My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
As I write to you, on this Feast of St. Joseph on the cusp of Holy Week, I pause in my Lenten journey to reflect on the great mysteries we are about to celebrate. Tradition tells us that St. Joseph did not live to see Jesus’ glory; so then, with what joy must he have awaited his foster-son’s undoing of the bonds of death. Do we share this joy? Are we ready for the resurrection?
St. Joseph was a model father. He loved and served his family in every way. He gave up his livelihood and his homeland without hesitation, in order to protect them from Herod’s wrath. In his piety, humility, charity and tenderness, he gives us an enduring example of fatherhood. Fathers and priests both should imitate that example and cultivate a devotion to this great saint, who is also co-patron of our diocese.
When Jesus prays to his divine father with that delightful Aramaic word of tender affection, “Abba, Father,” he is joining together the experience of tender love that he knows eternally in his divine sonship, and that he has learned from St. Joseph in their human family. St. Joseph likewise deeply loved as father, the God whom he worshipped devoutly all his life, as his ready obedience to the angel’s messages clearly shows (Mt 1:19-24; 2:13-15).
St. Joseph’s joy in waiting for Jesus’ resurrection stems also from this devotion. St. Joseph has the “childlike faith” (Mt 18:3) that each of us needs, in order truly to be his son or daughter. He accepts God’s fatherhood, his providential care and governance, revealed first in creation; then more clearly in the Law of Moses; and, “in the fullness of time,” in unmistakable fullness in the Incarnation of his only-begotten son, Jesus Christ.
The loving trust of sincere faith gives rise to joy, because in both the delights and the sufferings of this life, we know we repose in the tender care of God. We know, with St. Joseph, that our trials are meaningful, not random or without meaning, because they purify and strengthen our faith and because they unite us with the passion of our Lord.
Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, the paschal mystery which we celebrate in every Mass and holy sacrament, is utterly sufficient for the salvation of every person. But God never does anything to us without asking us to cooperate with his love.
Thus, we strive to become like him. We strive to imitate him in the perfect virtue and holiness of Christ’s humanity. We strive to imitate him by learning to “love our neighbor as ourselves” (Mk 12:31), putting their needs above our own. We strive to imitate him in his passion, whenever we “take up his cross, and follow him” (Lk 14:27), by means of discipline, humility, charity, and dying to self.
Tradition tells us nothing about the manner of St. Joseph’s death, yet it is clear that he truly died to self for love of God. We can see this in how he suffered persecution because of his love and devotion to Christ, in the flight to Egypt and the rage of Herod which slaughtered the Holy Innocents; and because he died as one of the just, before the passion and resurrection of our Lord had thrown open the gates of hell.
Under the old covenant, because of sin, none of the dead, even the just, were admitted to the full presence of God, “seeing him face-to-face” (1 Cor 13:12); but with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the power of death was broken, and all those who were “justified by faith” and obedience to God’s love, now enjoy the beatific vision (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1023-29).
St. Joseph, in death as in life, awaited the fulfillment of all the promises which God had made in the previous covenants with Noah, and Abraham and Moses. He had joy in that waiting, the joy of loving God, and especially the joy of knowing Jesus Christ, the man he had cradled and loved and raised as his own son.
The gates of hell are opened for each of us in our baptism. Unlike St. Joseph, we have no need to wait for the fulfillment of the promises of Jesus Christ. This is the great mystery of Easter: that we are already saved even now, in this life! This is the joy for which our Lenten discipline again prepares us: that Christ died and rose for us, for each of us in person, so that we could be free from death. The death from which he frees us is not the death or suffering of the body, in the sense that we will not have to die physically because we are Christians. We will still have to die in body, just as he did, just as St. Joseph did; lest, as the early theologian Tertullian chided, we think ourselves superior to our master.
Rather, our freedom from death consists first, in being free from the full, damning effects of sin, even though we have not yet ceased to sin altogether; and also, in being free from the eternality of bodily death. “We believe in the resurrection of the dead,” as we affirm continually in the creed. This means us! We stand in the face of the reality of sin and suffering with hope, born of our faith in the power of Jesus’s resurrection; we do not despair, as the pagans did and do.
In this Holy Week and coming Easter, we celebrate the passion, the death, and the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Reflect with me on this profound, joyful, glorious mystery. In the waters of holy baptism, you died and rose with Christ. In the paschal mystery, you experience again the same dying and rising.
Let us find joy in the exaltation of Easter, in the empty tomb and the unexpected, joyful rising of the savior, Jesus Christ, son of God and Son of Man. Let us rejoice with all the faithful, always and everywhere, because of the victory “his right hand and his holy arm have won” for us (Ps 98). Let us be transformed by his love, putting on “the light of Christ,” and “glorifying him in our lives.”
My brothers and sisters, please pray for the church: for each other, especially, and for your servants in ministry, the clergy of the diocese. Please pray for me in this Easter season, that I might be a better shepherd for Christ. Know that I pray for all of you constantly, for your needs and trials, and especially that your faith may always increase. May God bless you and those you love with every joy and grace of life in our one Lord Jesus Christ. Happy Easter!
Your brother in Him,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City