Sunday, March 20, 2011

On Devotion to St. Joseph

Yesterday we celebrated the Feast of St. Joseph. If some of our friends across the Tiber find devotion to Mary appalling and offensive, they find devotion to St. Joseph maybe not as offensive, but even stranger. How do we Catholics venerate a man we “know” so little about? We never once hear him speak in the Scriptures. He leaves no great prayers such as the Canticle of Zechariah or Mary’s Magnificat. Indeed, once the “action” in Christ’s life begins, Joseph is absent, and assumed dead.

I would counter that while there is little knowledge of the events of Joseph’s life, there is a lot of information we can glean from his character. The biblical evidence is overflowing with details of the kind of man Joseph was, and this information is incredibly relevant for Catholics today, especially men. As centuries passed, the Church started to come to an even greater understanding of these facts which have been plain to see, having “once for all been delivered unto the saints.” (Jude 1:3)  Far from being unhealthy, the devotion to St. Joseph calls us to emulate those aspects of his character.

What are these aspects? Let us first consider how the Scriptures introduce Joseph. St. Matthew’s Gospel tells us:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit: and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly. But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins…..” When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the lord commanded him, he took his wife…
There has been great debate throughout history how old Joseph was. I will avoid this debate, and only point out that his age, while an interesting historical discussion, would not change the “facts on the ground” as it were. While Protestants might find the perpetual virginity of Mary unheard of, such was not unheard of in Israel at the time. Women took vows of virginity, even becoming married. (Jewish exegetes understood the “afflicting” of Numbers 30:14 to be able to refer to total abstinence in marriage.)

The scriptures first describe Joseph as “a just man.” Let us ponder that statement. Joseph, as one who was to be Mary’s wife, could have had several emotions and thoughts upon learning about Mary’s pregnancy. He could have viewed it as a sign of infidelity, since she had been with another man before marriage. (And even being engaged to him while doing this!) He could have viewed her vow of virginity worthless. He could have worried about the harm done to his own person and reputation. The child could be viewed as his, and Joseph would have been engaged in fornication, something they could both die for.

We hear instead that Joseph resolved to put her away quietly. He wanted to deal with this in private, and make sure that Mary was not shamed in the process. Even when he may have had power to exercise by right (Joseph could have exposed her and shamed her in public, and nobody could have faulted him given the knowledge of the facts at the time) but yet he chose to be merciful. He exemplified the statement of St. Paul “all things are lawful, but not all are expedient.” (1st Cor 6:12)

While patiently considering his options, we find in Joseph the trait of obedience. After he receives word from God to take Mary as his wife (that indeed what was happening was God’s design) Joseph does so without asking any questions. Had he resolved all the internal questions he had? It is impossible to say. What we do know is that even if such conflicts existed, he was willing to trust in God. He readily subjected himself to God, even knowing the risk this posed.

We know elsewhere from Scripture that Joseph was known as a carpenter, and that he used his trade to support a young Jesus. If we remember from Genesis, part of the curse inflicted upon Adam was that of back-breaking toil. Yet Joseph takes this curse and turns it into a blessing. He restores the original purpose of “work.” Adam was given charge by God to till the Garden of Eden. One could say that Adam was meant to uphold God’s creation. When he was working, he was working in God’s service. Joseph uses every ounce of work he does to see to it that Jesus is cared for and loved.

This patience and obedience are reiterated when Joseph flees to Egypt to protect the child. We know that Joseph was of the House of David. His ancestors were the great kings of Israel, though they had long lost their power and mandate to rule. With his flight to Egypt, a man who was born into a royal household must abandon everything of his homeland and hide in a strange country. He had to risk giving up his income with his job. He placed himself and his entire family at great personal risk traveling through a dangerous land. Yet we never see him questioning the command from God. He has a job to do. He must protect Jesus with his own life if need be. His very purpose in life is to raise the boy in the ways of the Lord. His other purpose is to protect his wife at all costs. His needs and desires are a distant third. The proclamation of St. John the Baptist could also be applied here:  He must increase, I must decrease.  (John 3:30)

I believe there are also a few speculative reasons we have such a devotion to St. Joseph. I say speculative because the information is far less available, but nonetheless true. In Joseph’s situation, we find our own. We are joined to Christ “not by flesh, or by the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:13)  Christ and Mary were united in the way that a child takes physical traits and characteristics from their parent. Joseph was united to Christ solely by the will of God. Likewise, we Christians are joined to Christ solely through grace. We could never approach Christ and say “See what I have done, by rights I deserve to be counted amongst your family!”

Through Joseph we can best fulfill the commands of Holy Scripture. We are called to give everything we have to Christ as a “spiritual sacrifice.” (Romans 12:1) St. Joseph did this in offering everything in dedication to the child he was placed over. An additional command comes from the Blessed Virgin, when she prophecies that “from henceforth, all generations shall call me blessed.” (Luke 1:48)

What better way to show her honor than by imitating the man who was her husband? Who knows how to honor a woman better than her spouse? In the Wisdom literature, Wisdom was presented as a woman for precisely this reason. The authors understand (through the Inspiration of the Spirit) that a man will sacrifice everything for a great woman, and will use everything in his service to honor her. Do we think that Joseph did any less to his wife? What is the highest praise that you pay towards a godly woman? You speak highly of her husband. As Leo XIII rightly points out in Quamquam Pluries, devotion to St. Joseph is certainly one of the best ways to bless Our Lady (outside of adoration towards her Son, the Savior of the human race.)

This is why we invoke St. Joseph as the “Patron of the Universal Church.” No human outside of Jesus and Mary understood the plight of the people of God better. And no male outside of Jesus can better show us how to properly honor the Father in Heaven in obedience to His divine command regarding His Son and the Blessed Virgin.  Like the child Jesus, may we always place ourselves under the patronage and protection of the "just man."

Sancte Ioseph, ora pro nobis!

For further reading on St. Joseph, one may read John Paul II's Redemptoris Custos and the masterful work of Leo XIII, Quamquam Pluries

1 comment:

  1. Kevin,

    I think one must also consider the interpretation (first put forth by St. Jerome, I believe) that St. Joseph did not wish to put away Our Lady because he thought she was unfaithful, but because he believed that he was unworthy to be her husband and the foster father of Our Lord. After all, since St. Joseph was a just man, why would he not have wished to see an adulteress punished under the Law?


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