Today is “May Day.” Around the world people celebrate on this day the dignity and rights of those who labor. For Catholics it is also the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, taking its cue from the comments in the gospels that Joseph, the foster father of Jesus, was a “craftsman.” Most think of him as a carpenter, a subject of art and devotion throughout the centuries. The actual Greek word used in the gospels could mean any sort of craftsman, someone who works in wood or stone. Of course, Joseph is lifted up not simply because of his craft but because through the work of his hands he, together with Mary, sustained the household in which Jesus was born and was nourished.
The readings for today draw their inspiration from the Easter season in which we still stand, awaiting Pentecost. But the gospel reading from John offers a connection to the work of Joseph the craftsman and breadwinner of the family of Jesus. The selection today is from the Gospel of John, 14:1-6 and is one of the most well-known passages of this beautiful Gospel—Jesus’ words of consolation to his disciples: “I am going to prepare a place for you”.
My priestly ministry has been in education rather than in parish ministry. Unlike most pastors, I preside at funerals only occasionally. But when I do have the privilege of celebrating the Mass of Christian burial it is almost always for someone I have personally known—a member of our staff or faculty, a family member of one of our trustees. So I usually have the opportunity to confer with the loved ones of the deceased about what reading they would like to select. Virtually every time this poignant passage from John is chosen. On the eve of his arrest, Jesus makes his farewell with his distressed disciples. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places…And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.”
Those exquisite words of Jesus take the sting out of death. It is no longer a step into a void but a homecoming, a passageway into the Father’s house where Jesus, too, will dwell with us and all our loved ones. And Jesus himself will accompany us on this fateful journey into new life. The image Jesus uses—that of leaving for home—reminds me of the famous words of St. Pope John XXIII as he approached the hour of his own death: “My bags are packed and I am ready to go…”
In using this comforting image for the experience of death, did Jesus remember the home he had shared with Mary and Joseph? A home filled with warm and abiding love, a love that reflected God’s own unconditional love, the love that would sustain Jesus all his life, including his experience of suffering and death itself.
In this Easter season we renew our faith the power of the resurrection. Because of God’s abiding love for us, life—not death—has the last word. And whatever comfort and goodness we may have been fortunate enough to have experienced in our own home life is but a glimpse of the joy and peace that will be ours in “the Father’s house.”
Fr. Donald Senior, C.P. is President Emeritus and Professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union. He lives at the Passionist residence in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.