In his delightful reflections on the Song of Songs to his brother monks, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux did not need to speak about an atmosphere of playfulness and wonder; the Middle Ages were in large part bathed in it, springing from the wellspring of evangelical truth which had so deeply pervaded the mind and imagination of that culture. The spirit of the Holy Family was still very much alive, and we can feel the heartbeat of Mary and Joseph in the wonder-filled commentaries of so many of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. They read and interpreted Scripture in an atmosphere of faith, with profound confidence in the trustworthiness of God and in his immeasurable love. But today, after the culture-shattering intellectual and spiritual trauma of the Protestant movement, followed by the growth of atheistic humanism and scientific criticism, and the earthquake of the two world wars, the holocaust, and the other terrible events of the twentieth century, down to the very foundations of truth, goodness, and beauty being replaced in our world by the absurdity of “self-defined reality”—today, after all of this, we live very far from an atmosphere of childlike faith. In truth, we feel threatened, like sailors lost at sea, with the waves crashing all about us, in a world that is inimical to faith, if not simply apathetic to it.
The roadside shrines of the Middle Ages, portraying before all pilgrim eyes the Cross of Christ and the watchful presence of his saints, have been replaced by billboards advertising happiness through material consumption. The sober and playful celebrations of the sacred mysteries, particularly Christmas and Easter, have been drained of their Christian meaning and replaced with a meaning almost entirely secular. All Hollow’s Eve has become Holloween, the Christ-Child has been replaced by Santa Claus, and the Risen Lord has been ousted by the Easter Bunny. And we Christians stand by and watch, or even participate in these paganized rituals as if they were on a par with the age-old Christian celebrations of those events that changed the face of the earth and altered the history of the entire world. But the point I am making here is that railing against what is wrong with the world (as much as pointing out error is necessary) shall not lead to the definitive healing of our culture. Rather, a deeper witness must be given. This is the witness of Christian joy.
It is the joy we shall soon see, hopefully in great measure, in our reflections upon the Christmas mystery, which stirred the wise men to “rejoice exceedingly with great joy” (talk about superlatives!). May we too come to know the immeasurable, all-pervading joy of beholding “the child and his mother” as did the wise men, as did Joseph of Nazareth each day of his life. How could he not be the most wonder-filled and playful of all the saints? How could this humble carpenter of Nazareth, this obscure descendant of king David married to a daughter in the line of David, into whose care was entrusted the very Son of God incarnate—how could he not live a life totally saturated in joy?
In addition to the playful lightheartedness of true faith, we can also discern in this passage about Joseph’s obedience to the angel, and his “receiving” of Mary and her child, his deep spirit of reverence. We have spoken in earlier reflections about the mystery of entrustment, of God’s “gifting” of two persons to one another within the orbit of his own love. This mutual gift is a manifestation not only of the meaning of human existence, but of the inner life of the Trinity itself, in which the divine Persons exist in a ceaseless state of gift before one another. Of course, the meaning of human existence is precisely to participate in the inner life of God, not only in our eternal destiny, but in all the smallest details of daily life and relationship in this world. The life of the Holy Family, the beginning of which we have glimpsed in the scriptural text, is one of the richest and fullest expressions of human life transfigured in the love of the Trinity, and permeated through and through by the life of God.
Let us therefore return to this reality for a moment before concluding our contemplation of these verses. The playfulness explored above is not contrary to, but rather enfolds and permeates, a beautiful dimension of the mystery of entrustment: namely, responsibility for the other. John Paul II mentioned this in the quotes included from him above. To be entrusted with the other is both to be gifted with them as well as tasked with them. To be responsible for another, however, does not mean to let myself be “used” by them on the basis of their own neediness, nor to be for them what only Christ can be; nor does it mean that I am responsible for their ultimate well-being and all the details of their life. Excessive responsibility is perhaps one of the major false presuppositions of our culture which hinders the transparency and simplicity of human relationships—whether that of a mother for her children, of spouses for one another, of priests for his parishioners, etc. But what defines false responsibility from true responsibility? False responsibility seeks to control things in the life or the heart of the other person which are beyond external human capacity, and are the prerogative of God alone, in the intimate sanctuary of the human heart. By external force or coercion, by a form of violence or power (however subtle), I seek to sway the other person or to take responsibility for them in the space where they alone can accept responsibility for themselves.
But what, then, is true responsibility? As the etymology of the word indicates, responsibility is an abiding readiness to respond, a commitment to be devoted to the other person and to their authentic well-being in all that the call of God dictates in the present and in the future (whether this call is made known through prayer, the circumstances of life, or the trajectory of the other person’s interior journey which they share with us). We see all of this played out very explicitly in the life of Saint Joseph, who was entrusted with Mary and Jesus, and thus was responsible for them before God. His responsibility did not consist in “taking control” of the lives of these persons, or even “overseeing” the mystery that was unfolding before him. It consisted in reverently enfolding the mystery that surpassed his comprehension, while also placing his life entirely at the service of this same mystery, so that it could follow its course in all of its inner truth and bear the fruit that God intended it to bear. And as for the persons in whom this mystery lived (well, in Joseph’s case they were more or less inseparable, weren’t they?), he sought only to care for them in all that was truly good for them in the sight of God; and to do this, he must have listened with profound receptivity and readiness to follow where God led, with as radical an obedience, as childlike a trust, as did Mary and Jesus themselves. He did not stand far off, but rather joined intimately with them in the very awesome mystery that unfolded itself at the heart of time and space—the very life of the Trinity—spreading out from the heart of Jesus Christ, to permeate, heal, and renew the entire universe.
The ministers of the Church would do well to remember this, as would all parents before their children, in that, though the lives of God’s children are entrusted to them, God alone is the ultimate arbiter over human consciences, and he bestows many gifts which should be respected in their gradual growth to maturity, rather than flippantly scrutinized and dismissed since they do not fit in with one’s own preconceived ideas about what God should be doing in human hearts. Of course, particularly in the case of those bearing shepherding authority in the Church, they are called to “discern” between the spirits of good and evil, and those who are receiving the authentic gifts of God always long to surrender to this, always long for their lives to be seen and recognized by those in authority in the Church.
Yes, the Marian receptivity of hearts before God spontaneously thirsts to be sheltered by the masculine authority that God has given to Peter and the other apostles (living still within the pope and the bishops in communion with him). Here too the mystery of entrustment plays out, as does the rich interrelationship between what is masculine and what is feminine in the Church. Every soul before God is feminine; the Church herself is feminine. Even the stance of John, the beloved disciple, as he stands at the foot of the Cross with Mary at his side, is primarily feminine. But the feminine is entrusted to the masculine, and is open to the gift that comes only from the masculine: first from the Bridegroom Christ, and, in him, from the Father. So Mary and John receive the gift of the Crucified One, together, side by side. And they are both entrusted into the orbit of his divine love, the ultimate origin and consummation of all that is masculine. But Mary also, second, lets herself be entrusted to John, just as she was entrusted to Joseph earlier in her life, so that she could experience Christ’s abiding presence, his masculine sheltering, in the living continuity of his apostles who had received priesthood and authority in his name and as the fruit of his Cross.
John, the beloved disciple, is a beautiful example of a feminized masculinity, of a Marian-apostleship, of a mystical priesthood. His own experience helps to bridge over these different dimensions of masculinity and femininity within the Church, of the Petrine and the Marian, as his own Johannine experience was both apostolic and priestly (masculine) but also deeply intimate, nuptial, and mystical (feminine). The same can be true in each one of us, in our own unique lives, since God wishes for us all to be more than our own “self-definitions,” our own particular roles or gifts. He desires, rather, that all of this comes together—albeit with the unique nuances always proper to our individuality within this world—in the convergence-place of the heart where all becomes one in the embrace of the Trinity, in the embrace, indeed, of Jesus and Mary, Christ and the Church.
But let us return to Joseph, who is more propely the subject of these specific reflections. He was truly asked to be the custodian of the universal Church in her “seed-form,” in her most delicate and sacred germination and growth during the conception, nativity, and maturation of Jesus Christ, and of his communion with the woman, Mary, who was united to him first as Mother and then, later (at the Cross), as Virgin-Bride. This latter movement, however, reached consummation after Joseph’s death (since he did not live to witness the crucifixion of his Son), and was therefore witness by Joseph’s spiritual “successor” in the custodianship of Mary and of the mystery of Christ: the beloved disciple, John. This spiritual heritage shared by Joseph and John, it seems, is not adequately appreciated in the Church, and, as we have seen here, it bears rich insights for us, and many subtle but beautiful implications for our own lives.
We should end this reflection soon, so let us only pull out a single implication from all of this, thus, also, coming full circle to the question with which we began: the question about the true meaning of responsibility. The literal definition of responsibility implies being called to give an account for one’s stewardship, for that which has been entrusted to one’s care; but this “being able to respond” to the One who entrusts is also, as we said, a “response regarding one’s response.” How deeply have I received, cherished, fostered, protected, and affirmed this gift? God will not ask for a response from me regarding that which he did not entrust to me, that which did not elicit my freedom in response—the problems of others, private affairs beyond my control, and many other matters which are “too high for me” (Ps 131). Rather, he seeks precisely to gaze into my heart to see how I am receiving the gifts that he bestows upon me, and how vulnerably, lovingly, and authentically I am allowing my heart to be harnessed as a gift in response.
Here, indeed, we have exactly the context in which the Sacrament of Mercy manifests its richness: in the tension between the immeasurable gifts bestowed upon me by God and my always inadquate and faltering response. The Sacrament is the safeguard and the perpetual reminder that responsibility before God does not mean “performing perfectly” or “being successful,” but rather simply the integrity of faith. It is honesty and humility before the gift. It is love before the gift. And the betrayal of the gift is sin. So it was in the Garden of Eden, in which Adam and Eve spurned the gifts of God, and so it is in every sin we commit since, either by rejecting these gifts, treating them with apathy, or appropriating them in pride and possessiveness. And the great gift of the Sacrament of Mercy is precisely that we are invited to receive anew and anew, in all of our faltering efforts at fidelity, the gratuitous gaze of God’s cherishing mercy, and his love that surpasses all particular responsibilities in the pure intimacy of mutual belonging. It is precisely this gratuitous love, this sacred space of belovedness, which allows us to embrace all that is entrusted to us, all the sacredness of others, all the gifts of God, with a spirit of lightness, relaxation, and joy, since all is enfolded in the world-cradling embrace of God, and our own care for them is but a small participation in his perfect care.
The final fruit of this Sacrament—and indeed of the simple experience of God’s mercy and love in general—is the liberating awareness that our entrance into “the joy of the Lord” (Mt 25:23) is not conditioned on our own perfect stewardship or our own performance, but precisely on our openness to receive the primal gift of all: God’s redeeming love and atoning mercy. This is what Saint Thérèse understood so well when, in contrast to the pervading Jansenism of her day, she said that she would stand before God at the end of her life with open hands, claiming none of her good works as her own. And God, she said, would therefore deign to bestow upon her everything good as a pure gift, since she claimed nothing as her own, but gave it all away. This, in fact, was simply a deep recognition of the actual state of all human life, even in this world, in that our own “righteousness” is not a private possession to be flaunted before God, but rather simply our participation in the poverty of the Trinity’s own eternal love, which receives and gives without condition or limit, and claims nothing as its own. We find ourselves secure, rather, simply in the reception of mercy, in standing before God precisely in this openness to receive—for we know that we have been purchased with the Blood of Christ and sealed for eternity by the anointing of the Holy Spirit.
Thérèse intuited the very core of the Gospel message as “God’s mercy for sinners” (Catechism), in that we are saved by God not on the basis of our own merits or achievements but as a sheer act of redeeming mercy on the part of God, through the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. And yet at the heart of her message, too, is the mysterious link between salvation and sanctification, two aspects of the grace of redemption which are distinct and yet inseparable from one another. Salvation is the primal gift of justification by which we are “made right with God” again through undeserved mercy, through the Sacrifice of Christ which restores right relationship between God and man by the surging currents of grace, of love, which he has poured forth into the ailing heart of humanity. This gift of justification is received without any deserving on our part, by sheer gift, in the grace of faith and baptism. But this grace is not a mere legal sentence of “rightness,” like a pardon before a jury or an atonement “bought at a price” (though clearly the Scriptures use this image to approach the mystery); it is above all the re-establishment of reciprocal relationship between God and ourselves. Thus it is also the living outpouring of God’s very life and love into us, a seed of communion that is meant to grow throughout our lives, maturing through grace—which elicits and sustains human cooperation—in the sanctification of our whole being and existence, until it attains final consummation in the joy of everlasting intimacy with God in eternal life.
Saint Thérèse deeply expressed that the only prerequisite of the grace of salvation and eternal life is openness to be saved by God, and thus receiving mercy from God, repentance for sin. This is adequate for God to carry us across the boundary of death and to deliver us from eternal damnation, the separation from him due to sin, preparing us for eternal life with him in everlasting bliss. But this eternal life itself calls for more (and thus the necessity of sanctification in this life or purgatory after death): it calls for the total permeation of our entire being by the energies of divine grace and our full participation, in our whole being, in the life and love of the Trinity. And, mysteriously, these two facets of salvation have the same root; at their core they share in the same disposition. It is not as if the sinner is poor before God, whereas the righteous person is rich. Rather, as Saint Thérèse intuited, the repentant sinner is learning to be poor, to open poverty to God’s gift of mercy, and the saint is poorest of all, claiming nothing as their own and recognizing all as gift, all as grace, all as the outpouring of the love and truth of God.