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The Way of Beauty Unemployment and St. Joseph the Worker

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In 1955, Pope Pius XII designated May 1st as the feast of St. Joseph the Worker to counter two other celebrations in the Northern Hemisphere: the pagan and neo-pagan festivities ushering in spring and International Workers’ Day for unions, workers, and socialists. In most of these countries, May Day is an official holiday, and preparations are already underway for its festivities.

While Labor Day focuses on the value of both work and leisure, loss of employment and financial crisis can provoke despair or trigger acedia and ennui. These are states of listlessness and boredom which dull the sense of wonder, a thought implicit in the psalm verse: “Be still and know that I am God.” (Ps 46:10)

In actively seeking employment, the individual proceeds as though all depends on oneself. What else can the individual do during this time? While coping with such extreme hardship, attention to unplanned leisure can remind one that being is as important as doing. Still, with employment comes dignity because men and women strive to improve the quality of their lives.

Perennial questions persist: “Why does God want me alive? And what must I do?” There are other questions: “What is the meaning and value of all this activity? How should these benefits be used? Where are the efforts of individuals and communities finally leading us?” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, “Gaudium et Spes” 33-34) This brings the person of faith to prayer – praying as though all depends on God.

In Times of Unemployment, Go to Joseph

Joseph was called upon to support, protect, and care for his family. Who can doubt that he worked diligently for Mary and the Child? He was charged with teaching the boy-Christ and preparing him for ministry. Joseph, the exemplar of fatherhood, lived in the presence of the God-Man and Messiah. The boy-Christ learned the art of labor from Joseph. The theologian Peter Schoonenberg writes that “Jesus sanctified labor, not by endowing it with technical perfection, but by performing it out of love.” (“God’s World in the Making,” 177)

To describe Joseph as a just man is to understate his stature. The just ones embody and integrate the biblical virtues. Because they remain rooted in the Lord, they bring forth fruit: “The just will flourish like the palm-tree and grow like a Lebanon cedar. . . . . The just are like trees planted near streams; they bear fruit in season and their leaves never wither. All they do prospers” (Ps 1:3-4). Scripture records Joseph’s actions, not his words.

St. Paul tells us that whatever we do, whether we eat, drink, or work, we should do it for the glory of God (1 Cor: 10:31). St. Teresa of Avila tells us that, when she asked St. Joseph to intercede on her behalf, he never disappointed her with favors.

Contemporary Icons of Joseph the Worker

Contemporary artists have portrayed Joseph as a youthful man, consonant with the scriptural accounts. He was not elderly as is shown in Georges de la Tour’s depiction of him. El Greco’s painting of St. Joseph and the young Christ depicts a fairly middle-aged Joseph.

The distinguished artist, Sister Marion Honors, C.S.J., has depicted an iconic woodcut of Joseph the Worker. In it, she uses a technique from the Hellenic, Golden Age of Greece, which was imitated by Caravaggio in the Baroque period. She incorporates it into a contemporary style stamped with her logo, the large, even oversized, hand.

In “The Diskus Thrower” of the Golden Age, the center of attention lies outside the picture of the ‘thrower.’ So too with this woodcut. The center of attention outside the picture claims Joseph’s attention. His entire attention is riveted on looking after his son.

In it, Joseph is depicted as a slender but well-built, strong man, perhaps in his thirties, wearing work clothes with sleeves rolled-up, proud to work as a tradesman. His eyes and well-chiseled facial features show an alert man looking outside and beyond himself, almost as though he is watching and listening for someone. His oversized muscular hands grasp the carpenter’s tools. The hand reveals a great deal; it shapes the brain, language, and human culture, observes Frank R. Wilson in “The Hand.” One cannot but be struck by Joseph’s riveted attention to Son of the Most High. Readers seeking more information about this woodcut may consult the website: marionchonorscsj.com.

“St. Joseph and the Young Christ” is another woodcut by the distinguished American artist, Robert McGovern. Like “Joseph the Worker,” it too depicts a strong but gentle man instructing an aspect of carpentry to his son as though he is saying: ‘Son, hold the wood this way.’ In this woodcut, the companionship between father and son is evident. A reproduction of it may be seen in the “New Catholic Encyclopedia” 7:1112. In both woodcuts, Joseph is portrayed as an inspiring exemplar of labor. Next to the Mother of God, he enjoys the highest honor in the Universal Church. Those who are unemployed can do no better than ask St. Joseph to intercede on their behalf, especially in the form of a novena in advance of May 1st.

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