Feast Day: May 1st
Last week we stepped into Joseph’s workshop and spent a few moments watching love transform his simple efforts into joy, and grace, and peace. We saw the delight spread across his face as Jesus learned from him to work with his hands, and to offer his heart. We learned from his humility: to be forgotten, and yet to send ripples of hard-won love out into eternity…
But what exactly was his work? What tools were scattered across Joseph’s, and then Jesus’, workbench? Matthew tells us that Jesus is the “carpenter’s son” (Matthew 13:55) using the Greek word tektōn [τέκτων], but this is a less precise term than our typical translation, “carpenter”. Tektōn referred to a craftsman in a more general sense, someone who had tech-nical knowledge of forming wood, metal, or stone, even someone who constructed things from those natural resources, an archi-tect of some sort. In the Old Testament, the wood-workers and stone-masons who built David’s palace (2 Samuel 5:11) are both described with that same word, tektōn. Now, around Nazareth, there were not many trees in Jesus’ day. Some 90% of the homes in the area were constructed from stone, and there was a giant quarry about a mile and a half from their home. So was Joseph a stone mason, a builder? Making the question even more incisive, Mark describes Jesus as “the carpenter [tektōn], the son of Mary” (Mark 6:3), so was Jesus a stone mason or builder?!
If we look elsewhere in the Gospels, we see plenty of examples and parables that Jesus gives with rocky-references: He acknowledges the beautiful stones of the temple (Mark 13:1-2), He refers to himself as the cornerstone (Luke 20:17), He calls Peter to be the rock upon which he will build the church (Matthew 16:18), and describes the life of discipleship as one founded upon rock (Matthew 7:24). Perhaps it is fitting that the human work of the Creator of the world was to again shape stone and house humans?
Yet one of the earliest Christian writers after the New Testament was St. Justin Martyr (who lived in the 100s), and he tells us that Jesus “was in the habit of working as a carpenter when among men, making ploughs and yokes; by which He taught the symbols of righteousness and an active life.” Ah, now this is interesting! There was not much wood around Nazareth, but they would have used wood to make plows, yokes, and other such implements. No other material at the time would have been practical.
And, once again, we find a number of references in Our Lord’s words to such things as these. “My yoke is easy, and burden is light” (Matthew 11:30) Jesus says describing the role of discipleship. What a beautiful thought it is to consider Jesus fashioning a yoke for you or I, gradually shaping it to fit His and our shoulders perfectly! Or, consider Luke 6:41, when the Gospels record Jesus’ teaching on judging others, retaining the vivid words “karphos” and “dokos” for “speck” and “beam”. He could have used many other analogies, but chose this one – of a splinter of wood in one’s eye. Did the image come naturally to our God, who very well could have endured that pain Himself?
We do not know for sure what occupied Joseph, and Jesus, in their workshop. Probably it was a mix of various humble tasks, but I think that we have learned another important lesson from the workshop of Nazareth: the no task is too menial for the God-man to do, and neither should it be for us.
This past week, Pope Francis has added a few titles to those we use in the Litany of St. Joseph. They are all wonderful – Guardian of the Redeemer, Servant of Christ, Minister of Salvation, Support in Difficulties, Patron of Refugees, Patron of the Afflicted, and Patron of the Poor – but perhaps that second one should inspire our understanding of marriage, and discipleship, this week: “Servant of Christ”. If last week we learned self-gift, maybe this week would be a good one to work on servant. I think none of us much likes the idea of servitude, but when the apostles describe their relationship to Christ, the first title they choose is that of “servant”. “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus” (Philemon 1:1). “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1). “Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1). “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James” (Jude 1:1). And, Jesus chose the same identity for Himself: “the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45).
How did Christ serve? Well, for about 20 years, by carving wood or carrying stone, and during His public ministry, but sleeping on stones and shouldering the cross. May we find ourselves close to Him as we seek to do the same this week!
– Fr. Dominic Rankin has recently begun working out (with Fr. Dominic Vahling) at the gym. He has not had a tremendous amount of experience doing such things, but has quickly come to realize the difficulty of trying to lift hundreds of pounds with his arms or legs. Hopefully it is good practice for shouldering his daily yoke that often has greater spiritual, rather than material, weightiness.