Though little is known about Saint Joseph, and still less extrapolated, there is something profoundly important in our remembering him: he is the quiet figure standing in the background of salvation history, one whose greatest role is simply being there.
He is there for Mary, an honourable man who refuses to abandon her to certain disgrace and possible death when she is found to be pregnant and unmarried. He is there at Jesus’ birth and leads the Holy Family into exile in Egypt. He is there when Jesus makes his premature debut as a public intellectual at twelve in the Temple. And, just as the canonical gospels tell us no more of Jesus’ childhood and youth, sweeping us into his public ministry, Joseph disappears from the picture. From what we know of him, loyal and protective that he is, we can be certain that he does not abandon Mary and Jesus, but dies. In an age of widespread marital disarray, divorce, and single parent families, his example of fidelity is a challenge to all parents.
In another sense, he is also a model of the anonymous disciple, the follower who never gains, let alone claims, the limelight. He is everyone who does his or her job without making the 8pm news.
Both before and after 1994, we saw him in the millions of South Africans who tried to live a normal life in situations varying from hardship to chaos. He – and more often that not ‘Joseph’ was also she – battled to earn a living and offer a semblance of ordinary family life. Before 1994 s/he was often misunderstood as a ‘collaborator’ for not being on the barricades of at the negotiations tables in Kempton Park. After 1994, where millions of ‘Josephs’ queued for hours to vote in the Election, s/he was once more relegated to the shadows of ‘normality’ as politicians strutted their stuff in parliament, where ‘experts’ pontificated in front of cameras and in board rooms and factories where the new and old elites divided up the spoils of victory.
Will ‘Joseph’ vote in 2019? Or will s/he decide that a day’s paid leave offers more important things to do than once again elect the same celebrities who have to a large degree not made much difference to Joseph’s life. ‘Joseph’, if you’re reading this, please vote: just as your role model never gave up on Mary and Jesus, don’t give up on our democracy.
Reflection prepared by Anthony Egan SJ & Matthew Charlesworth SJ
Equality means equal concern and respect across difference. It does
not pre-suppose the elimination or suppression of difference....
but an acknowledgment and acceptance of difference.
~ Albie Sachs, retired Justice of the South African Constitutional
For those of over-pious disposition, or who imagine that only their religious tradition will be ‘saved’, Jesus’ words about separating the sheep from the goats on Judgement Day (Matthew 25:31-46) must come as a shock. We are not saved primarily by our belief in the ‘right’ god (indeed in any deity), nor by our strict adherence to correct doctrine, or moral teaching, but by how we treat those who are marginalised. Theologies that speak of justice – Catholic Social Thought, the Protestant Social Gospel, Liberation, Black and Feminist theologies, and the justice traditions in all great faiths – bear witness to this as well, sometimes from the heart and sometimes from the prophetic margins of faith.
In South Africa these last twenty-five years the Constitutional Court has also stood out, a beacon on Johannesburg’s Constitution Hill, as a secular defence of values, often in the face of resistance from those who would deny the rights of the marginalised. For the most part the Court has resisted the temptation to easy solutions that benefit the powerful or to the popular judgments that pander to unreflective prejudices of majorities, but tried instead to seek the common good. In a sense the Constitution and Bill of Rights are our secular Sermon on the Mount, calling us citizens to reflect on the degree to which the law and our practice protects everyone and takes special note of the needs of the marginalised. It is not a text that favours anyone – it certainly does not give any religion special favour. What it does seek to do is protect those marginalised from unnecessary harm – and where it might disadvantage some individuals’ interests or beliefs it does this out of a desire for a greater good.
At its best, the Constitutional Court has delivered judgments that defend the rights of the poor and protects society as a whole from arbitrary rule and laws defending sectoral interests. The fact that it has aroused the anger of the ruling party and many groups (including the churches) is a measure perhaps of its even-handedness and effectiveness. Despite attempts to politically influence it, mainly through appointment procedures, it has managed to remain fairly neutral – and its popularity is perhaps a measure of its success.
A man had two large pots that he used to carry water from the stream back to his house along a narrow path. Each hung on one end of a pole that he carried across his shoulders. One of the pots was perfectly made and never leaked. But the other pot had a crack in it. By the time the man would walk from the stream back to the house, the cracked pot would have leaked half its water onto the ground.
This went on day after day. The man would carry the two pots to the stream and fill them both. On the way home, the cracked pot would lose half its water while the other pot remained full.
The cracked pot was ashamed of its crack. Because of its imperfection, it thought, it was only able to do half of what the man needed it to do. It longed to be like the perfect pot. After a long time, the cracked pot spoke to the man one day as he drew water from the stream.
“I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you,” the pot said.
“What do you have to be ashamed of?” the man responded.
“Because of this crack,” the pot replied, “half my water leaks out on the way back to the house. You would be better off if I had no flaw. I’m ashamed that I haven’t been able to serve you well because of my crack.”
The man looked kindly at the cracked pot and said, “My dear old pot, you haven’t failed me. While we walk back to the house today, I want you to look at all of the beautiful flowers along the path.” And sure enough, as they walked home the pot opened its eyes and noticed for the first time the beautiful array of flowers that decorated the journey home.
When they reached the house, the man said to the pot, “Did you notice that the flowers were growing only on one side of the path? They grow only on the side where I carry you, but not on the other pot’s side. You see, I knew about your crack, and so I planted flowers all along your side of the path. While we are walking back from the stream, you aren’t losing water—you are making the flowers grow!
Now everyone who walks along the path looks at the flowers and thinks about how beautiful they are. You bring joy to every single person who walks down the path! What you perceive as a flaw is the very thing that gives life to the flowers and brings beauty into the world!”
My name is Barnabas Sibusiso Nqindi, rector of St Barnabas-Bluff. I enjoy a good debate and I love to see people grow in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ