St Joseph the Worker (Pt 1) by Fr Richard Foley, SJ
Of all St. Joseph's titles, this is one of the best known and most popular. For it highlights what in material terms was clearly the saint's major contribution to the Redeemer's mission: namely, his role as breadwinner for the Holy Family through his work as a carpenter.
But this particular title serves at the same time to open a window on the world of work as such, inviting us to examine the significance of work in itself and, more importantly, in God's creative and redemptive plan for mankind. In which plan every single one of us is involved in some way and to some degree, since we are all born subject to the law of work understood in its broadest sense. In this perspective, then, the entire human race may be said to constitute the "workers of the world." But in applying Karl Marx's label we need to emphasize that all human work, howsoever humble and menial, is dignified and never demeaning. Nor should the label be misapplied, Marxist-fashion, as an engine of envy and class-warfare.
God's Hands in Nazareth
We shall presently be looking at these and other considerations implicit in Joseph's title as worker. But first let us reflect upon and relish an amazing truth that shines out from his Nazareth workshop like a beacon. Leo XIII (1) was lost in sheer wonderment at it. For what this truth reveals is that in an obscure Galilean village, working alongside Joseph and under his direction, day in and day out over a good many years, and remaining all the while completely unnoticed by the world, "the very hands of God in person wielded the tools of a carpenter."
Besides being amazing, this revelation bristles with paradoxes For it proclaims that the Almighty Being who, at a mere command of his will, created this vast and mysterious universe out of nothing, became, as .the Word-made-flesh, a carpenter, handling and shaping the very wood and other materials he himself had called into existence by his creative power.
This paradox of the all-powerful Creator humbly practicing the trade of carpentry was not lost on the great minds of the early Christian centuries. One and all they praised and thanked God for that sublime mystery which made the paradox possible in the first place: the Incarnation of the Second Person as Son of the carpenter of Nazareth. And those same great minds went on to honor that carpenter as the key-man whose calling determined that Emmanuel should follow in his footsteps and duly taught him the ABCs of the trade. In St. Ephrem's words, "It was the hands of Joseph the carpenter that trained and guided the hands of God."
Nor was this Creator-become-carpenter paradox lost on that privileged man whose hands trained and guided the divine ones. Constantly St. Joseph would have reflected on the stunning reality that young Emmanuel working alongside him and under his tutelage was, in person, albeit clothed in human nature, Almighty Yahweh himself, the Divine Author of the universe, the King of the Ages before whom the psalmist bids us bow down in adoration: "It was thou, Lord, that didst lay the foundations of earth when time began; it was thy hand that built the heavens" (Ps 101:26).
Interestingly enough, the "hand that built the heavens" is apt to display its artistry most strikingly in the brilliant night-sky so often to be seen over Galilee. We can well imagine the Holy Family relaxing on their flat rooftop in the cool of evening and admiring the sheer loveliness of the starlit heavens spread out above them like a canopy. And their sentiments would instinctively have echoed the psalmist's:
I look up at those heavens of thine, the work of thy hands, at the moon and the stars, which thou hast set in their places...See how the skies proclaim God's glory, how the vault of heaven betrays his craftsmanship (Ps 8:4; 18:1)
Yes, incredible though it may seem, the Craftsman whose handiwork is written all over the night-skies became a member of the human race, learnt his craft from the man he called "father," and prepared thereby to earn his own living. St. Joseph, for his part, would doubtless have cherished with special fondness his early memories of the Child Jesus learning his first elementary lessons in the workshop. Ronald Knox's poem on St. Joseph delicately captures those moments:
And surely 'twas a gracious thing
When, standing at his father's knee,
The world's great Craftsman and its King
Not king but craftsman learned to be.
Visiting St. Joseph's Workshop
At the age of 12, Jewish boys officially became not only "sons of the law" but "sons of work," thereupon beginning their apprenticeship in the occupation traditionally practiced by the father. Every male was strictly bound by this custom, even the great rabbi Hillel having trained as a woodcutter. And we know that St. Paul, like his converts Aquila and Piscilla, formerly earned his living as a tent-maker (cf. Acts 18:3).
Thus it was that, under Joseph's guidance and direct authority, Jesus progressively acquired the skills of a carpenter and general handyman (which is what the Greek word tekton means). Timber was available in abundance throughout Galilee, and Joseph would have taught his son to identify the different species of tree - fir, oak, poplar, sycamore, mulberry, cedar, cypress, etc. - and learn their respective qualities in relation to carpentry and its uses. Woodcutters supplied the trade's basic raw material: tree-logs, which were then trimmed and shaped into the intended end product. Another rudimentary lesson Joseph would have taught his able and willing Apprentice was the use of the various tools and instruments essential to their craft. Chief among these were the axe, saw, hammer, mallet, nails, chisel and plane.
As in every village workshop of its kind, this father-and-Son team made new things and repaired damaged ones; these ranged from domestic furniture and fittings to agricultural and farming implements and materials. Hence Joseph and his Assistant dealt with a wide-ranging selection of articles; these included doors, window-shutters, tables, stools, lamp stands, kneading troughs, pots, jars, basins, looms, spindles, ploughs, harness poles, goads and yokes for oxen, and so on.
There could hardly ever have been a shortage of work. For trained carpenters were frequently hired also by clients in neighboring towns and villages. Besides, over that general period Galilee was experiencing something of a boom; this had been triggered off by the lavish building program initiated by Herod and now being continued by his son. The program included the wholesale development of Sephoris, the former Galilean capital, situated just over the crest of a hill near Nazareth. Even nearer lay Japhia, a flourishing new settlement offering ample job-opportunities for local craftsmen and handymen.
The Third Nazareth Worker
An abiding consolation and joy for Jesus and Joseph midst their daily toil was that Mary, the devoted mother and spouse, was ever at their service in the background. She was the loving heart of their home, lavishing her attentions on the two men whose lives she shared so intimately, and thereby creating for them the optimum domestic environment wherein to ply their trade and earn a steady livelihood. In her own way, therefore, Mary was the indispensable third worker in the Holy Family - the earthly trinity which mirrored the heavenly one.
So we cannot really omit to look briefly at the essential duties and services "Mary the Worker" would have rendered her men folk over those hidden years in Nazareth. She swept the house and kept it clean and orderly. She washed the family's clothing. Having ground the corn and wheat, she kneaded and baked the bread. She drew water from the public well, carrying her water pot on her head. She milked the goat. She tended the vegetable patch and purchased provisions such as oil, fish, cheese, fruit, honey and wine. She cooked and prepared the meals (the principal one being at sundown). She spun wool and flax, and with these wove the materials for the family's garments, which she would also mend as occasion required.
In a thousand-and-one ways, then, Our Lady merited her proud title as the third worker of Nazareth. And in the process she added a new dignity and sanctification to the often taken-for-granted work of housewives in every age the world over.
The Gospel of Work
During his visit to Nazareth in 1964, Paul VI stressed that what we learn from this hallowed place, besides much else, is "a lesson of work." John Paul II later amplified this expression to "a gospel of work" (2). And what this particular gospel proclaims is that all human work has been dignified and sanctified beyond measure by the Son of God who, in sharing Joseph's daily toil, "truly worked with human hands" (3).
The "gospel of work" further endorses that man is by his very nature homo faber; he needs work of one kind or another not simply to make a living but as a form of self-expression and self-fulfillment. It has been calculated that more than 30 passages in the Old Testament (and more than 100 in the Talmud) stress not only work's nobility but its necessity. These sources were equally well aware that sound psychological health, let alone hard economic factors, demand that a man does some kind of work. Moral issues likewise enter the equation; idleness, laziness and sloth are offensive to God besides being corrosive of character and moral integrity.
But the really prize lesson of the Gospel issuing from St. Joseph's workshop is that, in John Paul II's words (4), "work has been taken up into the mystery of the Incarnation and so has been redeemed in a special way." This transforming effect applies to work of every conceivable kind, whether it be mental or manual, "of the head or of the hands."
Nazareth teaches us that man is called to prolong and develop the work of creation by subduing the earth (cf. Gen 1:28); thus it falls to him as a duty. "If anyone will not work," runs the familiar text, "let him not eat" (2 Thess 3:10). And because work in our world under the penalties of original sin can entail a degree of sweat and hardship (cf. Gen 3:14-19), it becomes not only redemptive if offered in union with the Nazareth Carpenter but participates co-redemptively in his saving mission (5).
Your Workplace is Holy Ground
Another secret we learn from St. Joseph's workplace, to quote John Paul II once again (6), is that work was there regarded by Jesus and his parents "not merely as a means of earning a living but as a daily expression of love." That is to say, their work was lovingly accepted in the first place as a basic law of human life as planned by the Creator. Secondly, for Mary and Joseph it became sanctifying and redemptive through being united in spirit with the Redeemer's work and co-offered with his to the Eternal Father.
As has been noted, this golden effect applies to each and every kind of employment without exception. Whatever a man's profession, calling, occupation or trade, his work, whether he realizes it or not, has been hallowed and blessed by the divine Artisan who learned his trade from Joseph. So, by uniting themselves with that Artisan, people in every walk of life enjoy the privilege of doing their work, as he did his, in God, with God, and for God.
It follows that a man's workplace, no matter of what kind it may be, becomes holy ground by reason of its potential linkage with its Nazareth counterpart. Be it factory floor, business office, farmyard, building site, hospital ward, schoolroom, shipyard, kitchen, boardroom, coal mine, or anything else, every human workplace becomes to the eyes of faith a living shrine of the Holy Spirit. And it does so as a direct benefit from the humble Galilean workplace wherein "the hands of Joseph the carpenter trained and guided the hands of God." John Paul II has observed that in the Nazareth-inspired gospel of work a special prominence is accorded to "manual labor." And with good reason, too, seeing that the vast majority of Christ's followers have traditionally been working-class folk earning their living by manual toil.
One thinks here of Bl. Matt Talbot, the Dublin workman who spent a lifetime as a laborer on building-sites; he would offer his daily work, in union with St. Joseph, to the Divine Workman, of whom he once remarked in his laconic way, "Christ the Carpenter must have a close interest in those who work."
One also thinks here of Bl. Charles de Foucauld; wishing to share St. Joseph's lowly status as a manual worker, he prevailed upon the Poor Clares, during his sojourn in Nazareth, to allot him the task of sweeping their convent floors.
Examples abound of Christian zeal in offering to God work of every kind in the spirit of penance and prayer. St. Benedict was imbued with this principle, as is seen in his famous motto: "To work is to pray." Similarly St. Bernadette; on becoming an invalid she famously declared that this was the newfound employment she could and would offer to God.
Gerard Manley Hopkins had a sharp insight into how the humblest tasks, howsoever low-grade they may be socially and economically, can glorify God and sanctify the worker (7).
It is not only prayer that gives glory to God but work. Smiting on an anvil, sowing a beam, whitewashing a wall, driving horses, reaping, scouring - everything gives God Glory. To lift up hands in prayer gives God glory. But a man with a dung-fork in his hand, Or a woman with a slop-pail, They give God glory too.
© 2010 Mother of All Peoples.
This article was originally published by Mother of All Peoples and has been reproduced here with kind permission of them
For further information or comments please