Many Catholic churches have statues or mosaics of St Joseph. His image, especially since the beginning of the nineteenth century, has been associated with that of his labour as a carpenter (Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55). The ideal of a strong, lean and muscular Joseph, strapped with a tool belt and actively working, was intended as an inspiration to men in particular in their daily work, especially if this was manual labour. As the Industrial Revolution swept across the Western world, in the nineteenth century, Joseph became a figure of solidarity with workers and a symbol of the workers’ movement.
I love old holy-cards, and the mass-produced, knick-knacks of Catholic piety. The quality is not great, and yet, there is something fascinating about their enduring appeal. They are a kind of barometer of the religious zeitgeist at any given time and so I was very struck recently to find, widely-displayed in Knock, a statuette of St Joseph that I hadn’t seen previously: Sleeping Joseph or Dreaming Joseph; a sleeping figure with his head resting on his arm or his satchel.
Of course, this is a well-known image for St Joseph in the history of Christian art but we have to go back a couple of hundred years to the Renaissance and Baroque period to find Dreaming Joseph in art. In Matthew’s gospel, we hear of four occasions in which Joseph receives an angelic messenger in a dream: Matt 1:20-21; 2:13,19-22.
It is fascinating that Dreaming Joseph has re-emerged 300 or more years after almost completely disappearing from the popular “canon” of imagery of Joseph. So where does this image come from? What is it telling us about our culture?
Could it be a sign of a profound, collective acknowledgment of – and resistance to – the dysfunctional models of work and productivity that we have allowed and enabled to become normative? Could it challenge how we spend so much of our time and energy in the hustle of work instead of contemplative rest?
Is Dreaming Joseph a divine clarion call for our time – to put down our tools, step away from our workbenches, and surrender to rest and slumber? To allow God to hover over us and refresh us with new insights?