Friday 1 May 2009

S. Joseph the Worker

I've just come back from the lunchtime Mass that it is my custom to attend on Fridays. If I can, I also make my confession beforehand, as this is a nice quiet time before the busy onslaught of the weekend. As everybody knows, today being the 1st May, we Catholics are also keeping the memorial of S. Joseph the Worker. It seems only a few weeks ago that I made my way up to S. Silas-the-Martyr in Kentish Town to keep my patron’s primary feast on March 19th. Just as well my name isn’t Mary!

I know that some people think the 1st May observance is a terrible concession to modernity, a vaguely socialistic hallowing of an occasion that belongs primary to trade unionists, communists and other assorted rebellious types who won’t conform to good old social hierarchy. It is, of course, a modern observance, being instituted by Pope Pius XII in 1955. But on reflection, it seems that Pope Pius acted on a very sound church principle in instituting this feast.

Before 1955, the Church kept a feast of S. Joseph’s patronage of the church on the third Wednesday after Easter, and this feast had an octave of its own. Pius abrogated this observance and replace it with the March 1st observance, originally a double of the first class before being made an optional commemoration in 1969. In doing so, Pius was both blessing and transforming the secular Mayday celebration. As the readings of today’s Mass tell us, our work is in a sense God’s work, inasmuch as we work for His glory. The Old Testament lesson is taken from the Genesis creation story, reminding us that through our work we are granted a share in God’s creation. What we do, the work of our hands, grounds us in that great motion that is God’s sustaining act of creation.

There are times when our work bores us, when we feel constrained by our employment. There are times when we think our work is more important than everything else in life, and there are times when we seek to become God through our work. And yet we are reminded by the story of creation in Genesis that there is dignity in work. We are most in God’s image when we do work, as He does; it is a grace and a blessing to work.

And what is the seal of that dignity, but the Sabbath? At the end of the lesson, we hear that God rested, and commanded us to rest also. We Christians are not slaves, but freemen. Idol worship, by contrast, is a form of slavery. Idols, whether they be clay effigies or more abstract in nature, enslave us to them, commanding us to work constantly and without rest if we ever want to achieve our goals. Worship of the true God means working as He did, and resting with Him on the seventh day, a day he gave to us freely in which to rejoice, relax, recharge.

In the earliest days of Christianity in England, when much of the country was still pagan, a Roodmas, or a Mass of the Holy Cross, would be celebrated on May 1st, to keep people from observing the pagan feast of this day, which eventually became Walpurgis Night. The primary feast of the Holy Cross at this time is now the May 3rd celebration of the Invention of the Holy Cross, but the idea of bringing the Sacred into the everyday remains. Pius XII recognised the importance of work in Christian life, and reminded us of this in the Feast of Joseph the Worker. May you all keep a blessed remembrance.

1 comment:

  1. Our Western Rite kalendar lists St Joseph on the trad date of the 19th of March but there is a footnote that, inexplicably requires his feast to be permanently transferred to the first Wednesday after the Paschal Octave. I have no idea why.

    In any case, happy belated name day, and may God grant you many years!