Lighting the fire of our faith

  • April 27, 2007
The church was in darkness when I came in, the Easter vigil just beginning. The paschal candle was lit. Its fire was passed around the church, until many tiny candles together became a mass of light. 
But there weren’t quite enough candles, and a small cluster on my side of the church was in darkness. A few came over to share their flames, saw the cluster had no candles, and returned to their seats. Finally, two came over and gave their lighted candles away to the children in the little cluster. Both children who had received lighted candles kept them lit a long, long time, well after the electric lights had been turned up.

Watching, I felt sad for the several hundred people who hadn’t found a way to share the flame with those who had nothing. I felt the beauty of seeing two give away all they had, so that those with none could have light.

Maybe the hundreds didn’t understand that they are light-bearers. Maybe they thought somebody else was supposed to be doing it, and didn’t dare. I found this little event all the more dramatic because it occurred during the Vigil, which calls us back to our Baptism, gives us again the light, urges us to share it and not hold back. If we don’t, who will?

Sometimes it’s hard to let the reality of the liturgy light the fire of our faith and stir us to action. And sometimes it’s hard to relate our day-to-day lives and work to the liturgy. Daily life and work can preoccupy us and make it hard to stop and pray.

Yet it’s in the tension between the two — our liturgical life, and our day-to-day life — that we really become Christian. We can’t give up one or the other. All our lives, work, relationships, are to become liturgy. In turn, liturgy is lit up by the life, work, relationships we bring to it. “Liturgy,” literally, means “work of the people.”  In 1955 Pope Pius XII gave a way to help relate liturgy to life, instituting the feast of St. Joseph the Worker on May 1.

That date is unofficially connected with the Haymarket Riot of May 1886, arising from demonstrations for an eight-hour work day. “May Day,” or International Workers’ Day, had long been linked with the common worker and the call for just labour practices. 

With this new feast, Pope Pius showed the spiritual meaning of labour, how it’s part of human creativity and can bring us closer to God. He showed the dignity of work, how it calls us to treat one another justly. These values have been reiterated by all subsequent popes and the Second Vatican Council. 

In our own day, I’ve seen the oppressiveness of having no proper work, feeling valueless and useless. I’ve seen the destructiveness of the 24/7 work mentality, infiltrating and corroding family life and relationships. At both extremes, it’s our humanity that is being ground down. It’s not surprising that today’s church members have trouble seeing themselves as light-bearers, the front-line workers who have what their neighbours need.

Joseph the Worker gives us not a concept, but a person, someone to help us understand the connection between liturgy and work.

Joseph, the worker who provided for Jesus and gave Him a trade, becomes the model for Christians seeking to understand their life and work. He can help employers treat their workers justly, and workers understand the value of their labour.

In Canada we recognize Labour Day in September, not May, and Joseph the Worker is an “optional” feast. The feast is a bit hidden, but holds a poignant witness for us. It proclaims our dignity, in the work we do to the benefit of family and society, and to the glory of God. Perhaps it can remind us that we ourselves carry the light of Christ, for the giving.

The feast shows that the church’s spirituality and liturgy illuminate our work and relationships. It’s not a one-or-the-other proposition: Joseph the husband, Joseph the servant of God, Joseph the carpenter, Joseph the teacher and labourer, Joseph the man of prayer and fidelity, are one person.

All that we do and live in liturgy is real, not a play or pageant unrelated to the rest of life. Liturgy is the high point, the summary, the deepest expression, of what our lives are about. It’s food that helps us feed those beyond the walls of the church; it gives a Word we can speak everywhere we go; it teaches a love and communion that seep into our whole way of being, our relationships, our work, our play.

It’s said that St. Joseph, though silent in the Gospels, has excellent hearing. Through his hearing, may the “work of the people,” the liturgy in which we all participate, be part of all we do. May it help us find better ways to treat one another, to provide proper work and to receive one another’s labour.