son of God. And the Son of God honors the man for the service.
And at this point, the demons’ perfect vision goes cross-eyed. They understand, sort of, but they really don’t get it. Yet they know that if this man throwing God up on his shoulders gives the word, they’re in deep trouble. And there’s nothing they can do about it: at his name, they fall into sheer terror. Just look at that shrine in the nave. What is Jesus doing on Joseph’s shoulders? Toppling idols, and “the gods of the heathens are demons,” says Scripture.
He who had custody over Christ in the flesh has custody also over Christ in His Mystical Body. His authority endures unchecked, unabated, undiminished. We are still protected by him, carried on his shoulders, carried along the path to heaven, and wherever he takes us, the demons see him coming and blanch in terror.
Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (Jn 15:13). My whole life has in one way or another revolved around the desires that make up the very core of this single verse. Sometimes intentionally, but most times unknowingly, I found that the direction of my life was set by the principles which form the bold application of this verse.
Even as his health declined, Fr. Leo continued to orient his life to the service of the altar, recognizing in the Holy Eucharist the source of every grace and heavenly blessing. At that moment, I knew that I, too, wanted to be a Norbertine priest, “lifting high the Holy Eucharist over the miseries and errors of this world.”
The Gospel passage we just heard comprises the entire fifteenth chapter of Luke, all thirty-two verses. It reminds me of St. Justin Martyr’s second century description of the Mass: “On Sunday we have a common assembly of all our members,” he says. “The recollections of the Apostles are read, as long as there is time.”
Fortunately the three parables are fairly clear in their literal meaning; let us examine but some few points for their spiritual import. In the parable of the lost sheep, notice how our Lord even phrases the question: “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?” The scribes and Pharisees may not have been shepherds, but they weren’t stupid. Not one of them would have left the ninety-nine to find the one because that’s the best way of losing the ninety-nine and still not finding the one.
But in this they did not understand the deeper contrast Christ Jesus was drawing between God and man. Man has to leave one place to go to another. God remains with the ninety-nine even as He goes off to find the one. The life of grace is not lost in the ninety-nine while He seeks by grace to draw back the heart of the one. And the only way man can have a glimpse at how much God wants a sinner’s heart is by realizing He is so crazy with love as to leave the sure thing in favor of the impossible risk.
The other side of this perspective is the father in the parable of the prodigal son. Without ever leaving his house, his vision extends to his son who is “still a long way off,” which implies not only that he was looking for him but that also his sight sees him where he is. Put the two parables together, and we see that only if the Good Shepherd goes in search of the stray can the squalid son lift his head from the pig sty to dream of happiness at home. Only then does the Father see his wretched son afar off and in mercy run out to meet him.
The reaction of son and father are perfect. The son resolves to confess, and in his shame to accept a dignity lower than is truly his. He does confess, but the father does not let him even ask for what is beneath him, let alone allow him to ask and then deny it to him, and instead enriches his son with tokens of love and esteem: the finest robe, a ring, sandals to wear, and the fattened calf to feast upon.
When in our sins we can no longer hide from the Good Shepherd and so we confess our sins to the Father’s representative, we are never lowered beneath our dignity as sons and daughters of God. Rather, every mark of honor we threw away is returned to us in love. We are again clothed with the finest robe of sanctifying grace and charity which we received at baptism. The ring is the signet whose seal of the Holy Spirit we received at confirmation. Sandals are mortification from worldliness by separating us from the earth and keeping us from getting dirty as we tread the paths of this life; they also prepare our feet to run with the truths of the Gospel. “How beautiful upon the mountains,” says Isaiah, “are the feet of him who brings glad tidings.” In such a state, the full Catholic life in all its majesty, we are ready to feast on the fattened calf, Christ Jesus Himself sacrificed for our sins and given to us as food in the Holy Eucharist.
This is the happiness of our eternal Father. His food is our salvation. His joy is our redemption from sin. As St. John Chrysostom says, “He feasts on the fruit of His mercy by the sacrifice of His Son.” This is the festivity of the household ministers, the harmony of the angels, the symphony of the saints. And it is for us every time we go to confession.
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