Learning through St. Joseph How to Pray and Sanctify our Work, St. Joseph the Worker, May 1, 2017

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, New York
Feast of St. Joseph the Worker
May 1, 2017
Gen 1:26-2:3, Ps 90, Mt 13:54-58


To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 


The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • Today we have the great joy of celebrating together the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, which was instituted 62 years ago in 1955 by Pope Pius XII both to give a spiritual context to “Labor Day” in many European countries as well as a spiritual response to the “May Day” celebrations in communist countries where the meaning of human work and the relationship between human worker and the State were distorted. Pope Pius XII wanted the whole Church on this day to go on pilgrimage to a carpenter’s shop in Nazareth to find in the hardworking St. Joseph and his diligent foster Son the key that unlocks the meaning of the dignity, beauty and redemptive importance of human labor.
  • When the Church celebrates the Solemnity of St. Joseph in March, we have a chance to ponder together so many of the reasons why Catholics love St. Joseph. We look at how he was truly a “just man,” humble, obedient, and holy. We examine how he put his whole life at the service of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as her most chaste spouse, and how he was a provident Father of God the Father’s only begotten Son virginally conceived within her, raising him to be a man according to his humanity. We ponder how St. Joseph was fundamentally a man of action who didn’t say one word recorded in Sacred Scripture but whose body language has proclaimed an unforgettable message that the Church has never forgotten. And we contemplate the wisdom of the Church in “going to Joseph” as the great patron of the Church as he seeks to help us center our lives on Jesus just like he and the Blessed Virgin Mary did.
  • On May 1, however, it is important for us to hear what the silent spouse of the Virgin teaches us about the Good News of work in God’s divine plan. We do this because so many today are confused about how important work is. Some, for example, behave as if work is just a necessary evil that we have to endure until we earn enough money or get to the magic age when life can become an unending vacation on the golf course or lounging at the pool. Others fail to see in the crisis of unemployment, especially among the young, that we’re dealing with something far greater than a pressing economic problem, but rather a profoundly dehumanizing one that can gradually deprive millions of a sense of moral worth through a sense of being useless. And sometimes we can see a combination of both of these confusions when people who can work just choose not to do so, opting rather to take advantage of the generosity of family members or other workers in society so that they can remain on vacation 365 days a year.
  • The feast of St. Joseph the Worker helps us to see that there’s another way, a better way, a truly Christian, more fulfilling and ultimately holier way. And insofar as most us will spend at least 25 percent of our week, from the time we’re five through when we’re 65 or older, doing some form of work, it’s important that we enter the vocational school of St. Joseph and learn from him how to turn our work into a pleasing offering to God.
  • We see in today’s Gospel that Jesus was known as the “son of the carpenter,” likely because St. Joseph must have distinguished himself for that trade among his contemporaries. It was with St. Joseph in Joseph’s workshop, as a manual laborer, as a “construction worker”  (that’s a better translation of the Greek word tekton, found in Mk 6:3, than “carpenter”) that Jesus spent the vast majority of his saving life. Following his foster-father, Jesus entered into the world of human work, not as a “cover” until his “real work” of preaching, miracles, and leading us through the new and eternal Passover would begin, but precisely to redeem noble human work in his process of redeeming the human person. Jesus built houses, made tables and wheels and produced lots of other needed items. He would say that he always did what was pleasing to the Father and this work over the course of two decades was part of that glorification. The early saints taught that whatever Jesus didn’t assume he didn’t redeem, and he assumed our human work in order that we might be able through our work to participate in the work of redemption. Today’s feast is an opportunity for all of us to reflect on the meaning of human work — and specifically our work — in God’s divine plan.
  • In the beginning of time, which we ponder in today’s first reading, God gave us the vocation to work, which was meant to bring his gift of creation to perfection. He commanded us to do three different forms of labor: to “increase and multiply,” cooperating with his creative power to bring new human beings into existence; to “fill the earth and subdue it,” by bringing forth the earth’s inner potential, producing fruits and vegetables from the soil, glass and computer chips from sand, medicines from plants and more; and to “have dominion” over all living creatures and treating them as gifts of God.
  • God gave us this vocation to work because through work we would become more and more like him, who himself worked in creation and, as Jesus would later say, “works still” (Jn 5:17). Work is meant not only to produce something but to perfect someone, by bringing out the various hidden talents and potentials God has implanted in us — physical, intellectual, and spiritual — which are far greater than the hidden potentials God has inscribed in the earth. We see this human cultivation, for example, in the study that forms our brain, in the physical labor that forms our muscles, in the caring for children and others that forms our heart. The interior effect of work is even more important than its external outcome. St. Gregory of Nyssa would even say that through our work we become our own parents, through forming our character through work well or shoddily done.
  • After Original Sin and the Fall, as we know and Genesis teaches clearly, our work became arduous. There would be pangs in childbirth, working the fields would become toilsome and sweaty, and animals would often rebel. But we retained the vocation to work, because work remained a fundamental good and gift and would now become a means of our redemption. Through labor we would be helped to overcome our selfishness by working for others, for the family we’re supporting, for the persons receiving the fruits of our efforts, even out of gratitude for our employers or employees, clients and vendors, without whom, in many cases, our work would not be possible.
  • So great was Jesus’ appreciation for human work in the divine plan that he could not stop using it as an analogy for the kingdom he had come into this world to establish. In his preaching, Jesus favorably mentions shepherds, farmers, doctors, sowers, householders, servants, stewards, merchants, laborers, soldiers, cooks, tax collectors and scholars. He compares the work of evangelization to the manual work of harvesters and fishermen. He called us not to be “bodies” in his vineyard taking up space but “laborers,” those who roll up their sleeves and work hard.
  • As St. Josemaria Escriva, the great apostle of the laity and of the importance of ordinary work in God’s plans taught us last century, honest work well done is an opportunity for a triple sanctification: the sanctification of the work itself by offering it to God like the sacrifice of Abel or we can say the labors of St. Joseph; the sanctification of the worker doing the work honestly and diligently; and the sanctification of others through contact with one’s coworkers, clients, customers and vendors. Work well done is an act of love for all those who will benefit from the fruits of one’s labor, just like everything we use — from watches, to cell phones, to automobiles, to clothing — is the fruit of someone else’s good work. The marketplace is meant not to be simply an exchange of goods and services but ultimately an exchange of virtuous action and rewarded appreciation that at its best can become an exchange of mutual loving concern.
  • When Jesus left his foster father’s workshop to begin to his public ministry, he called all of us to follow him, to become perfect as God the Father is perfect and holy as God is holy. But he only called a few people to leave their fishing boats or tax-charts behind to proclaim the Gospel. The vast majority he called to proclaim the Gospel by living that good news right where they were in their work. That’s still what Jesus does today. Most of Jesus’ followers are called to live out their discipleship and apostolate, their vocation and their mission, just as St. Joseph did, in the family and in the workplace. Jesus calls them to become saints and bring others to sanctity through this “increasing and multiplying” and “subduing” and “dominion.” One’s desk, or sewing machine, or keyboard, or kitchen, or classroom, or operating room, or workbench or boat, is meant to become an altar that sanctifies not only what is given to God in work, but the giver as well. It is there that the vast majority of men and women are called to be sanctified and sanctify others through showing the original dignity and meaning of human work.
  • We prayed at the beginning of Mass today that God the Creator of all things, “who laid down for the human race the law of work” will grant us that through “the example of St. Joseph and under his patronage, we may complete the works [he sets] us to do and attain the rewards [he promises].” That’s what this feast is all about. Work is not principally about earning a paycheck, but about serving and loving others. This is something we understand as priests and religious who work, to some degree, for God and for the eternal pension plan, more easily than many in the world do. No matter what work we do — whether it’s superior of a community or an institute or a porter or a cook or a jack of all trades and a universal utility person, filling in wherever we are needed — we are helping Jesus through that work to save the human race. When work takes on this divine meaning, the perfection of the human person continues, the work-place is evangelized, and God’s kingdom is advanced. In every age a diligent construction worker from Nazareth, together with his foster father, waves to each of us with calloused hands and says, “Come, follow me!”
  • And Jesus does that in a particularly special way for us here at Mass. As the Second Vatican Council teaches us, the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of any life that is truly Christian. It’s supposed to be the starting point and the goal, therefore, of our work. We receive strength here to sanctify our work and the goal of our efforts ought to be to place our work on the paten to be offered to the Father with the work of Jesus’ whole life of redemption, including all he did for us in Nazareth. Just as Jesus worked the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish from the raw material of five buns and two sardines given him, and just like Jesus worked the miracle of Cana not by creating wine out of nothing but changing the 180 gallons of water brought by the servants from the town well, so Jesus wants to incorporate us and our work in the miracle of the Mass. We don’t celebrate Mass with the raw material of grain and grapes, but rather bread and wine, which are not just the gifts of God but the “work of human hands.” From the beginning Jesus wanted to incorporate our work into his supreme sacrifice. It’s here at Mass that we learn how to pray our work so that the entire world becomes God’s work shop. Let us ask St. Joseph to intercede for us today before his foster Son so that from here we can go out to do our work well all the days of our life and thereby grow in holiness, help others grow in holiness, and do something beautiful for God and others. St. Joseph the Worker, pray for us!

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

First Reading — Gen 1:26-2:3

Then God said: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle, and over all the wild animals and all the creatures that crawl on the ground.”  God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.  God blessed them, saying to them: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth.”  God also said: “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant all over the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food;  and to all the animals of the land, all the birds of the air, and all the living creatures that crawl on the ground, I give all the green plants for food.” And so it happened. God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good. Evening came, and morning followed — the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth and all their array were completed.  2 Since on the seventh day God was finished with the work he had been doing, he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken.  3 So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation.

Responsorial Psalm — Psalm 90

ResponseLord, give success to the word of our hands

Before the mountains were born, the earth and the world brought forth, from eternity to eternity you are God.

Humans you return to dust, saying, “Return, you mortals!”  Before a watch passes in the night,  you have brought them to their end; They disappear like sleep at dawn; they are like grass that dies.

Teach us to count our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.  Relent, O LORD! How long? Have pity on your servants!

Fill us at daybreak with your love, that all our days we may sing for joy.  Show your deeds to your servants, your glory to their children.

Gospel — Matthew 13:54-58

Jesus came to his native place and taught the people in their synagogue. They were astonished and said, “Where did this man get such wisdom and mighty deeds?  Is he not the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother named Mary and his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas?  Are not his sisters all with us? Where did this man get all this?”  And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and in his own house.” And he did not work many mighty deeds there because of their lack of faith.