By Sister Elissa Rinere, CP, JCD, Office of Worship
The liturgical season of Lent, as we know, is a special time of prayer and penance. Its mood is somber. Vestments are purple, there is no “Alleluia” sung or spoken, there is no “Gloria” on Sundays. All the liturgical signs remind us over and over again of the message of Lent, and the saving work of God on our behalf - except for two days.
Twice during Lent we turn from the somber to the joyful. The priest wears white vestments, we sing or recite the “Gloria,” and the Church commemorates two pillars of our faith: the Solemnity of Saint Joseph (March 19) and then the Solemnity of the Annunciation (March 25).
The celebration of Saint Joseph was established in Rome by the 15th century, although it had been observed in other parts of the Christian world much earlier. In 1870, Pope Pius IX declared Saint Joseph to be the patron of the Universal Church, and in 1962 Blessed John XXIII had the name of Saint Joseph inserted in the Roman Canon (now Eucharistic Prayer I). In June 2013, Pope Francis, acting on a plan begun by his predecessor, decreed that the name of Saint Joseph should be added to every Eucharistic Prayer at every Mass celebrated in the Church.
Although very little is known about who Joseph was, the responsibilities he assumed as protector and guardian of Jesus and Mary, especially when they were most vulnerable, are well known to us. Because, according to tradition, he died in the company of Jesus and Mary, Saint Joseph is honored as the patron saint of a happy death. Because he lived in a relationship of peace and love with Jesus, he is also praised by many saints, Saint Teresa of Avila among them, as a great teacher of prayer to those who seek his help. Because he was sensitive to God’s voice even in sleep, he is also known as the saint of dreams.
The celebration of Saint Joseph in the midst of our Lenten journey provides much food for thought about how we might listen for God’s voice in dreams or otherwise, how we cultivate a spirit of quiet and prayer in the presence of Jesus, and how we understand what is meant by a “happy death.”
Saint Joseph has a part to play in the second celebration we meet in Lent, that of the Annunciation of the Lord. The feast celebrates the fact that Mary accepted her role in God’s plan for our salvation, even though she did not know what that would mean in her own life. Saint Joseph, as her protector in an otherwise hostile culture, played an important part in the fulfillment of that plan.
Although the beginnings of this feast of the Annunciation are lost to us, there is documentation that its observance was well established in Jerusalem by the end of the 5th century. From there, the feast spread to other parts of the Christian world. Although the date of the celebration has been changed several times, its importance has not been diminished. For several centuries, and until the 19th century, the Annunciation was a holy day of obligation in the universal church.
What can this feast contribute to our Lenten journey? The story (Luke 1: 26-38) presents us with, as Scripture scholars explain, the model believer. Mary is the model for all Christians as she responds wholeheartedly to God’s plan for her. As a young woman of her time, Mary was among the least influential people of her society. Even so, she was beloved of God and filled with grace. Since God loves and has a plan for each one of us, Mary’s response of complete acceptance can be our response, as well. The season of Lent, somber and quiet, is intended to provide us with the time and space to ponder such a possibility.