The Church normally celebrates the Solemnity of St. Joseph on March 19 (transferred to March 20 this year), offering us a reprieve from Lenten penance as purple vestments yield to white; the Gloria makes a guest appearance; fasting gives way to the St. Joseph Table. What food for thought might this happy celebration provide?
The Church had for a while exhibited a kind of skittishness with regard to St. Joseph. He had no feast in the Western Church until the seventeenth century and still has none exclusively his own in the East. This “nervousness” with giving too much prominence to Joseph was likely due to a concern that highlighting him might cause confusion regarding Mary’s perpetual virginity.
Saint Pope John XXIII inserted Joseph’s name into the Roman Canon – a move that shocked the Catholic world, not because of Joseph himself, but because it changed a text that had been untouched for close to fifteen centuries. Saint Pope John Paul II devoted an apostolic exhortation to St. Joseph in 1989, with Redemptoris Custos.
What examples does Joseph the Silent offer through his actions?
• Joseph points us all toward an intimacy beyond the sexual, which is otherwise good and holy within marriage.
• He demonstrates the value of work, which makes us “co-creators” with God, giving his trade to Jesus, so that He is rightly called “the carpenter’s Son.” John Paul II notes, “Work was the daily expression of love” in the home at Nazareth.
• Joseph is a witness to the sanctification of daily life, like Thérèse of Lisieux centuries later, doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.
• His spirituality, rooted in his relationship with Jesus and Mary, and his strength of character, enabled him to make great decisions with great confidence.
• He exemplified the classical quality of pietas, so admired by the ancient Romans and summed up for the Jews in being “a just man.” That means showing the virtue of religion in devotion, readiness of will, and submission to God.
• Joseph was the exemplar of both filial and paternal love: By being a true son of God, he was able to be a true father to the Father’s Son.
• He united in an integrated way contemplation and action: What was presented to him in dreams, which he then reflected upon, he translated into action.
• Joseph lived as a kind of proto-model of the evangelical counsels: poverty – materialism held no sway over him; chastity – his sexuality was under control; obedience – to God’s way, not his own.
• St. Joseph is the preeminent model of manhood and fatherhood, so desperately needed in our current crisis of masculinity. He offers an especially powerful witness for men today as no lust, no unbridled passion, no turning of persons into objects for personal gratification ever clouded his relationship to his holy spouse.
And so, what roles did Holy Joseph fulfill and does he continue to play in heavenly glory? As the protector of Jesus and Mary, he was the father of the “domestic church” – the priest of the family, lived out in manly devotion.
He is a model for laborers, explaining Venerable Pope Pius XII’s decision to institute a secondary feast in his honor, precisely under the title of “St. Joseph the Worker.” Proclaimed “Patron and Protector of the Universal Church” by Blessed Pope Pius IX in 1870, we trust that as he once guarded Jesus, now he does the same for Jesus’ Mystical Body, which is the Church.
Finally, this just man is invoked by the Church as the patron of a happy death. Some might regard the expression as morbid, but that could be so only for a materialist. Death can and should be a happy experience, in a sense, for a believer, and once more St. Joseph comes to the fore as a paradigm of how one should die.
First, one dies a happy death by living a holy, just life. Second, one lives and dies in the company of Jesus and Mary. This model of Christian manliness recommends himself to us not for strange or exciting things he did, but for daily listening to and heeding the voice of Almighty God – in the home, in the synagogue and Temple, in the workplace. With hindsight, we can appreciate fully why God chose Joseph to establish what Vatican II would later call “the domestic Church,” the first locus of salvation for Christians.
St. John Henry Newman gives us some fitting words with which to close our reflections:
He was the true and worthy Spouse of Mary, supplying in a visible manner the place of Mary’s Invisible Spouse, the Holy Ghost. He was a virgin, and his virginity was the faithful mirror of the virginity of Mary. He was the Cherub, placed to guard the new terrestrial Paradise from the intrusion of every foe.
His was the title of father of the Son of God, because he was the Spouse of Mary, ever Virgin. He was Our Lord’s father, because Jesus ever yielded to him the obedience of a son. He was our Lord’s father, because to him were entrusted, and by him were faithfully fulfilled, the duties of a father, in protecting Him, giving Him a home, sustaining and rearing Him, and providing Him with a trade.
He is Holy Joseph, because his office, of being spouse and protector of Mary, specially demanded sanctity. He is Holy Joseph, because no other Saint but he lived in such and so long intimacy and familiarity with the source of all holiness, Jesus, God incarnate, and Mary, the holiest of creatures.
V. Blessed be the name of Joseph.
R. Henceforth and forever. Amen.
God, who in Thine ineffable Providence didst vouchsafe to choose Blessed Joseph to be the husband of Thy most holy Mother, grant, we beseech Thee, that we may be made worthy to receive him for our intercessor in Heaven, whom on earth we venerate as our holy Protector: who livest and reignest world without end. Amen.
*Image: The Death of St. Joseph (after a painting by Alonso Cano) by various artists/makers, 1766 [The MET, New York]
You may also enjoy:
Matthew Hanley’s St. Joseph and the Staircase
Michael Pakaluk’s St. Joseph’s Not-Untimely Death