Thursday, March 19, 2015

Feast of St. Joseph

"Joseph and Joachim" by Albrecht
Dürer via Wikimedia Commons 
Today is the feast of St. Joseph. For years I've sat on the side of the daily chapel for the Hours which faces a statue of St. Joseph. He holds the iconic lily and carpenter's square, but what draws me in is the look on his face and tenderness with which he holds a young -- but not infant -- Jesus in his arms. When I was contemplating the Hidden Years in the Exercises, this was the face I saw.

The traditions in East and West diverge early on St. Joseph. Augustine and Jerome postulating perpetual virginity for Joseph, the East sticking to the apocrypha and considering him a widower. So far no one has succeeded in making either position dogma, so I'm free to disagree.

This reflection first appeared in the print edition of the Catholic Standard & Times on 18 March 2010.

When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. — Mt. 1:18-19

“Do not speculate beyond the text. Do not require of it more than it simply says,” advised St. John Chrysostom, preaching in the fourth century on this fragment from Matthew’s Gospel. It was advice that had long been unheeded, at least when it came to St. Joseph. Though nearly all that we know of Joseph, the husband of Mary, is here — he was a righteous man — speculation about Joseph’s life had been rampant for at least 200 years by the time St. John offered his counsel.

Was Joseph a widower? Did he have other children? Was he old or young? When did he die?

It’s hard not to be curious about the man who would have known Jesus so well, his foster-father. A few lines later, in fact, John Chrysostom himself would ignore his own advice, asking his congregation to imagine Joseph’s virtues, “Do you not see here a man of great self-restraint? ...”

From the canonical Gospels we know only that he was a “righteous man” and a carpenter. My father is a carpenter, and as long as I can remember I’ve been in awe of what he can fashion from wood. Under his hands awkwardly shaped and seemingly unyielding pieces of wood become beautifully turned spindles for my nephew’s crib and carefully crafted shelves for my books.

The smell of sawdust is the smell of wonder and creation. So I’m not surprised that God, Creator of all, would choose to dwell in the house of a carpenter, to live surrounded by these small mysteries of creation.

Sources such as the apocryphal Protevangelium of James, which dates to the second century or earlier, and the fifth century “History of Joseph the Carpenter” suggest St. Joseph was a widower and the father of four sons and two daughters. Contemporaries of John Chrysostom, Saints Augustine and Jerome, had different ideas about Joseph’s earlier life, thinking it was fitting that he was not a widower, but like Mary, ever virgin.

I hesitate to disagree with the great doctors Augustine and Jerome, but having been widowed and remarried myself, I wonder if it is not more reasonable that Joseph had been married once before his betrothal to Mary.

To marry again you are risking being widowed again, now knowing full well the pain that brings. It takes a different kind of courage to submit yourself again to the possibility of such a loss.

Christ, having once emptied Himself to become man, will surrender His life once again on the cross. How much might a widowed Joseph’s willingness to love and cherish Mary, in the face of potential pain and loss, have strengthened Jesus in the garden at Gethsemane as he surrendered to suffering, for love of us?

I require nothing more of the text than to know that Joseph was an upright man, who heard the voice of God, who cherished wife and Son, but I do yearn to go beyond it, not so much to know St. Joseph, but through him, to better learn what it is like to live with the Son of God in your home and in your heart.


  1. Thank you for sharing this - I love reading your reflections! I used to work at a hospital named after St. Joseph, and March 19 was always a day of celebration.

    1. Thanks! All my sibs were born at a hospital named for St. Joseph...

  2. Anonymous9:23 AM

    "How much might a widowed Joseph’s willingness to love and cherish Mary, in the face of potential pain and loss, have strengthened Jesus in the garden at Gethsemane as he surrendered to suffering, for love of us?"

    Wow, what a beautiful thought. Thank you for this reflection!

  3. Reflecting on the lives of the saints or on Scriptural passages is a practice of faith that engages the imagination. Placing ourselves into these stories either figuratively or in ways of relating to the subjects within is an insightful journey and very Ignatian. As you well point out we may know only a word or phrase. Joseph was righteous.
    Cautiously we non Hebrew and Greek scholars must be aware that each word relies on a translation we can only assume is close to the original intent. For instance a Scripture scholar may denote that the Hebrew word translated as "carpenter" actually refers to a general term for a laborer or mason. It is quite likely Joseph was a stone mason.
    We can delight in those images we are fond of and learn from them, however there is something quite moving in imagining something we have never visited before.
    Renaissance depictions of the Holy Family depict a European and aged Joseph. In features and garb of those times he was more easily relatable to by the people there. It is likely his grandfatherly appearance was painted so that they might more easily understand the virginity of Mary.
    Perhaps he was a teenager. Perhaps Mary didn't remain a virgin. Imagining Joseph as a young mideastern man allows the story to just be. Appreciating the limitations of what we know as we unveil the Word from learned and assumed embellishments we intuitively enter into Mystery.