Imagine you have just landed your dream job or your dream holiday. Then something happens and your plans have to be changed suddenly and you have to give up that dream job, that dream holiday. What would your response be? How would you feel? Perhaps we might respond negatively to the change: we complain about it, or drag our heels over it, maybe even try to undermine it so that we can still have things our way. We, human beings, don’t like change, especially changes to our well thought-out plans. Unsurprisingly, our culture, our society hold in reverent awe people with iron wills, who can force their way through difficult situations.
Yet in the Bible, we have an example of someone whose plans never seemed to materialise, who had to keep adjusting to external changes. I am referring to St. Joseph, foster father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Betrothed to Mary, he would likely have looked forward to a normal family life, like the other Jewish man of his time – that changed when he discovered that Mary was with child by the Holy Spirit (see Matthew 1:18-25). And when Joseph thought he could settle down after the birth of this child, strange men came from the East bringing precious gifts – what an unusual, gossip-able event it must have been to have an entourage of Magi descend upon a sleepy, little town. Whatever life Joseph had settled into at that time, he had to let go of it overnight after an angel appeared in his dream and told him to flee to Egypt with his wife and son, leaving everything else behind (see Matthew 2:13-14). As if these weren’t enough, after the Holy Family returned from Egypt, Joseph first thought of returning to Judaea, his ancestral land. Even then he had to change his plans and move into northern Israel (see Matthew 2:22-23). If we tried to pore through the gospels to learn how Joseph reacted to each of these, we find only silence. The Bible left us no word uttered from the lips of Joseph. Joseph was simply one who always manfully did what was needed.
We live in an age where self-assertion is a highly-valued trait in human beings. Don’t get me wrong – there is value in being confident and courageous in setting forth one’s considered opinion and idea. The Kingdom of God is not made up of spineless individuals who kowtow to the whim of every authority, secular or religious – certainly the early Church martyrs were no doormats or pushovers. But that needs to be balanced with being willing to bite the bullet and valiantly do what needs to be done, neither whining nor grudgingly, so long as the action is not immoral. St Paul, writing to the Christians in Philippi, reminded them and us as well to “do all that has to be done without complaining or arguing, and then you will be innocent and genuine, perfect children of God… [shining] in the world like bright starts.” (Philippians 2:14-15 JB) Yet how often do we go through life complaining about many things as if life has wronged us! Parents complain about their children, and children their parents. Bosses and employees grumble about each other. Even in our parishes, we criticise the priests and those with authority and carp about those who serve in various church ministries.
Yes, what St. Paul says is not easy to do. What I have found useful to me, to help quieten the negative emotions that may accompany such changes, is to cultivate an interior spirit of thankfulness. When I am grateful to God for all that He has blessed me with: life, friends and family around me, vocation, every little blessing, it is easier to put up with the inconveniences external factors may impose on me. Conversely, when I take things for granted, when I feel entitled, that even the smallest inconveniences feel like major injustices which I must oppose. St Joseph might not have understood fully who this son, born of Mary, really is. Tradition tells us that Joseph died before Jesus began his public ministry, so he never got to see any of Jesus’ miracles, or how Jesus was gathering vast crowds of God’s people through his preaching. Yet I think that Joseph was grateful to God for entrusting the Messiah, the one whom every good Jew yearned for, into his care. And that gratefulness kept him faithful to God’s plan of salvation, without once uttering a word of resentment or frustration.
So let us be grateful – for our parents and our children, for our priests and for our laity, for our parish and our country, for our friends and for the people God puts into our lives every day, for everything, no matter how small, that we can give thanks for. Then we can imitate St Joseph in learning how to do what needs to be done and still be on our journey towards Heaven.