I think I am not the only one who has attended performances of Handel’s Messiah around Christmas or Easter, and experienced chills going up and down my spine. The thoughts of magnificence and sublimity (from Isaiah 9:6) take over your psyche. “King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the Lord God omnipotent, hallelujah.” “Wonderful, Counsellor!” “The Mighty God, the Everlasting Father!” “The Prince of Peace!”
But Jesus, as the Incarnate Wisdom who came down to earth, may consider the title of “carpenter” equally sublime compared to those expressions from Isaiah. In Him we are confronted with human analogues to the Divine Wisdom described in the Bible (Wis. 11:17-20) as “creating the world from formless matter” and “ordering all things by measure, number and weight”; and (Isaiah 40:12) “cupping in his hand the water of the sea, marking off the heavens with a span, holding in a measure the dust of the earth, weighing the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance.”
The Divine Wisdom is thus portrayed Biblically for us, and almost personalized for our scientific imagination: the massive Power which utilizes the cosmic laws we are familiar with – of gravity, electromagnetism, strong and weak forces, etc. – to organize and sublimate the primeval dusty chaos of matter into the world we know.
As many current cosmologists will attest, all of the forces operating after the “Big Bang” have resulted in a cosmos amazingly “fine-tuned” – either taking the “laws” of Chance to astronomical extremes or offering evidence of some “super intellect.”
So what form would the Divine Wisdom, characterized as weighing and measuring the elements of the universe, joining and separating in precise sequences, continually creating and innovating, take, after deciding to become incarnate, living as a “Son of Man” among other humans? What form would be appropriate? A prince? A scribe? A merchant?
Possibly Jesus’ role as carpenter offers us the closest visual and concrete analogy to the life and “work” ascribed Biblically to the Divine Wisdom.
What kind of picture do we have of Jesus as a child and a young man? We can imagine Joseph and Mary escaping from Nazareth to Egypt, learning to live and support themselves among persons of a different culture and language, using Joseph’s skills in carpentry as a way to help their immigration into that foreign society. And as the child Jesus progressed in an apprenticeship with his father, he may have begun to recapture dim memories of his works in creation, and the measurements in time and space, and the laws governing the cosmos.
Is it possible that the teenage Jesus in Nazareth, with the community reputation of a master carpenter, plying his trade to support his Mother after Joseph’s death, had been approached by Roman authorities, and asked to construct crosses with certain specifications for executions? How would He have reacted?
Many of us have had the opportunity to witness our grandfathers, brothers, and others at carpentry, and gathered some glimpse of the joy that modern carpenters and architects gain in their creative endeavors, working on schemas and blueprints, and devising structures for the use of their family, their community, and others.
According to a longstanding legend, St. Joseph himself worked a few days for the Sisters of Loretto in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with a saw, a square and a few other tools, to construct a spiral staircase to their choir-loft. The staircase was mysteriously stabilized without any central pole or any modern hardware with an unknown type of wood, something like spruce, joined by glue. Whoever constructed it exemplified an extraordinary knowledge of wood and their strengths and weights, and how the different types could be shaped and bent, and precisely joined and separated – just the sort of thing we admire in master carpenters – perhaps the knowledge that St. Joseph passed on to his Son.
There are not many poems about plumbers or electricians. But curiously quite a few poets have been inspired by encapsulating the work of carpenters in their poetry. For example, Paul Warren’s poem, The Carpenter:
“He selects the wood very carefully/The grain and the colour so beautifully/Looking along the edge it’s straight/And feeling it, it has a good weight
Remember to measure twice and cut once/Is the rule of thumb before you pounce/He knows the work and the craftsman’s tools/As he saws, planes and sands to carpenter’s rules
The joints are a woodworker’s art and a pleasure to see/When glued together with strong and straight it will be/The last piece of the carpenter’s work is at hand/To finish is to wax the wood for a look that’s grand.
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Possibly if John and James, the sons of Zebedee, or Peter, or any of the other Apostles had happened to pass by, and enter into, Jesus’ workshop, they would have been amazed at his skill and stopped for a chat. And this may have led to other things, encouraged by the Incarnate Wisdom.
A special feast day, “Jesus Carpenter” might not be an inappropriate addition to the Church’s liturgical calendar.