St. Joseph is a model of quiet, often thankless work that paves the way for Jesus to be known and loved.
The Feast of St. Joseph is usually celebrated on March 19th. When specific Feasts fall on a Sunday, their observance is usually transferred to the following weekday. This is because every Sunday is a Feast of our Lord’s Resurrection—and in that sense—the celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection is not shared with any other celebration. So for this year, today (March 20) is the formal Feast of St. Joseph. Celebrate away!
George Weigel describes the history of God’s dealing with humanity as “an extraordinary story involving some utterly ordinary people.”
An adopted son of a slave with a speech impediment is used by God to accomplish the greatest saving act of the Old Testament. The King of Persia’s bartender is used by God to restore the city of Jerusalem after its destruction at the hand of Babylon. A group of ragtag fishermen and rabbinic school dropouts are used by God to establish the Christian Church, and are told by Jesus that they will spend the rest of their lives doing “greater things than these.”
And right in the middle of this extraordinary story lies Joseph of Bethlehem. An ordinarily quiet dad who works hard, forsakes his legal freedom to dismiss Mary, and instead bears the brunt of communal shame so his new wife doesn’t have to. (Not to mention that his first experience in parenting involved raising the Son of God.)
I am the proud owner of multiple pairs of socks that feature Saints from the Scriptures and Christian history. The side of each sock bears the image of the Saint, and on the bottom of each foot is a famous quote from their life and work.
As a (sometimes) quiet dad myself, I naturally own a pair of Saint Joseph socks.
And printed on the bottom of each foot is the following quote:
- St. Joseph
Joseph has no recorded words in the Christian Scriptures. He is visited by an angel. He leads his family on several journeys: first to Bethlehem for the less-than-glamorous birth of Jesus, then to Egypt, this time as refugees. And after several quiet years in Egypt, Joseph leads his family once more to settle down in the podunk town of Nazareth. And from this point on, we know very little about how Joseph spent the rest of his days.
We see in St. Joseph a model of quiet, often thankless work that paves the way for Jesus to be known and loved.
Habit to Adopt: At some point throughout our week, we all have quiet, thankless work to do. We are washing the dishes, or filing papers, or taking out the trash. The next time you catch yourself doing this routine work, turn off the TV, take out the headphones, or otherwise limit distractions. Allow the quiet—and the noise of the work itself—to remind you to pray that God will use your otherwise menial task to somehow make Jesus known and loved.
November 1 and November 2
Thank you for subscribing to Rhythms of Habit! As we enter the month of November, it is worth noting that Advent—the beginning of the Church Year—is quickly approaching. If you know someone who may enjoy these emails as we enter a new Christian year together, please encourage them to subscribe or consider purchasing a gift subscription on their behalf.
The Communion of Saints?
The Apostles Creed includes an affirmation that may strike many modern Christians as unusual. In a relatively short Creed that has served for almost two millennia as a basic outline of Christian belief, we find this line:
“I believe ... in the communion of saints.”
Among the doctrines central to the earliest Christian church, the affirmation that we (the living) remain in communion with the faithful departed was considered important enough to include in a summary of the Christian faith.
In the spirit of passages like Hebrews 11, All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2) teach us to honor most those people most worthy of honor. And in the spirit of passages like Revelation 21-22, these Holy Days also remind us that death is not the end, and that at this very moment a great cloud of witnesses comprised of those who have gone before us are offering praise to God in the heavenly realm.
(You can read more about why saints are worthy of commemorating throughout the year in the Why celebrate Saints? article that is now unlocked for free subscribers.)
So for today, continue reading below for the fascinating history of these two Holy Days, as well as a habit to adopt as we encounter them year after year.
All Saints Day
The earliest celebration of something akin to All Saints Day had the specific purpose of honoring those who were martyred for their Christian faith. As early as the beginning of the 4th century, Christians set aside a day to honor these martyrs, though they usually did so in the spring, and often in conjunction with the season of Easter and Pentecost.
By the year 800, Bishops from modern-day England (Alcuin of York) and Austria (Arno of Salzburg) noted their celebration of All Saints Day on November 1st. Within a century or so, the Church of Rome universalized that date, which most western churches still recognize today.
As the Christian faith became increasingly legalized throughout Western civilization, the church began to expand its honoring of martyrs to include all those who lived as faithful witnesses in their various contexts. (The word martyr, though generally reserved for those who have died for their faith, simply comes from the Greek word for witness. To die for Christ is a bold witness to the Gospel, but so is living for Christ.)
Since many “famous” saints have their own days of commemoration throughout the Church Year, it is common for All Saints Day to be a recognition of the relatively unknown and even unnamed saints throughout the ages.
A Collect for All Saints Day
Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
All Souls Day
All Souls Day (November 2) follows All Saints Day, and shares a common theme of honoring and following the examples of those Christians who have gone before us.
But All Souls Day is more specifically a commemoration of all the faithful departed—not just those recognized formally or informally as saints—with a special emphasis on those whom we have lost in the past year.
Many Christian traditions continue to offer prayers for the dead, a practice that dates back to the earliest centuries of the Church. These prayers are not attempts at overriding the will of those who have passed, nor are they aimed at coercing God to act in a manner outside of his nature. Rather, these prayers are a means of expressing to God our love for those who have died, and of seeking to follow their Christian example in our own lives before we meet again in the life to come.
The Book of Common Prayer contains a short catechism, and I find its answer about why we might honor or pray for the departed to be worth considering, whether or not doing so is a regular practice of yours.
Q. Why do we pray for the dead?
A. We pray for them, because we still hold them in our love, and because we trust that in God's presence those who have chosen to serve him will grow in his love, until they see him as he is.
Below are a two examples of such prayers, taken from a liturgy for burials in the Book of Common Prayer.
Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to you our brother (sister) N., who was reborn by water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism. Grant that his death may recall to us your victory over death, and be an occasion for us to renew our trust in your Father's love. Give us, we pray, the faith to follow where you have led the way; and where you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, to the ages of ages. Amen.
Father of all, we pray to you for N., and for all those whom we love but see no longer. Grant to them eternal rest. Let light perpetual shine upon them. May his soul and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
Habit to Adopt
Make a list of names of those whose passing has impacted you in the past year. For those who come to mind, you may find it helpful to also write a brief note about the example they have set for you in Christ.
On these two Holy Days, make time to thank God for their life, and pray that their examples may live on in your own. You can spend time praying spontaneously, or you could consider using one or more of the prayers above as a guide.
While this is not your standard Rhythms of Habit email, I wanted to send out a quick note today about St. James of Jerusalem, along with a request.
Please send me your questions about the Church Calendar! It has been a joy hearing from many of you as you enter more deeply into following the church calendar, and I would love to know what questions you have along the way. Simply reply to this email, with your questions and I will do my best to get them in the queue. (Up next: Liturgical Colors!)
A Note about St. James
St. James of Jerusalem was the brother of our Lord, a critical early leader in the Church, and the first of the Apostles to be martyred. He wrote the Epistle of St. James, and was considered “a pillar” among the Apostles.
But today’s note is not so much about James himself, but rather a practice that has emerged in his honor over the centuries.
The Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage across much of Western Europe that ends at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella. It is here that (at least some of) the remains of St. James are buried.
The whole concept of a pilgrimage deserves its own book, as does the Camino itself. But I mention them here in Rhythms of Habit today for one particular reason: my wife recently returned from her own two week pilgrimage on the Camino, which means that James and the pilgrimage in his honor have been on our minds much of the past several months.I hope my wife (who probably reads these emails??) will one day write about her own experience on the Camino, but in the meantime you can click here to read how I tried to adopt a pilgrim mindset while caring for our kids at home in her absence.
So on this day set aside to commemorate St. James of Jerusalem, I leave you with two things: a prayer of thanksgiving for the life and work of James, and a habit to adopt.
O gracious God, we remember before you today your servant and apostle James, first among the Twelve to suffer martyrdom for the Name of Jesus Christ; and we pray that you will pour out upon the leaders of your Church that spirit of self-denying service by which alone they may have true authority among your people; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Habit to Adopt: Pilgrimage
At its core, a pilgrimage is an intentional walk for a specific purpose. It can be a retracing of significant moments in the life of Christ—like the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem—or a walk around your block for the purpose of praying about an upcoming decision.
A pilgrimage is a practical means of using time and place to honor important intentions.
Here is a largely practical example from my own life: I have started to park my car farther away from the entrance to my school in order to have three or four minutes of silence before and after work. Sometimes this silence is simply enjoyed as a moment where I am not needed ... and other times it is spent praying. And, of course, plenty of times it is spent thinking about the weekend’s schedule or the latest Tottenham match.
But this tiny pilgrimage, experienced over the course of many months and years, is no doubt shaping me and my interactions with those I care for.
So, talk to my wife if you want to hear more about the Camino! But also look for ways to take your own tiny pilgrimages here and now.
September 29: A celebration of heavenly beings in an overly-materialistic world.
In the preface to his infamous Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis notes the following about our attitudes towards heavenly beings.
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.
On the one hand, ours is an age that values the physical and material world around us. To the materialist, the world is what you can experience and observe: atoms, molecules, nature, etc. This world is explained in scientific terms; we hold things to be true if we can empirically verify them in a laboratory. The world of spirits, angels, and demons is often billed as a thing of the past — a primitive view of the world suited only for primitive humanity.
On the other hand, even in this overly-materialistic world, our wider culture is drawn to the supernatural. Many of the most popular films and television series tread into the realm of magic and spirits; they are populated with dragons and elves. Production companies do not spend a fortune on a television series unless they somehow know that it will strike a nerve with a wide audience.
(And, as someone who once dressed up as Frodo for the DVD release of The Two Towers, I can attest to the reality that these fantasy worlds can really strike a nerve with a subset of that wider audience!)
Wherever you land on angelic beings—an ardent materialist who denies their existence, or as one who perhaps takes “an excessive and unhealthy interest in them”—the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels has something for you.
In the biblical languages, an angel is simply a messenger from God. Angels are not at the forefront of the story of Scripture, but they certainly feature in a few key moments on earth and in a few key glimpses into heaven.
It is worth noting that throughout Scripture it is not uncommon for angels to begin their message to God’s people with the words, “Do not fear.” This should tell us something about their physical appearance. Cute babies with wings appearing to you in a dream do not need to lead with, “Don’t be afraid of me” do they?
(On second thought … maybe they do!)
Most angelic beings are not mentioned by name in the Scriptures. Joseph, for example, is visited by many unnamed beings bearing the title “angel of the Lord.”
Chief among the angels that are mentioned by name are Michael and Gabriel. In Scripture and the tradition, Michael is considered the greatest of the archangels. He is credited with defeating Lucifer in the war in heaven (Rev. 12:7-9). His name is mentioned twice in the OT and twice in the NT, and numerous other times in apocryphal literature. Gabriel is most well known for his announcement to the Virgin Mary that she will bear the Son of God, but appears also to Daniel in the Old Testament and Zechariah in the New Testament.
Biblical angels appear to have different roles: Michael protects, and Gabriel announces. Countless other angels of the Lord fulfill other duties.
So what does all of this information about angels have to do with our own formation?
There are times when God protects, communicates, or guides us in inexplicable ways.
As people who aim to have the story of Scripture engrained in our lives, we should be open to the reality that this protection, communication, and guidance may be the work of “an angel of the Lord.”
Habit to Adopt: An increased awareness of the angelic and demonic realms is not necessarily a habit, is it? But perhaps each year on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels you can make it a practice to pray a thanksgiving for the work of angels. Year after year, this reminder may help you grow in our ability to trust that the unseen is as real—if not more so—than the seen.
Everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted in a wonderful order the ministries of angels and mortals: Mercifully grant that, as your holy angels always serve and worship you in heaven, so by your appointment they may help and defend us here on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The church calendar trains us to honor most those people most worthy of being honored.
Different Christian Traditions have various official and unofficial ways of canonizing or otherwise recognizing the faithful departed whose lives of holiness have made a profound impact on the Body of Christ. Some of these Saints even have Feast Days on the Church Calendar in recognition of their life and work. Some of these Feast Days have remained culturally relevant long after the religious significance of the holy day has been lost. (Looking at you, St. Patrick!)
If the Church Calendar’s primary purpose is to help us become more like Jesus, why are there so many Saint Days and commemorations of people other than Jesus sprinkled throughout the Church Year?
As is often the case, St. Paul and C.S. Lewis both have something helpful to say about this great question. And what they have to share might just reveal why honoring Saints from Christian history is perhaps a more important practice today than it has ever been.
The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is to not become a saint.
The first step to living a holy life worthy of the title “Saint” is a recognition of how impossible that task truly is. It is also hard to imagine a Saint that does not spend serious time each day in prayer and the reading of Scripture. But I think there is a third significant step to becoming a Saint, one that St. Paul teaches us in his epistle to the Corinthians: imitate people who imitate Christ.
Follow me as I follow Christ.
1 Corinthians 1:11
Yes, Jesus is the ultimate human example. The Church Calendar is built entirely around commemorating his life and saving work. We do become more like him by adopting his overall pattern of life year after year.
But there are degrees of holiness, and sometimes we can learn quite a bit by spending time with folks who are further along on the same path that we are. By following someone with more experience in the long obedience in the same direction that is the Christian life, we don’t just become more like them; we become more like Jesus, too.
But there is more.
I am convinced we need Saints Days today more than ever.
International online celebrities are rampant, in both the secular and religious worlds. We are invited to follow and honor countless people in a given day.
And without noticing it, we begin to follow and honor people without considering the degree to which we should. This matters because humans always—slowly but surely—become like the people they honor most.
Or, as C.S. Lewis once put it:
Where men are forbidden to honor a king, they honor millionaires, athletes, or film stars instead; even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.
C.S. Lewis, Equality
You will become like those whom you honor most.
The church calendar trains us to honor most those people most worthy of being honored. In return, we might just find ourselves becoming like them.