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‘The Lord … will bless the work of your hands.’ (Deut. 28:12)

Updated: Apr 30, 2020

Regardless of the lock-down situation, it feels as if the year is racing by. Someone told me that it is a relative thing: the older one is, the faster time seems to pass. It is almost unbelievable to realise that Friday of this week will be the 1st May.

On several occasions during my life, for one reason or another, I’ve been in Oxford on May Day morning. There is one traditional highlight of May morning which, especially when the weather is fair, is a thrilling experience. At 6 am, choristers from Magdalen, having climbed the Great Tower, sing what is known as Hymnus Eucharisticus, then followed by the ringing and pealing of all the bells in the city. This year, the choristers have been recording their parts at home; the resulting compilation will be online at 6 am on Friday, a “virtual” continuation of the tradition. It’s that delicious mixing of sacred and profane: the religious observance embracing the seasonal revelry of a more secular celebration of the turning of the seasons and the welcome of spring.

At Mass on 1st May the choice is given to celebrate the Optional Memoria of St Joseph the Worker. This year, the idea of the sacredness of work, of serving one another through personal industry, seems very appropriate.

I’d like to suggest that you spend some moments considering this painting, St Joseph Charpentier (St Joseph the Carpenter) by Georges de La Tour (1593-1652). The original (c.1645) is on display in the Louvre in Paris – sadly for us, the National Gallery in London which had an opportunity to acquire the painting, failed to raise sufficient funds to secure the painting before the Second World War. An image, common to many of de La Tour’s paintings is the light of a candle or lantern. He explores again and again the interplay between light and shadow; his works may be categorised as tenebrist or chiaroscuro – artistic techniques with which we may be familiar from the works of other artists such as Carvaggio. De La Tour is known for depicting the presence of the divine in the ordinary quotidian events of secular life.

The child Jesus with Joseph in his carpentry workshop

In this painting the child Jesus is with Joseph in the carpenter’s workshop. Jesus holds the candle, reminding us of the great Christian truth revealed by Jesus (John 8:12, 9:5) ‘I am the light of the world’.

(Much as John Armstrong has done in his painting in St George’s church of Jesus in the workshop, the reality of the Cross is prefigured in de La Tour’s painting in the arrangement of the pieces of wood on the floor.)

The presence of Jesus, the Light of the World, in this work-a-day environment is surely a hallowing of all that stems from work, service and industry. We, as a community, have been, and are continuing to be, so very blessed by the unstinting, selfless labours of so many people in such varied ways, all of which are of vital and life-giving importance. Something, surely, for which to give thanks in our prayers on May Day, the celebration of St Joseph the Worker.

We might call to mind some of the words of another great saint, Teresa of Avila, from her well-known prayer:

Christ has now no body on earth but yours,

no hands but yours …

Yours are the hands with which he is to bless his people.

The Lord … will bless the work of your hands.’

(Deuteronomy 28:12)

Fr Alistair

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