The traditional feast day of Saint Joseph, the Husband of Mary is on 19 March. Pope Pius XII added 1 May as an additional feast of Saint Joseph in 1955. Pope Francis also promotes the devotion to Saint Joseph. This saint is a model for us. Though selected as the foster father of Jesus, he had a hard life in this world. He accepted the difficulties of life as a humble servant of God, for which God rewarded him in heaven. Like Saint Joseph, let us be the servants and presenters of the Word of God in our given situation.
The foster Father of Jesus
God entrusted a great responsibility to Joseph as the foster father of Jesus. This role was a hard one because of the circumstances in which Jesus was born. When Mary was about to deliver the baby, Joseph had to go with her from Nazareth to Bethlehem walking over 90 miles. There Joseph could not find a house for Mary to give birth to Jesus. Later, the Holy Family had to flee to Egypt as refugees and stay there for a few months and then travel the long distance from Egypt to Nazareth. Though the post was crucial, the role was a humble one.
The character of St. Joseph
The Bible describes Joseph as “a righteous man” (Mt 1:19). The basis of righteousness in the Bible is how one relates to God and fellow humans. Matthew 1:19-25 exemplifies Joseph’s righteousness. When he came to know that Mary, his betrothed “wife,” was pregnant despite having had no sexual intimacy with him, he could have exposed her to the harsh penalty of death by stoning as per law (Deut 22:19-20). “If a young woman has been promised in marriage to a man, and another man meets her in the city and lies with her, they shall bring the two to the city gate and stone them to death: the young woman because she did not cry for help when she was in the city, and the man because he violated the wife of his neighbour. So shall you purge the evil from your midst” (Deut 22:23-24). However, Joseph could not find any man as a culprit for Mary’s pregnancy. That would have added to the credibility of Mary. Since she was espoused to the Holy Spirit, Joseph might have felt himself unworthy of being her husband. So, instead of exposing Mary for public trial, he preferred divorcing her quietly.
While Joseph was patient to implement his decision, an angel of the Lord came to Joseph in a dream and told him, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her” (Mt 1:20). The Biblical sense of taking the betrothed virgin home meant to celebrate the wedding. “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do and he took Mary as his wife” (Mt 1:24). Joseph’s plan to divorce Mary and the subsequent events prove the divine origin of Jesus.
Joseph was an obedient servant of God. Unlike Zachariah and Mary who had visions of Angel Gabriel, Joseph had only a dream revealing the innocence of Mary and his special vocation as the foster father of Jesus. A vision happens when one is awake and conscious. Whereas a dream occurs while one is asleep. That means the dreamer is not free to ask for clarification as Zachariah and Mary did during their visions. Still, Joseph believed and obeyed what the angel said. Joseph obeyed without question the messages he got from the angel later. Thus, he fled to Egypt with Mary and Jesus to protect the life of the baby Jesus. Later he travelled back to Nazareth based on another dream.
Joseph loved and took care of Jesus as his very own son. Though Jesus was the son of God, Joseph worked hard to support his poor family. When Jesus was lost at 12, Joseph was searching with Mary for three days “with great anxiety” (Lk 2:48). From the way Joseph treated Jesus, the people of Nazareth used to say of Jesus, “Who is this but Joseph’s son?” (Lk 4:22). Philip introduced Jesus to Nathaniel, as “Jesus, son of Joseph” (Jn 1:45).
Joseph respected God, and the Mosaic Laws. He followed the Jewish laws of circumcision for the child Jesus on the eighth day and took Mary and the infant to the Temple to present Jesus and for the purification of Mary on the 40th day after Jesus’ birth. He also used to take Jesus to the Temple every year for the Jewish feast of Passover (Lk 2:41) though the Law did not oblige him to do so because he lived over 15 miles away from Jerusalem.
Joseph, a Builder
Joseph was a carpenter by profession. The sceptics of Nazareth asked about Jesus: “Is he not the carpenter’s son?” (Mt 13:55). Carpenters of the time didn’t just do woodwork. They did all kinds of building work.
Poverty of St. Joseph
The means of support for the Holy Family was the carpentry or construction work of Joseph. That he wasn’t very well off is clear from the Bible. When Joseph and Mary presented Jesus in the Temple on the 40th day, they could offer only two turtledoves or a pair of pigeons (Lk 2:24) as the offering for the firstborn and his wife’s formal purification. The normal offering was: “When the days of her purification are completed whether for a son or a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the door of the Tent of Meeting, a lamb born that year for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering” (Lev 12:6). Only those who could not afford to offer the lamb could substitute the lamb with an additional turtledove or pigeon (Lev 12:8).
The royal lineage
Though Saint Joseph was not wealthy, he was of the royal lineage of King David. He married Mary, who was also of the same lineage. God had promised to King David: “I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom” (2 Sam 7:12). The Jews preserved the genealogy of the descendants of David to assure that the Kings of Jews and the Messiah were from this lineage. The gospels of Matthew (1:1-17) and Luke (3:23-38) give the genealogy of Jesus. Luke presents Mary’s genealogy to prove that Jesus was biologically the son of David. Matthew presents Joseph’s genealogy to prove that the legal or adopted father of Jesus was also a son of David. According to the Jewish tradition, adopted and biological sons could have hereditary rights. Jesus, his mother Mary, and the legal father Joseph were born in Bethlehem, the city and the birthplace of David.
Apocryphal books on Mary and Joseph
Some Eastern Non-Catholic churches believe that Saint Joseph was a widower with older children from an earlier marriage when he got betrothed to Mary. He was already aged at the time and Mary was under a vow of virginity. The priests entrusted Mary to Joseph not to bear children but as a protector under a marital covenant. Such beliefs came from the legendary stories of Joseph and Mary and the apocryphal (non-canonical) writings like the Protoevangelium of James and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. These books also justify Jesus’ siblings as coming from Joseph’s earlier marriage.
According to the old legends, which help to fill in many of the missing details in the infancy narratives, Joachim and Anne were childless for a long time. Joachim was rich and used to offer double offerings in the Temple (https://catholicinsight.com/saint- joachim-and-anne-the-grandparents-of-jesus/). The Israelites considered childlessness a shame and a sign of disfavour with God because the lineage of the family would come to an end in such a case. According to the old concept, one’s life continues after death through his children and the fame of his excellent works.
Joachim’s study of the Sacred Scriptures and the public opinion saddened him because of his lack of children. He went to the desert and lived in a tent fasting for 40 days, seeking God’s mercy to have a child as God once favoured Abraham in his old age. Anne also prayed in a garden under a tree, seeking God’s intervention for a child as He had given to Sarah. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to Anne and informed her she would have a child who “will be spoken of everywhere people live.” Anne said, “As the Lord God lives, whether I give birth to either a male or a female child, I will bring it as an offering to the Lord my God and it will be a servant to him all the days of its life.” Angel also informed Joachim of the same news. In due course, Anne gave birth to a baby girl whom they named Mary.
When Mary was three, her parents presented her in the Temple and dedicated her to God’s service as Anne had promised. The priests brought up Mary in the Temple. As she grew up, she made a vow of lifelong virginity by herself. When she was over 12, she could not continue in the Temple. The priests would hand over such girls to the family before puberty, so they shall not defile the sanctuary of the Lord. Mary’s parents may have died by that time. So, the priests had to entrust her to a dependable person who would marry her while allowing her to keep her vow of virginity.
While the High Priest was praying for a solution, an angel of the Lord appeared and told him to gather the widowers in the area and let them bring a staff to the Temple. All the widowers gave their rod to the High Priest, who took them to the Temple and prayed. When he returned the staff, a dove came out of Joseph’s rod and stood on his head. Another version of this story is that Joseph’s staff bloomed into flowers and a dove descended from heaven and landed on it. It was a divine revelation that Joseph was to take Mary as his spouse. So, the artists depict a wooden stick with blooming flowers on the pictures and statues of Saint Joseph.
This legend imitates an event described in Numbers 17:16-26. Israelites were grumbling against Moses for having Aaron as their High Priest. God instructed Moses to ask the leaders of the 12 tribes to bring their staff along with the staff of Aaron to the Tent of God. The next day only Aaron’s staff flowered and produced almond fruits, proving Aaron as God’s selected High Priest.
Death of St. Joseph
The Bible makes no mention of Joseph during Jesus’ public ministry. However, his townsfolk in Nazareth still remembered him as the father of Jesus. Historians conclude that Joseph would have died before Jesus started his public ministry. That must be the reason Jesus entrusted the care of his mother Mary to John while he was on the cross. The Apocryphal books date the birth of Joseph as 90 BC in Bethlehem and his death on 20 July, 18 AD in Nazareth.
Patronage of St. Joseph
Devotion to Saint Joseph was not popular in the early church. Saints like Bridget of Sweden, Bernadine of Siena and Saint Teresa fostered the devotion. So, it developed in the fifteenth century.
Saint Joseph is the patron saint of the dying because of the belief that he had the privilege of dying in the presence of the Blessed Mother and Jesus. Saint Joseph is also the patron and the protector of the Universal Church because God entrusted him the responsibility to care and protect the Virgin Mary, the mother of the church and her son Jesus, the head of the church. Since Joseph was a builder, husband, and protector of the Holy Family, he is the patron saint of families, fathers, pregnant women, travellers, immigrants, house sellers and buyers, craftsmen, engineers, and working people. Because Joseph was righteous, he is also the patron of social justice. Many dioceses, religious orders, and communities have selected him as their patron saint.
The Feast Day of Saint Joseph
Two feast days are popular in honour of Saint Joseph: March 19th for Joseph the Husband of Mary and May 1st for Saint Joseph the Worker. March 19th has been the most celebrated feast day of Saint Joseph. It is one week before the feast of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary on 25 March. That feast commemorates Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would give birth to the Messiah. According to the tradition from the apostolic times, this mystery of Incarnation occurred on 25 March, nine months before Christmas.
Pope Pius XII added another feast of Saint Joseph on 1 May in 1955 as the Feast of “Saint Joseph the Worker.” The Pope selected May Day or International Workers’ Day to reflect Joseph’s status as the patron of the workers.
“The Table of Saint Joseph”
Italians have special traditions for Saint Joseph’s Day in commemoration of God, saving the Sicilians from a profoundly serious drought in the middle ages through the intercession of Saint Joseph. When the distressed people pleaded to him for rain, they received it. In response, they began the feast in honour of Saint Joseph. The dress code for this feast is red. On this feast day, people bring vegetarian food to the church and place them on a big altar or table. Symbolic foods include pasta with breadcrumbs reminding the sawdust that covered Saint Joseph’s workshop and fava beans that thrived while the crops failed during the drought. The priest will bless the table and the participants share the food and take home the rest of the food in bags.
The statues of Saint Joseph
Saint Joseph’s depiction in art follows the apocryphal books and traditional beliefs. Artists portray him with a balding head, grey hair, a beard and holding a staff, thus portraying him as being an already elderly person when he married the virgin, Mary. The three white lily flowers on the top of his staff recall the (legendary) method of his selection as the husband-protector of Mary. His staff alone blossomed when many widowers presented their staff at the Temple for selection to be the husband of Mary. The three flowers represent the three members of the Holy Family and white shows the purity of the family. The lily symbolizes the chastity of Mary. Joseph is holding the infant Jesus because he took care of Jesus and Mary in Jesus’ infancy and childhood. Artists depict Joseph with the two turtle doves that he submitted as a common man’s offering when he presented Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem. He carries the carpenter’s tools, signifying his humble profession to support his family. Thus, artists took symbols from the Bible, apocryphal books, and legends on Saint Joseph’s life.
Since Saint Joseph had God’s revelations through the dreams of angels while sleeping, there are icons and images of Saint Joseph sleeping. Pope Francis made this image popular disclosing that he often places his prayer requests under the image of the Sleeping Saint Joseph.
1. Saint Joseph was a silent servant of God. Though Joseph spoke in his life, we do not see Joseph speaking in the Bible. He was at the service of God and his family. By performing simple things according to God’s will for him, he rose to an elevated position. Thus, Joseph is a role model for us to be humble servants of God in our given situation.
2. Joseph was a righteous man and was non-judgemental in his approach to Mary during his time of great crisis. Joseph reminds us to leave the judgement to God and never maltreat others with our limited knowledge.
3. Joseph was the protector and caretaker of the Holy Family. Let us entrust our life, family, home and profession in the safe hands of this saint.
4. Saint Joseph was privileged to have a holy death in Jesus and Mary’s presence. Let us entrust our life journey towards heaven to the Holy Family. Our ancestors used to recite at the time of their death and also prompted to the dying, the words: “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, be the companions of my soul.” Let those be the last words of our earthly life.