God’s special carpenter

St. Joseph assists us in building our heart into a beautiful cathedral dwelling of God

By Bishop Richard F. Stika

“If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do its builders labor.” — Psalm 127:1

Of the many magnificent feats of construction in the history of human endeavors, none compare with that which St. Joseph, a humble carpenter, labored to build.

It was not the simple home of timber and stone that he built for God’s two most precious treasures—Jesus and Mary—but that which was built within his heart. With the help of St. Joseph the Worker, our heart, too, can be built up into a most beautiful cathedral home for Jesus and Mary.

In this “Year of St. Joseph” that Pope Francis proclaimed, which ends on Dec. 8, we are encouraged to reflect upon this holy servant of God and seek his help and intercession.

But with so little said of St. Joseph in the Gospels and with no recorded words of his, I thought it helpful to include an icon of the Holy Family as part of our reflection to help us better understand the beautiful part he can play in our spiritual growth and journey to the “Father’s house.”

As the frequent reading and contemplation of sacred Scripture is indispensable in helping to make the mysteries of God present and grow within our heart, the use of icons are highly recommended. For icons help to expand and deepen the written word we read in Scripture and bring additional light to bear upon the mysteries we contemplate.

Scripture and icons, in the eyes of the Church, have a complementary dignity for “image and word illuminate each other” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1160).

Since my youth, I have had a strong devotion to St. Joseph. So it is a special blessing to have been ordained and installed as bishop of this wonderful diocese 12 years ago on March 19, the day when the Church traditionally celebrates the solemnity of St. Joseph, spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the Mass readings for that day, the Church offers a choice of two Gospel readings, one of which is the account of the finding of Jesus in the Temple after having been missing for three days (Luke 2:41-51). The icon before us captures in “line and color” what St. Luke tells us of this event and helps us to better understand the unique role St. Joseph plays in God’s work of salvation in us.

As I contemplate this icon, what stands out to me is the priestly image of St. Joseph, wearing what appears to be a vestment and a stole of the Byzantine tradition of the Church. In the stole, we see a semblance of a carpenter’s “square” and hand plane—the basic but necessary tools of carpentry.

The long stole additionally offers an image of a straight path, one that leads to the Father’s house of which Jesus is “the way” (John 14:6). In the vestment, with its latticed-like pattern, we see something of the appearance of large multilevel windowed dwellings. The above mentioned images serve to highlight the words of Jesus, “Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?” and further direct us to the Last Supper, when Jesus will again speak of the “Father’s house”:

Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be…. (John 14: 1-3, 6).

But if Jesus is to prepare a dwelling for us in the Father’s house, it must begin first within our heart, as He tells His disciples in the Upper Room: “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him” (John 14:23). And St. Joseph stands ready to assist us in this lifelong endeavor of making our heart a beautiful cathedral dwelling of God.

Attired in black, Mary has the appearance of mourning and the red trim of her garment reminds us of the blood Christ will shed for us and her place beneath the cross. She is “Our Lady of Sorrows,” whose pierced heart (cf. Luke 2:35) helps to open our hearts so that what she kept and pondered in hers God might find treasured within ours. We also see the hand of St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother extended in what appears to be a priestly gesture of sacrificial offering, giving image to the words of St. Peter encouraging us to not only “be built into a spiritual house,” but to exercise our baptismal share in Christ’s priesthood (1 Peter 2:5).

And where do we best exercise our baptismal priesthood but in the Mass—in the total offering we make of ourselves that Christ joins to His sacrifice to the Father, giving our offering infinite value in His. And in the Mass we are called to live, we exercise this priesthood in the sacrifices we make of ourselves, in dying to our selfishness so as to be an extension of Christ’s love and mercy to our neighbor.

As “God’s co-workers,” and “God’s building,” St. Paul cautions us, “Each one must be careful how he builds upon it” (1 Corinthians 3:9-10). And like every Catholic church, this dwelling must have an altar of sacrifice. Servant of God Monsignor Romano Guardini (1885-1968) reminds us that the altar of the church and the altar of our heart “belong inseparably together” and are “mysteriously the same altar.” He goes on to say that, “the authentic and perfect altar in which Christ’s sacrifice is offered is the union of them both” (Sacred Signs).

Christ says to each of us as He did to Zacchaeus, “Today I must stay in your house” (Luke 19:5). But He also reminds us that our dwelling must be an “upper room,” a sanctuary, for “In your house,” He says, “I shall celebrate the Passover.” The Mass must always be celebrated upon the altar of our heart. And to the degree we open our heart to Him, He promises, “I will fill this house with glory… and in this place I will give you peace” (Matthew 26:18; Haggai 2:7, 9).

As a cathedral can be built in a relatively short number of years, historically it requires another 70-80 years to interiorly complete—a person’s average lifespan. So, too, we must labor a lifetime to make the interior of our dwelling a beautiful cathedral of our communion with God. Should the coarse exterior of a cathedral be more beautiful than its interior?

When it comes to home renovations, who wouldn’t want a master craftsman overseeing them? That’s why I daily seek the help and intercession of St. Joseph—God’s special carpenter. For what the psalmist says of Jerusalem’s temple should be even more truly said of our heart—“How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord God of Hosts!” (Psalm 84:1).

May the counsel given to Solomon encourage you each day to labor together with St. Joseph as God’s co-workers: “The Lord has chosen you to build a house as His sanctuary. Take courage and set to work” (1 Chronicles 28:10).

I leave you with this prayer of mine that I hope will help you to become, more and more each day, a beautiful cathedral of God:

Good and Holy St. Joseph, you built a humble home of wood and stone for Jesus and Mary in Nazareth. But the first home for God’s two most precious gifts to us was your heart. As God’s special carpenter, help us to be built up into a beautiful cathedral home for Jesus and Mary. Amen.

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