Circular Letter: Lent 2021
St. Joseph & the Holy Angels
To the joy of devout Catholics throughout the world, Pope Francis proclaimed a special Holy Year dedicated to St. Joseph, the foster father of Jesus and Head of the Holy Family. The declaration came forth on December 8th, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, and the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of St. Joseph as Patron of the Universal Church. In order to profit as much as we can from this great year of grace, we want to examine both the meaning and significance of the life of St. Joseph, as well as the extraordinary relationship that he had with the holy angels.
Remember, that just seven years ago Pope Francis consecrated the Vatican City State on the very same day to both St. Michael and St. Joseph. By doing so, he highlighted the connections that can be found between the Prince of the Heavenly Hosts and the Head of the Holy Family. Both are patrons of the Church!
Increasing Awareness of St. Joseph’s Role in the Life of the Church
Before we begin our examination of the life of St. Joseph in relation to the angels, let us first review his life and holiness briefly, so that we can gain a better understanding of his role in relation to God’s providence and the Church. As we enter more deeply into the Third Millennium of Christianity, the signs of the times indicate that our era may be called, the “Age of St. Joseph” (See Fr. Christopher Rengers, St. Joseph: Model for the Christian Man, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 8). Why can we say this? First of all, because the Church over the last one hundred and fifty years has been paying increasing attention to St. Joseph by officially recognizing his importance and influence in a number of ways.
Consider the following: Besides being declared the Universal Patron of the Church by the First Vatican Council in 1870, St. Joseph was also declared to be the Patron of the Second Vatican Council. Earlier last century Pope Pius XI designated him as the Patron against Communism. In this same context, Pope Pius XII instituted the Feast of St. Joseph, the Worker, on May 1st of l955 in order to counterbalance the communist International Workers Day that is held on that same day. Additionally, the name of St. Joseph was inserted into the First Eucharistic Prayer by Pope St. John XXIII. More recently, Pope Francis added the name of St. Joseph to the other three Eucharistic Prayers of the Mass. From these developments we can verify a progressive recognition and appreciation by the Church of St. Joseph’s importance in the economy of salvation.
Now as we begin the Third Millennium of Christianity with a new age of exploring family values, the role that St. Joseph played in the life of the Holy Family is coming into sharper focus. This new awareness of his mission will undoubtedly prove beneficial, and enrich our understanding of GOD’S plan for the family (See Rengers, p. 11).
St. Joseph’s Fatherhood as Model for the Family
The patronage and protection of St. Joseph are needed today more than ever because the institutions of fatherhood and the family are under attack as never before. Not surprisingly, then, there has been a dramatic increase in absent fathers. Some have freely and irresponsibly deserted their families, while others have been forcibly separated from their children by unjust divorce laws. The unhappy result of all these absent fathers has been the development of what psychologists call “father hunger,” that is the craving of abandoned children to be loved and protected by a strong father figure.
St. Joseph can help to fill the gap that has been left vacant by so many absent fathers. God wanted the best possible development, humanly speaking, for His SON, the CHRIST CHILD. Clearly, the LORD provided the man most fitting to be a husband for the Virgin MARY, and also the most noble image of the Fatherhood of GOD. Another way of saying this is, that within the framework of GOD’S plans, JESUS deserved a most manly model for His full human development. And He received that model in St. Joseph. Working from this premise, we can apply to St. Joseph all the best qualities found in the best fathers, husbands, and workmen who have ever lived (See Rengers, p. 8).
St. Joseph, then, was not only the best human father the world has ever known, or will know, but he is also, next to MARY, the holiest human being to have walked the face of the earth. In fact, Pope Leo XIII went so far as to state in his encyclical on St. Joseph, that “more than anyone else, St. Joseph approaches the great dignity by which MARY is raised far above all creatures” (Quamquam Pluries, 3). Therefore, St. Joseph, in virtue of his close position to MARY, the Mediatrix of all Graces, was assured of receiving the richest graces and inspirations that could be made available to a mere human being.
St. Joseph’s Holiness and Hidden Life
St. Joseph became holy, though, not mainly by his words and works in the Holy Family, but rather by his prayerful, contemplative, hidden, silent life. For the role of St. Joseph was not to announce JESUS to the world, like the apostles did. Rather, it was to hide Him from the world, while he fatherly formed JESUS in His sacred humanity in view of His mission in the world. Bishop Bossuet, a renowned seventeenth century preacher from France, points out, that the apostles were like lights to make JESUS visible, while St. Joseph on the other hand, was like a veil to cover him. St. Joseph, then, kept hidden for thirty years the treasure entrusted to him, and never did he reveal or give any indication by word or gesture that JESUS is indeed the SON of GOD (See First Panegyric of Bishop Bossuet as quoted by Fr. F. Filas in Joseph: The Man Closest to Christ, Boston, MA, 1962, p. 557).
We can learn from St. Joseph, then, that what matters to GOD is not what we do, but who we are in our relationship with GOD. St. Joseph never worked a miracle, preached a sermon, wrote a book, governed a town, made a lot of money, or owned a lot of property. There is also no mention of anything that St. Joseph ever said in the Gospels. The only thing the Scriptures tell us about him is that he obeyed an angel. This shows us, then, much more than words can say, the great importance the Lord attaches to obedience, especially obedience to those who speak in His name, the Church on earth, and His heavenly messengers, the holy angels, who generally speak to us in the voice of conscience.
The Angels in the Life of St. Joseph
What can St. Joseph teach us about the Holy Angels? Interestingly, only St. Matthew writes about St. Joseph’s adventures with the angels. And what he has to tell us is not much. In fact, what he has to say is limited to a few verses in the first two chapters of his Gospel. But nevertheless, what he does tell us is rich with insights about how the angels wish to work with us, and we can work with them.
First Apparition of the Angel
The first apparition of an angel to St. Joseph took place just after he made his decision to divorce MARY. “Such was his intention,” as St. Matthew tells us, when, “behold, the Angel of the LORD appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take MARY your wife into your home’” (Mt 1:20). Notice, first of all, that the angel appeared to him in a dream while he was sleeping. We do not necessarily have to take this passage literally. The dream that St. Joseph had could also be understood as a kind of intellectual vision.
More importantly, though, we should notice that the angel prefaced his words by saying, “Do not be afraid” (Mt 1: 20). Remember these were the same words that St. Gabriel spoke to the priest Zechariah in the Temple at Jerusalem when he announced to him that he was to be the father of the future St. John the Baptist. Further, these words were used by him again when he announced to MARY that she had been chosen to be the Mother of GOD.
We can be confident, then, that if we are faced with situations that seem beyond our strength to endure or comprehend, we will hear the comforting and calming voice of our Guardian Angel speaking to us in the depths of our hearts, saying, “Do not be afraid.” That is, “Do not be afraid to do GOD’S will, and abandon yourself to His loving, merciful providence.”
After St. Joseph is given the courage to do GOD’S will, he is then told by the angel to do the very opposite of what he had decided upon earlier. That is, he is told to keep MARY as his wife, just after he had decided to leave her. We can see here, then, how easily even the most holy and well-intentioned of persons can make a mess out of their life, and the lives of others too, if we do not have the holy angels to help us to do the right thing. More importantly, we can learn here that when we come to serve the LORD with the help of His holy angels, we will have to be flexible and adaptable. In other words, we must be prepared to expect the unexpected. For as an old Portuguese proverb puts it, “GOD writes straight with crooked lines.”
Finally, in the last part of the message the angel reveals that the future CHILD to be born to MARY is to be named “JESUS.” It is interesting to note here, that the angel, even though he addresses both St. Joseph and MARY by name, never reveals or mentions his own name. This can teach us, then, that the angels can be reluctant to reveal their personal names to us. Therefore, we should not try to pry the name of our Guardian Angel out of him.
Now as soon as St. Joseph awoke, “he did as the angel of the LORD had commanded him and took his wife into his home” (Mt l: 24). That is to say, St. Joseph obeyed the order of the angel promptly, unquestioningly, and diligently. For the angel’s response had resolved Joseph’s doubt by not only confirming the mystery of faith, that is, Emmanuel would be born of a virgin, but also his own mission, that is, he would be the spouse of the MARY.
St. Joseph, then, can be a great example of how we should obey the LORD’S commands when they seem to be incomprehensible and difficult to carry out.
Second Apparition of the Angel
The second apparition of the angel to St. Joseph took place in the same way as the first one did, that is, in a dream while he was sleeping. It happened shortly after the CHRIST CHILD had been born in Bethlehem and adored by the three kings from the East. This time, however, the angel brings not good news, but bad news. It was the warning that King Herod had made plans to kill JESUS, and therefore it was urgent that the Holy Family leave immediately.
Notice, then, that even though the content of this message is much different from the first one, it is delivered by the angel in the same way, that is, with clarity, simplicity, and brevity. The angel’s words are few but direct, leaving no room for misunderstanding or maneuvering. “Arise. Take the CHILD and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you” (Mt 2:13).
We can learn here, then, how GOD warns us through the ministry of the holy angels of dangers about which we may not be aware. Such warnings may come to us at the last minute, so the devil will not be able to discover and frustrate GOD’S providential plans. Further, we can learn here how our Guardian Angel may give us very specific concrete guidance on how to avoid dangers to which we may be exposed. Notice, then, that the angel tells St. Joseph exactly what he must do to avoid the perilous situation that he had been placed in by Providence, in view of fulfilling the prophecy, “Out of Egypt I called my SON” (Mt 2:15).
Consider all the reasons St. Joseph could have found for resisting, delaying, and downright disobeying the command of the angel. First of all, it was in the middle of the night, and St. Joseph had had no chance to make any preparations for a trip that would no doubt be long and exhausting. For the distance from Nazareth to the border of Egypt is about a hundred miles, not counting the distance to one of the more populous cities of the country. So this would have meant, then, a trip of between one hundred to two hundred miles. That is, five to ten days of walking through the desert in the blazing sun, and then another eight or nine nights sleeping out under the stars in the bitter cold, all the while vulnerable to attacks by poisonous snakes and wild animals during the night. Not to mention the ever present threat posed by roving bands of thieves and marauders.
Further, when St. Joseph and the Holy Family arrived in Egypt, where would they stay? And where would St. Joseph be able to find work in order to support the Holy Family? But St. Joseph did not object to the command. And neither did he ask when the Holy Family would be coming back, even though the angel left the time of their return open. None of the questions that most of us would have asked, then, ever came to his mind. On the contrary, as St. John Chrysostom puts it, “Joseph obeys, believes, and endures all of these trials with joy” (Homily on the Gospel of Matthew).
Third Apparition of the Angel
Finally, let us take a look at the third apparition of the angel of the LORD to St. Joseph. And again, like the previous two, it took place in a dream while he was sleeping. At this time, the angel informs him that it is now safe for the Holy Family to return to Israel. “Rise, take the CHILD and His mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the Child’s life are dead” (Mt 2:20). Again, notice the marvelous clarity, simplicity, and simplicity of the message. Not a word is wasted.
After St. Joseph received this message from the angel he acted in the same way as he had done in the previous apparitions. That is, he obeyed promptly, unquestioningly, and diligently. And so, he immediately left everything at once to make another long, dangerous, and difficult journey back to his native land. He set off at first in the direction of Bethlehem, but he had not gone far before he heard that Herod’s son was king of Judea, and therefore he hesitated (See Mt 2:22). The divine light came to his aid again; he was told in another dream to change course and to head for Nazareth. We are not even told that it was an angel who gave this revelation. But we can theologically draw this conclusion, for this had been the way that the LORD had been directing the Holy Family on previous occasions.
We might ask ourselves at this point, though, why didn’t the angel tell St. Joseph to go directly to Nazareth in the first place? Had he done so, it certainly would have made things easier for the Holy Family in planning their second, long and exhausting trip. Well, we can learn here that the LORD and His angels often prefer to reveal the dictates of Divine Providence to us gradually, rather than all at once. Why? Because in this way we will learn to trust more in GOD and His grace, rather than relying on ourselves and our own resources.
Four Final Lessons to Learn
To sum up, we can learn four important lessons from the several instructions given by the angel in the three apparitions. First, we can learn that the LORD may choose to reveal His will to us in a dream or an interior locution by means of an angel while we are sleeping. Why would He do this? Well, we might also take the condition of sleep or the state of sleep as representing both a place of silence and solitude, as well as a state of recollection, quiet, and calm. For these are the kinds of conditions and places where the angels can speak to us most clearly and directly (See Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Peabody, MA, 1991, p. 1613). For as Mother Teresa once put it, “The favorite language of GOD and His angels is silence.”
Secondly, we can learn the short, simple, no-nonsense way that the angels sometimes use to communicate with us. They are models of how to express our thoughts with simplicity, clarity, and above all with brevity. How we need their example today! When wordiness has become the norm, and excessive speech all too common. As Pope Benedict has pointed out, “People today are frequently bombarded with answers to questions they have never asked and to needs of which they were unaware” (Message for the World Day of Communication for the year of 2012). The angels, then, can teach us how to recognize and focus upon the truly important questions of life without the distraction caused by an excessive use of words.
Thirdly, we can learn from St. Joseph himself how to respond and collaborate with the angels when they offer us aid, advice, or assistance. Remember, then, that each time he is given a command by the angel he obeys promptly, unquestioningly, and diligently. Even though, from a human standpoint, the commands that were given to him, and the demands that were made upon him, required a super-human effort. What a great example, St. Joseph is of the “winged obedience” that is held out for each of us in the Work of the Holy Angels as a high ideal to imitate.
Finally, and most importantly, we can learn from St. Joseph’s angelic apparitions that even the holiest of persons need the help of the holy angels to accomplish God’s will. For neither could he have remained betrothed to MARY, nor escaped the murderous plot of King Herod without the advice and assistance of the angel. In fact, GOD’S providential plan for the salvation and redemption of the world would have been stopped dead in its tracks had it not been for the intervention and assistance of an angel.
For all these reasons, then, we can see why anyone who has a devotion to the angels should also have a devotion to St. Joseph, and vice-versa. For anyone who does this, will experience something of his powerful help, intercession, and protection. For the power given to St. Joseph is unlimited. St. Thomas Aquinas states that, “some saints are privileged to help us in certain needs, but St. Joseph has the power to assist us in all cases, in every necessity, in every undertaking” (See Fr. N. O’Rafferty, Discourse on St. Joseph, Milwaukee, WI, l951, p. 208).
St. Teresa of Avila has stated along the same line, “I do not remember even now that I have ever asked anything of St. Joseph which he has failed to grant” (Autobiography, VI, 9). Further, she testified that, “I have not met anyone truly devoted to St. Joseph who has not advanced more in holiness” (ibid.). It is hard to imagine, then, a stronger recommendation to pray to St. Joseph than the ones given to us by these two great saints, who are also Doctors of the Church. So today and every day, let us ask St. Joseph and our angels to bring to us the faces and the places that they want in it.
~Fr. Matthew Hincks, ORC
Daily Prayer to St. Joseph
Ad Te Beate Ioseph, by Pope Leo XIII
To you, O blessed Joseph, we have recourse in our tribulation, and having implored the help of your most holy Spouse, we confidently invoke your patronage also. By that charity with which you were united to the Immaculate Virgin Mother of God, and by that fatherly affection with which you embraced the Child Jesus, we humbly pray, that you would look graciously upon the inheritance which Jesus Christ has purchased by His Blood, and assist us in our needs by your power and strength.
Most watchful guardian of the Holy Family, protect the chosen people of Jesus Christ; keep far from us, most loving father, all blight of error and corruption: mercifully assist us from heaven, most mighty defender, in this our conflict with the powers of darkness; and, even as of old you rescued the Child Jesus from the supreme peril of His life, so now defend God’s Church from the snares of the enemy and from all adversity; keep us one and all under your continual protection, so that we may be supported by your example and your assistance, may be enabled to lead a holy life, die a happy death and come at last to the possession of everlasting blessedness in heaven. Amen.
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