Sunday, December 28, 2008

On St. Joseph


On this, the Feast of the Holy Family, I thought it might be appropriate to share a few thoughts on one of my favorite saints, St. Joseph.

Some years ago an interesting detail of Scripture was pointed out to me. When people in the crowds would refer to Jesus as "the carpenter's son," this was not simply a description: it was a back-handed insult. Because, you see, in a town the size of Nazareth, gossip surely spread quickly; not long after the Annunciation everyone in the village would have known that Mary was pregnant, and Joseph was not the father. So when they called Jesus "the carpenter's son," it was with a nudge and a wink. They all knew Joseph did not father this son.

Have you ever wondered why St. Joseph is often depicted holding a lily? Pius tradition tells the story that the lovely Mary of Nazareth had so many men seeking her hand that the suitors eventually had to draw sticks. No doubt one was a bit longer than the rest, to indicate the winner, but when Joseph drew his, the end promptly blossomed into a lily. Whether or not he drew the long one I do not know, but at that point it was pretty clear he was the winner. (Raphael and other artists sometimes depict a loser breaking his stick on his knee in frustration.) While the story is probably apocryphal, I have no doubt that Joseph was thrilled beyond words to be betrothed to Mary. So as much as he wanted to believe the best, he must have been absolutely crushed to discover that she was with child. (Indeed, it took a message from an angel for him to take Mary as his wife [Matt 1:20], and understandably so.)

People who know Greek tell me that Joseph's occupation might better be translated as "builder": a man who worked in wood, yes, but perhaps also in stone. In light of the large Roman building project going on nearby, we can speculate that Joseph was probably a construction worker. From time to time the conversation at the work site probably went a bit lewd, and you can be sure that Joseph came in for his share of abuse. After all, he was the cuckold with the wandering wife, or so it would seem. What answer can you give to such accusations? "No, really guys, she conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit." Right... I have no doubt that, being a construction worker, Joseph was a large, burly man, who could have easily decked someone. But rather than witty retorts or quick violence, I suspect Joseph responded with sorrow. I image that, no matter how often he heard such abuse, the pain never really went away; not that he cared much what other said about him, but how could they say such things about his beloved bride? (And how could he explain the absence of subsequent children? Marital chastity is not exactly the norm.)

We often meditate upon the sorrows of Our Lady, but I think we tend to forget the difficult life St. Joseph must have lived, from the stunning revelation of Mary's pregnancy and the Child's birth in a Bethlehem shed, to the flight into Egypt and the ongoing humiliations of life in Nazareth. And yet, I have no doubt that at the end of his days, Joseph would have told you that he was blessed beyond all just deserts and would not have traded the life he lived for any other.

Indeed, I imagine him on his death bed, with Jesus at his side, telling Him, "Son, I know You've come from God, and I know I don't always understand what that means, but I trust that Your Father hears You whenever You pray." Joseph summons up a little more strength, and with tears welling up in his eyes says, "Please, Jesus, do me this one favor: take care of your mother for me. And... and when You raise us up, on the last day, can I be with her again? It would mean more to me than You know..." And Jesus, Himself now lost in tears, looks at Joseph and tells him, "Father, I do know, and I promise you, it shall be so."

Did you know St. Joseph is the patron of a happy death? Reassured that the love of his family would extend into the hereafter, I have no doubt that his death was just that.
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