By Marie O' Tiarnaigh
I am a student iconographer under the tutelage of Sr. Helen-Thérèse, Carmelite Convent, New Ross and Lucio Averes, a Chilean iconographer who resides in Co. Galway, Ireland. This icon of St Joseph is my third icon.
My childhood home was named St. Joseph’s, as both my recently deceased parents had a great devotion to St. Joseph having met each other at a dance in St. Joseph’s Hall in Clones, Co. Monaghan in the late 1950s. My paternal grandmother named my father Timothy Joseph which his siblings shortened to Tim Joe. Every October my mother would add a devotional prayer to St. Joseph to the ‘trimmings’ of our nightly family rosary.
This icon depiction was my favourite of the six prototype templates Lucio offered me to choose from. He explained to me that it represents and draws inspiration from Luke’s Gospel 2: 22-39 which recalls the day when Jesus is presented in the Temple:
'When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord…..and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord , a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.”
In this icon, Joseph presents two doves. My attention was drawn to the way St. Joseph holds the two doves. One dove is held in an open hand to represent times in our lives when things are easy, we are happy to say our ‘Fiat’, willing to let go, give with pleasure and be obedient to the will of our Heavenly Father. However we also experience difficulties in our lives, get confronted by unexpected circumstances and we find it much harder to trust and to let go. We can hold onto grudges, be overcome by fear and cling on too tightly to our perspectives and opinions. The dove held in the closed hand represents all these difficulties. St. Joseph gives all and presents both as offerings in trust to the Lord.
Pope Francis has written an Apostolic letter ‘Patris Corde’ (with a Father’s Heart) recalling the 150th anniversary of the declaration of St. Joseph as Patron of the
Universal Church by Pope Pius IX in 1871. To celebrate the anniversary, Pope Francis has proclaimed this church calendar year as a special ‘Year of St. Joseph’. I write this article contemplating some of the aspects of Patris Corde that resonated with me while praying with my icon of St. Joseph with his offering of doves.
In the New Testament, St. Joseph is silent. There are no written words attributed to him. He is recorded almost as a background figure who is obedient to God’s will and who observed the Laws of Moses. Yet, it was to him that God entrusted the care of Mary and the upbringing of the child Jesus, a most essential and formative role in the mission of redemption. It is also worth noting that Pope Francis has written his letter during the COVID-19 pandemic in which ordinary people have also played an essential role. Society has come to value these everyday heroes whose work brings hope, security and comfort to many. I reflect on Pope Francis’ letter from the perspective of St. Joseph’s closed and open hands in my icon.
Pope Francis writes “St. Joseph was a beloved, tender, obedient father”. Parents play an important role in the education of their children. It was from St. Joseph that Jesus learned what tenderness, love and forgiveness meant. St. Joseph was the earthly model from which the child Jesus first experienced love and tender mercy. These are open- handed, welcome, easily embraced experiences. However, obedience can be a tougher lesson to teach and to learn. Jesus, like every child, had to learn that you cannot have everything your own way. For safety and personal growth every child must learn self-restraint skills and obedience to parents, society’s rules and for Jesus the Laws of Moses as a child being raised in the Jewish faith. I see the closed hand as representing these restraints and lessons. Pope Francis then summarises by stating “Joseph is also a father in obedience to God: with his fiat he protects Mary and Jesus and teaches his Son to do the will of the Father.”
“St. Joseph is an accepting Father”
If we search scriptures, we find no words attributed to St. Joseph. However, we can infer from the times he is mentioned that he models acceptance of God’s will, often at a cost to himself. He accepted his betrothed Mary unconditionally, set aside his own anxieties and put his trust in the will of his Heavenly Father as revealed to him in dreams. St. Joseph confronts the realities of a pregnant Mary, a journey to Bethlehem, an escape to Egypt and, adherence to the customs of the Jewish people with open eyes. It is easy to visualise St. Joseph as he weighs up life’s dilemmas with closed and open hands. He offers us no explanations but scripture records his decisive actions. In this he models acceptance of others and their situations for us and how to protect others especially the weak, the vulnerable and make them feel welcome.
“A creatively courageous Father, who also knows the value, dignity and joy of work”
St. Joseph faced concrete problems. He protected Mary and Jesus from Herod’s soldiers and escaped to Egypt to keep them safe. He had to leave his home, work place, people he knew like many escaping migrants today. Joseph doesn’t let fear overcome him. Instead he models courageous trust in letting go of all that he knew, in order to protect the child Jesus and his mother Mary. When it was safe to return, he then modelled the joy of an ordinary life of work and adherence to the rituals of his people in Nazareth. In scriptures, Joseph is referred to as a carpenter and Jesus as the son of the carpenter. It is easy to visualise them both with their hands opening and closing, holding tools, working and living during those hidden formative years.
“A Father in the Shadows”
Pope Francis states that “Fathers are not born but made.” He further explains that “A man does not become a father simply by bringing a child into the world, but by taking the responsibility to care for that child”. I can remember gazing in awe at each of my newly born children, fascinated by the miracle of their birth, learning their personalities and being filled with wonder as to the person they would grow up to be. Thus began the open-handed joys and clutching hands of my parenting journey which continues to this day. Pope Francis writes in his letter that St. Joseph never put himself centre-stage, but focused on the lives of Mary and Jesus. By his example, he urges us “not to live the lives of our children, but rather, set them free to become independent in order to walk the paths of their lives unaccompanied.” Pope Francis discourages the use of "domineering possessiveness", holding on so tightly that one's child becomes unable to decide for themselves. This attribute can be applied not just to parenthood but to many of our life’s jobs and projects as we journey through our own many life-changing stages.
Finally, I gaze prayerfully on my St. Joseph Icon with its dove-offering hands and I reflect on Pope Francis words as he emphasizes “nothing to do with possession” (closed hand) but “a sign pointing to a greater fatherhood: that of the Heavenly Father” (open hand) and ponder; what do I clutch to, too tightly? What do I need to set free?
St. Joseph, guide of the Holy Family, patron saint of the universal church, workers, homes and a happy death, pray for us. Amen.
I conclude by reciting Pope Francis’ newly composed Prayer for the Year of St. Joseph: -
Hail, Guardian of the Redeemer,
Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
To you God entrusted his only Son;
In you Mary placed her trust;
With you Christ became man.
Blessed Joseph, to us too,
Show yourself a father
And guide us in the path of life.
Obtain for us grace, mercy and courage,
And defend us from every evil. Amen