Reading – Luke 2:22-38
From March 10 to March 19, the Shrine of St. Joseph and the Norbertine order of De Pere observed the 128th consecutive solemn novena to St. Joseph. Since the Shrine was moved back to Old St. Joseph’s Church at St. Norbert College this year after 46 years at St. Norbert Abbey across the Fox River, the college community invited some of its members to provide short reflections on the nightly readings for the novena. I was blessed enough to be one of these individuals, and I gave my reflection on the Presentation of the Lord on Sunday, March 13, 2016 at 6:30 p.m. The text version follows below. I hope it proves helpful, comforting, thought-provoking, whatever you need it to be most at this moment, to you. Thank you. ~
“You look just like my grandson!” Caught off-guard, I just said, “Oh, okay!” with a rather imbecilic smile on my face. After mass, the elderly woman in the pew with me approached and made the same remark as before, and this time I actually started a conversation with her. Finding out I was a student here, the woman lit up, telling me that she had been baptized—by Abbot Pennings himself!—and married in this church, starting a shared life with her husband for 70 years.
“I’m 92,” she told me. “Can you believe it?”
I honestly could not. This unassuming, quiet woman was bursting with life and driving herself to church each Saturday! As I returned to St. Frances Xavier Church over the next few weeks, I got to know Dorothy Willems better, and I grew more thankful as I did. She radiated joy each time I saw her, and each time this joy passed onto me. This remarkable woman is truly a blessing in my life.
For me, Dorothy gives a clear example of how we can imitate St. Joseph as we try to follow the Lord, especially when looking at the Presentation. Joseph is mentioned at the beginning of this episode but no more. The focus is on Jesus, Simeon, Anna, and Mary—basically everyone but Joseph. The adoptive father of Jesus is certainly important, but he doesn’t emphasize the fact or seek praise for himself. Joseph is content to follow the path God calls him to, even if that path is unknown to others. He recognizes when others respond to God’s call, supports them, and rejoices at their joy. He presents his son and his self to God, willing to listen to and act on God’s word in every moment. Joseph is the exemplar of obedience, the fruit or virtue of the mystery of the Presentation.
Obedience: what a frightening word to so many of us today. Submit to God’s will? Are you kidding me? You mean give up any chance at independence, recognition, success? In a word, yes, and, in another word, no. We are not meant to pursue success, wealth, and popularity for their own sake but to pursue union with God and with each other in God above all else. Sometimes wealth and popularity come our way in doing so; often, they do not. Joseph’s lot fell into the latter category: little mention in the Gospels and none outside them, life as a carpenter in a backwater town of Palestine, and apparent death before the start of Jesus’s ministry. His challenging and little-known life did not come as a divine punishment, nor did Joseph actively seek such a life. He simply aspired to trust in God and follow God’s will in every situation, good or bad, and, in doing so, lived a holy, a full, a good life.
This is the essence of obedience: not an unthinking, unfeeling observance of rules and rites but a constant, conscious decision to follow God. It is recognizing that God calls us in every moment, not just when we feel loved, special, or confident. God is with us on every step of our journey, offering us guidance and support if we stretch out our hands in trust, in the dark as well as the light. I don’t think Joseph was free of doubt or confusion even after his dreams from God: he probably questioned his own worthiness in being the foster father of the Savior, puzzled over the visit and gifts of the three Magi, feared for his family’s safety in the unrest of Palestine, and kept in his heart the prophecies concerning Jesus and Mary and what they meant for his future. Today, we too wonder what our purpose in the world is, if God is with us in our times of trial or even at all, and why some people seem singled out for fame and power while we do our best each day and receive neither.
People like Joseph and Dorothy remind us that these doubts are okay—that we encounter them at every step on our journey—but also that we cannot let them paralyze us. We must speak and listen, question and trust, reflect and act, think critically and feel powerfully, consider why we would ever step into the unknown and then do it anyway. We serve others without expecting them to serve us; we bear the crosses and the joys that come our way in love; we exult in the joys and grieve over the crosses of others; we turn to God at every moment, take His hand, and take another step forward. We are obedient, even to death, and thus we are free to be who God calls us to be in every minute, every day, every year of our lives. This is the fruit of the mystery of the Presentation, the fruit that God offers us through Jesus, through Joseph, through Dorothy, and through the saints, named and unnamed, that we encounter each day.
One piece from the musical “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” conveys the delight found in presenting ourselves to others and the Lord almost perfectly. I believe it expresses Joseph’s thoughts as he presented his adopted son to God; I think it’s what Dorothy Willems feels when she meets someone; and I hope that it’s what I and we all strive to think when we look at ourselves and each other. It goes as follows:
“Through your eyes, I see clearer. / You bring God so much nearer. / Life has grown so much dearer. / I’m glad that you were born.”
Thank you, and God bless you.