By Fr. Tim Zak, Provincial
Homily from Marian Day 2021, held Saturday, May 22 at the Marian Shrine in Stony Point, NY.
In the familiar painting above the altar of St. Joseph in the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians in Turin, we see St. Joseph holding the child Jesus in his arms, and the Mother of Jesus is there, at their side in attentive prayer. The child Jesus gives white and red roses to St. Joseph, symbols of God’s graces and blessings, which Joseph lets fall upon the Oratory. Above the Holy Family, written on a banner held up by two cherubs, we find the phrase, “Ite Ad Joseph,” “Go to Joseph.”
Unlike the rest of the paintings in the Basilica, this painting has stayed in its original place since the time of Don Bosco. Nine years after the dedication of the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians, in 1887, just eight months before Don Bosco would die, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Rome was dedicated. In this Basilica, again we find a large painting of St. Joseph holding the Child Jesus in his arms, with the Blessed Mother standing at their side with reverent devotion. This time Joseph extends his hand in protection over an image of St. Peter’s Basilica, a symbol of the universal Church. Again, on a banner over the Holy Family, we find the phrase, “Ite ad Joseph,” “Go to Joseph.” It is not a coincidence that we find such similarity between the paintings; they express love the St. John Bosco had for the Holy Family. In both paintings, we see the motherly gaze of Mary and the fatherly tenderness of Joseph who holds Jesus close to his heart; they are lovingly watching over the Church; we are instructed to “go to Joseph,” and inspired to trust in Mary Help of Christians. Mary and Joseph are presented as our intercessors, our examples, our patrons, and our protectors. In fact, in the Regulations for the Houses of the Oratory of St. Francis de Sales, 1877, Don Bosco included this, “Have special devotion for the Blessed Sacrament, the Blessed Virgin, St. Francis de Sales, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, and St. Joseph, who are the special protectors of every house.” It was another way Don Bosco communicated to the young people and the Salesians the devotion he had depicted in the now-famous paintings.
This phrase, “Ite ad Joseph,” originally were the words of Pharaoh to the people of Egypt during the years of famine (Gen. 41:55). We find these same words inscribed at the base of the statue of St. Joseph in front of St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montréal, the Oratory founded by St. André Bessette, who obtained many miraculous healings through the intercession of St. Joseph. It is easy to understand why this phrase was applied to St. Joseph, the protector of the Holy Family, the chaste guardian of the Virgin and foster father of the Son of God. If Jesus and Mary went to Joseph in their moments of need, surely, we will find in him a reliable patron.
The Gospel of the flight into Egypt that we heard today is not the usual Gospel for the Mass of Mary Help of Christians. Usually, we hear the story of the wedding feast of Cana. The planning committee specifically chose this Gospel because it expresses the anxiety and trials that we have been living for more than a year during this pandemic. We also feel distress and difficulties caused not only because of the pandemic, but by social unrest, violence on an international scale and on our streets, fear of those who are different from us, and so many other troubles we face. What can we do? Look to the Holy Family; there we will find hope amidst trials.
For the ancient Israelites, Egypt became a symbol of refuge from natural disasters like famine, as well as from tyrannical rulers and foreign powers attacking the twelve tribes of Israel. Egypt was mighty and strong. It was no wonder that, in times of trial, the people of Israel would want to go there for refuge. That is where Joseph took the child and his mother when Herod was searching for the child to destroy him. Although Mary and Joseph, like the people of Israel of old, went into Egypt seeking protection, this time something was different. This time, we can see more clearly that it is not the mighty and strong political powers that are the source of protection. There is greater strength in the gentleness and humility of the Holy Family. Mary and Joseph do not hesitate to obey the inspirations of the angel, regardless of the hardships involved, to go to Egypt, where they must dwell as foreigners. In Egypt, they await with patient trust the angel’s notice that it is safe to return to the land of Israel. Somehow, God is realizing his plan of salvation, that his own Son, like a new Moses, would lead the People of God from slavery to the promised land. Even if they had heard the prophecy of Hosea, “Out of Egypt I called my Son,” it is unlikely that Mary and Joseph fully understanding it. Still, Mary and Joseph are willing cooperators with God’s plan; they were chosen by God to guide the beginnings of the history of redemption. God did not need the rich and the powerful to protect his own Son; God acted in a surprising way through the trust, courage, and availability of a poor married couple from Nazareth.
Pope Francis commented on this Gospel passage in Patris Corde: “A superficial reading of these stories can often give the impression that the world is at the mercy of the strong and mighty, but the “good news” of the Gospel consists in showing that, for all the arrogance and violence of worldly powers, God always finds a way to carry out his saving plan. So too, our lives may at times seem to be at the mercy of the powerful, but the Gospel shows us what counts.” God always finds a way to save us, provided we show the same childlike trust, creative courage, and generous availability as the Holy Family.
On this celebration of Mary Help of Christians, in this Year of St. Joseph, we have several people who are about to make their promise as Salesian Cooperators. At a superficial level, considering the troubles of the world, we might think, “What are they doing? Are they crazy? Why don’t they stay home and protect their personal interests?” Instead, their actions help us to see the Gospel lived out today. Instead of withdrawing from the world with all its troubles, taking refuge in their comfort zones, these Cooperators, Don Bosco’s Salesians in the world, are making their lives available to God’s surprising plans. And just as Mary and Joseph were moved to care for Jesus, allowing Christ to determine the direction of their lives, so these Cooperators are willing to put themselves at the service of the Lord, doing good, working in the Kingdom, especially for the advancement and salvation of the young. We thank God for this calling, and we thank the Cooperators for their bold and radical witness to the Gospel.
If God the Father was pleased to provide for his Son, Jesus, through the humble service of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, then we can be confident in their care for us too, the living members of the Body of Christ. Trust in Mary Help of Christians and you will see what miracles are. Ite ad Joseph. We look to the Holy Family and find hope amidst trials because they always lead us to Jesus, the Savior of the world.