Wednesday, April 8th, 2020

Of Famine and Providence: Ite ad Ioseph!

A brief essay on our present circumstances in light of the feast of Saint Joseph. 

The history of the patriarch Joseph is recorded in chapters thirty-seven through fifty of the book of Genesis: indeed, the first book of the Bible ends with his death. The Fathers of the Church always referred to the Patriarch Joseph in order to understand Saint Joseph, the spouse of the Virgin Mary and the foster father of our Blessed Lord. Of course, we ought to do the same: because in the plan of God, it is a tale of two Josephs.

Which is to say, that the history of both Josephs speaks powerfully to the mystery of Divine Providence. (The collect of the votive Mass of Saint Joseph makes this explicit: ‘O God, who by your unspeakable Providence deigned to choose Blessed Joseph . . .’)

We remember that the patriarch Joseph was brought as a slave into Egypt on account of the envy of his brothers. Eventually, he becomes second in the realm only to Pharaoh. However, it is a famine that, years later, brings his brothers back to Egypt in search of food. And though we do not hear of this in the biblical narrative, it remains true: where there is famine, plague often follows: the weakness brought on by malnutrition invites contagion. Thus we can imagine, at least for the sake of our reflection here, that contagious disease was also a very real threat to Jacob and his sons—that is, a threat to the people God had chosen for his own possession.

Interesting to note, then, that plagues during the time Joseph brought the chosen people into Egypt; and it would be plagues in the time of Moses that would bring the people out of Egypt.

But the reality of plague and famine speaks to our moment as well. For it is also true that, in the order of nature, disease can lead to famine: a weakened labor force cannot bring in the crops. In the present moment, the virus Covid-19 has introduced a number of figurative famines: a famine of steady, reliable information, for instance. Or a famine of any notion of how long the present difficulty will last. We may name any number of present-day famines as we see might see them.

But on account of the cancellation of public liturgical services, Catholics everywhere are experiencing a kind of sacramental famine. Many would also say that we have a famine of clear leadership from our bishops and priests. And please God it is not melodrama to say as much. The following is no doubt clear to the reader:—No Catholic may give an indifferent shrug in the face of disrupted Eucharistic worship; no Catholic can be comfortable with it. But it is equally true that no Catholic may call down curses or surrender to fits of indignation; the root of all spiritual saber-rattling is pride and nothing less.

Nevertheless, as a matter of plain fact, the calm but concerned Catholic is faced with a kind of liturgical famine. And truthfully, it is the worst sort of famine. In the present moment, it is unclear what sort of bread can be found to satisfy this new and strange hunger. The fact that one hungers is a good sign. But it is a hunger all the same; famines of whatever kind are trials to be gotten through.

Yet all this talk of disease and famines is little more than a prelude to the following. It is drawn from Father Jean-Pierre Caussade’s (1675-1751) notable little book, which often bears the English title Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence. After summarizing all the twists and turns of the life of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Fr de Caussade writes:

Behold the daily bread of the Holy Family. But how divine the nourishment with which that material bread feeds the faith of Mary and Joseph! What a sacrament is each of their sacred moments! What treasures of grace are concealed in each of those moments under the commonplace appearance of the events that fill them! The visible events are those which happen to all men, but the invisible element underneath discovered by Faith is no less than God himself working great wonders. O Bread of Angels, Heavenly Manna, Pearl of the Gospel, Sacrament of the present moment! Thou givest God to us under the humble appearances of manger, hay, and straw! But to whom dost thou give? Esurientes implevit bonis. [He filled the hungering with good things.] God reveals himself to little ones in the smallest things; while the great in their own conceit, who get no further than the outer rind of events, do not find him even in great things.[1]

That is a shining canticle. In its light, we see the contours that define the lives of both Josephs. And it is for this reason that Holy Church takes Saint Joseph, of all the saints, to be her particular patron before the mystery of Divine Providence. Thus, Pius IX, in his decree of 8 December 1870, Quemadmodum Deus, only made explicit a mystery that has accompanied the chosen people ever since the first Joseph saved his brothers from their Chanaanite famine.

Father de Caussade’s words need no comment; they only need to be studied. But it is Saint Joseph who will help us to study them; and to obtain the grace to be formed by them. Furthermore, we honor no creature as highly as the Immaculate Virgin, Saint Joseph’s spouse. But Saint Jerome reminds us of a profound truth: Saint Joseph was a gift of Divine Providence to the Virgin Mary.[2] The Mother of God herself relied on the providential support of Saint Joseph. Where, then, should that leave us?

If Fr de Caussade is correct, it leaves us, at very least, with the choice of identity: will we be the conceited who die of famine, or the little ones who go filled with rich fare? At bottom, all famines, of whatever sort, are satisfied and stayed by the bread of our surrender to the wise will of God. If for the time being we endure a sacramental famine, however brief or long, we are never without the sacrament of the present moment.

Very often, when we see a statue or painting of Saint Joseph in a traditional liturgical setting, the inscription Ite ad Ioseph is etched nearby. ‘Go to Joseph!’ It is, in fact, a quotation from the book of Genesis—the command of the pagan Pharaoh. We ought to take his advice:

famine reigned all over the world, but everywhere in Egypt there was bread to be had. When food grew scarce, there was ever a cry made to Pharaoh for bread, and still he would answer, Betake yourselves to Joseph, do what he bids you.[3]


A liturgical postscript . . .

For those who are interested in such things, a striking liturgical concurrence falls on 19 March this year [2020]. In Lent, even on high feast days, the ferial day is still commemorated. This year, then, we had the orations of Saint Joseph, followed by the orations from the Mass for the Thursday after the Third Sunday of Lent. This Lenten Mass is celebrated at the station of the Roman church dedicated to Saints Cosmas and Damian, which fact is reflected in the very prayers of the Mass. Therefore, these two saints, physicians who became martyrs, were also truly part of the liturgical day. An encouragement and grace for us that these two saints of healing hastened to the intercession of the Church today. Though it should also be noted, that all three saints—Joseph, Cosmas, Damian—are daily mentioned in the Roman Canon.


[1] Jean-Pierre Caussade SJ, Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence, trans. Algar Thorold, London: Baronius Press, 2005; p 5. Emphasis added.

[2] Cf Breviarium Romanum, 19 Martii in festo S Ioseph, ad Matutina in III nocturno: homilia S Hieronymi, Liber 1 comment. in c. 1 Matth. Quare non de simplici virgine, sed de desponsata concipitur? . . . tertio, ut in Ægyptum fugiens haberet solatium. ‘Why was [Christ] not simply born of a virgin, but rather of one bethrothed? . . . in the third place, so that she might have solace during the flight into Egypt.’  

[3] Genesis 41, 55; Knox translation.