Along with many other realities, the unprecedented events of the past year have brought to light highs and lows of the human condition – joys and sorrows – that we never could have foreseen. Unexpected joys, small and great, at times have been countered with sorrows ranging to the nearly unbearable. Each of us surely could recount personal experiences falling into both categories.
Anyone feeling the need for a heavenly intercessor who truly can relate to all the vagaries of our lives at present can find just such a patron in the saintly man whose feast we commemorate each year on March 19th – Joseph of Nazareth.
Down through the centuries, various forms of pious devotion to Saint Joseph have evolved -- prayers, chaplets, litanies, and novenas. Some countries mark his feast day with processions, festivals, other unique forms of celebration. For example, the custom in Italy has been to observe Father’s Day also on March 19th, combining memory of the foster father of Jesus with that of earthly fathers.
While all of these types of commemoration are praiseworthy, the devotion that comes to mind as highly appropriate this year, given the constantly shifting sands of current times, is that of the Seven Sorrows and Seven Joys of Saint Joseph.
Tradition has it that this devotion originated when two Franciscan priests were traveling aboard ship along the coast of Belgium. A powerful storm hit, and the ship sank. The priests clung in desperation to a plank in the ocean, praying to Saint Joseph for help, for three days and nights. Then Saint Joseph appeared, guided them to safety, and taught them the Seven Sorrows and Seven Joys devotion.
The devotion is based upon important events in the life of Saint Joseph as related in Sacred Scripture. Each represents an incidence of surpassing sorrow accompanied by a corresponding joy. We meditate on each of these events in turn and then recite one Our Father, one Hail Mary, and one Glory Be to the Father before proceeding to the next set of events.
~ Joseph’s Doubts about Mary (Mt 1:19) / The Angel’s Message of Joy (Mt 1:20) Joseph’s sorrow and confusion upon learning that his beloved Mary was with child were overcome by joy at the angel’s calming of his fears and the news of Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit.
~ The Poverty of Jesus’ Birthplace (Lk 2:7) / The Birth Proclaimed by the Angel (Lk 2:10-11) When no better dwelling place could be found in Bethlehem, Joseph had no recourse but for Mary to deliver her child in an animals’ shelter. The sorrow this must have caused him was overridden by joy at hearing the shepherds’ testimony of the angelic news of Jesus’ birth.
~ Jesus’ Circumcision (Lk 2:21) / Joseph’s Honor at Naming Him (Mt 1:25) The sorrow of witnessing the shedding of Jesus’ blood at His circumcision gave way to joy when Joseph fulfilled his paternal religious duty by naming Him Jesus.
~ The Prophecy of Simeon (Lk 2:34) / Salvation, Jesus’ Work of Redemption (Lk 2:38) How difficult it must have been for Joseph at the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple when Simeon predicted suffering for both Jesus and Mary, yet how elated Joseph must have felt at the promise of Jesus’ work of redemption, the salvation of innumerable souls.
~ The Flight into Egypt (Mt 2:14) / Egyptian Idols are Conquered (Is 19:1) Joseph’s sorrow at the urgent necessity to take Jesus and Mary to Egypt to avoid the murderous King Herod led to joy with the overthrow of the Egyptian idols at the arrival of the Son of God.
~ The Return to Nazareth (Mt 2:22) / Peaceful Life of the Holy Family (Lk 2:39) The sorrows and dangers of the difficult return journey from Egypt ushered in the quiet joys of a “hidden” life of peace and loving togetherness for the Holy Family at Nazareth.
~ The Loss of the Child Jesus (Lk 2:45) / The Finding of Jesus in the Temple (Lk 2:46) What anxiety must have filled Joseph’s heart when the Child Jesus was discovered missing; what nagging fear gripped him and Mary during their frantic three-day search. How overcome with joy were their hearts when Jesus was found in the Temple; and back at Nazareth, as they witnessed Him advancing “in wisdom and age and favor before God and man” (Lk 2:52).
In his recent Apostolic Letter entitled Patris Corde, or With a Father’s Heart, Pope Francis writes movingly on the life of Saint Joseph, including the Scriptural events we reflect upon here. The Holy Father lists Saint Joseph’s stellar qualities, underscored by the deep faith and abiding trust in God which informed all the events of his life.
In the life of this most saintly of foster fathers, we can find much to admire, much to emulate. Saint Joseph is a steadfast, sympathetic companion and guide who will not disappoint, no matter what challenges cause us sorrow, through this time of pandemic and beyond. And when we turn to him to share our joys, he delights in rejoicing with us.
Perhaps the best way we can commemorate Saint Joseph’s feast day, this year and into the future, is to augment our prayer life by meditating on his life with the devotion which recalls his Seven Sorrows and Seven Joys.
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