By DONAL ANTHONY FOLEY
The previous article looked the role of St. Joseph during the birth of Jesus, and now we will look at further events in his life and how devotion to him gradually arose in the Church.
Joseph had an important role to play following the visit of the Wise Men, and the hurried departure of the Holy Family to avoid the wrath of King Herod. Once again, an angel appeared to him in a dream and instructed him to flee to Egypt with Mary and the Child, because Herod wanted to kill him.
Joseph arose that same night in obedience to this command and the Holy Family departed for Egypt, where they stayed until Herod was dead.
Joseph was told about this event through another dream in which God’s angel told him to take Jesus and Mary back to his own country. But on their return, following another dream, they went to live in Nazareth in Galilee (Matt. 2).
We hear nothing about the everyday life of the Holy Family at Nazareth, and must assume that St. Joseph’s life henceforth was entirely focused on providing for Mary and Jesus, living a simple life with them, and supporting them by means of his work as a carpenter while remaining faithful to the religious practices of his ancestors.
The last time Joseph is mentioned in the Bible, though not by name, occurs during the narration of the finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple when he was twelve, after He had been lost for three days. But once again the focus of this account is on Mary, although she does refer to St. Joseph touchingly as Jesus’ father (Luke 2:41-52).
We are not told anything about Joseph’s death, but presumably this happened before the beginning of the public life of Christ, since further on in the Gospels we hear of Jesus’ mother and brothers (Matt. 12:46), but never of Joseph, although Jesus was known as the son of Joseph (John 1:45). And it is certain that if Joseph had still been alive at the time of the crucifixion, then Jesus would have entrusted Mary to him while on the cross, rather than to St. John. We do not know where he was buried and no cultus has been attached to any bodily relics of his.
Given the fact that St. Joseph surely died in the arms of Jesus and Mary, and surrounded by their love, he has come to be recognized as the patron of a happy death.
If we now turn to devotion to St. Joseph, then we can start by saying that it is ultimately based on the scriptural affirmation that he was a “just man” (Matt. 1:19). This is high praise in itself, but on reflection, it must be the case that Joseph’s holiness was of a truly astonishing nature. That is, he must have been second only to our Lady in terms of sanctity, and yet devotion to him developed only quite slowly in the Church.
If we consider that he was given the immense privilege of protecting Mary and the Baby Jesus — the Incarnate God-man — from Herod’s rage after the visit of the Magi, then we can see that this privilege — which was not without grave concerns and great responsibilities — was an incalculable one. And then further consider his role in providing for them as the Child grew to maturity.
St. Joseph was also the human model of fatherhood which Jesus grew up with, the person on whom he would pattern his own life, in a human sense, and who would provide him with his first ideas of human fatherhood, and thus of the Fatherhood of God. He must also have been the perfect husband to Mary, totally attentive to her, and completely devoted to her welfare.
To be chosen to be the foster-father of the God-man, and the spouse of the Virginal Mother of God, are signs of an incredibly exalted vocation, and we can get a glimpse of this if we consider his position in relation to the Holy Trinity. Our Lady’s relationship to the Trinity, as Daughter of the Father, Mother of the Son, and Spouse of the Holy Spirit, is absolutely unique. No other creature comes even remotely close to her in terms of sanctity, and it is this status which has traditionally seen her as being more exalted than all the angels and saints put together.
With St. Joseph, we are obviously on a much lower plane, but even so, the extraordinary responsibilities he was given clearly put him in a separate and very eminent category with regard to the rest of humanity.
In the light of such reflections, it is clear that St. Joseph’s sanctity was of an astounding nature, and that the devotion to him which has developed in the Church in recent centuries is in no way exaggerated.
A Universal Feast Day
Despite all this, it is understandable why the cult of St. Joseph was relatively slow to develop in the early Church, and indeed for a long time after that. The early centuries were times of fierce persecution, and it was usually only the martyrs who were venerated. In addition, the theological focus during that period was on clarifying the trinitarian nature of God, and on trying to understand the mystery of how Jesus could be both God and Man. And there was a focus, too, on the role of our Lady as the Theotokos, or God-bearer.
Even so, St. Joseph was mentioned by some of the Church Fathers, and from what they said it seems clear that there was some devotion to him present in the Eastern Church.
In the West, though, it developed quite late, and it was only in the 13th century that a church was first dedicated to him, at Bologna. But it was mainly through the influence of figures such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Gertrude, and St. Bridget of Sweden, along with the work of some religious orders, such as the Carmelites and the Dominicans, that devotion to him began to develop more widely.
By the early 15th century a feast day in honor of St. Joseph was celebrated in various dioceses in Western Europe, and his cult was strongly promoted by influential figures such as St. Vincent Ferrer and St. Bernardine of Siena, while Pope Sixtus IV (reigned 1471-1484) approved a universal feast day for him in the Roman calendar, on March 19.
As the cult of St. Joseph grew, succeeding Popes elevated the status of his feast progressively, and other feasts associated with him, such as his espousals to our Lady, were also introduced. Under the influence of St. Teresa of Avila, the reformed Carmelite Order chose him as their patron in 1621.
The next article will look at the growth of more recent devotion to St. Joseph in the Church, and how it has particularly had the support of the Popes from the time of Pius IX in the 19th century.
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(Donal Anthony Foley is the author of a number of books on Marian Apparitions, and maintains a related web site at www.theotokos.org.uk.)