In his apostolic letter for the beginning of the Year of St. Joseph, Pope Francis cites Polish author Jan Dobraczyński. The Holy Father explains that his novel, The Shadow of the Father, “uses the evocative image of a shadow to define Joseph. In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” (Patris Corde7)
Nevertheless, Joseph is not present in the Lord’s public life. Yet we might find St. Joseph during Holy Week, if we allow ourselves to imagine where his “shadow” may have fell upon Jesus in those most sacred days.
Two of the most beautiful texts in the entire liturgy fall on Holy Saturday. The Exultet at the Easter Vigil is well known, but the second reading from the morning’s Office of Readings in the breviary is not. It should be.
It is an ancient homily for Holy Saturday, composed by an unknown author, who vividly imagines what has been called the “descent into hell” or the “harrowing of hell.” Portrayed in powerful icons, Jesus, having accomplished the redemption on the Cross, goes to the realm of the dead, but He goes as the Savior, to proclaim the good news of salvation to the righteous of all ages (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 632-635).
Where was St. Joseph? Christian tradition holds that St. Joseph died before Jesus began His public life. So by Holy Week, Joseph had died, but was not in heaven. Heaven was still closed, awaiting the redemptive work of Jesus on the Cross.
St. Joseph was with the righteous of all the ages who died before Christ came. We call this the “bosom of Abraham” or, in technical theological language, the “limbo of the fathers.” Joseph was in their midst, alongside Elijah and Moses, who had heard at the Transfiguration that salvation was close at hand.
On the Cross the Church is born from the pierced side of Christ, the Bride coming forth from the Bridegroom, even as Eve came forth from Adam’s side.
As the Church is being born on Calvary, Joseph is already with those waiting-to-be the Church Triumphant in heaven. The have already been saved in virtue of the Blood of Christ, the Precious Blood first shed in the presence of St. Joseph at the circumcision, a sign of the covenant with Abraham.
The Church is most fully the Church in heaven, where she beholds the Blessed Trinity most completely. In ancient times, the patriarch Joseph went ahead of Jacob, father of the Chosen People, to the great storehouses of Egypt from which would come the salvation of a world in famine. That first Holy Week, St. Joseph leads the patriarchs into heaven, where the Church Triumphant awaits the glory of the Ascension and Assumption. We might permit ourselves the happy image of St. Joseph leading Abraham, Moses and Elijah into the kingdom of heaven.
“I am your God, who for your sake have become your son,” that ancient homily puts on the lips of the dead but not yet risen Jesus. To whom are those words more suitably said than to St. Joseph?
Read slowly more of that most beautiful homily of Holy Saturday morning, and imagine St. Joseph arising to see Jesus coming toward him:
Something strange is happening — there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began.
God has died in the flesh and Hell trembles with fear. He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, He who is both God and the Son of Eve.
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