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The feast of St. Joseph is mentioned as far as we know for the first time in a Coptic liturgical calendar of the fifth century, and appears in a French calendar on March 19 (for the first time) around 800.
St. Joseph's part in the Nativity story is a familiar feature of every Christmas scene. But for many centuries the church paid him scant attention. This is especially obvious compared with the extraordinary concern for the role of Mary in the economy of salvation. So eager was the church to emphasize Jesus' divine paternity that Joseph, the surrogate father, was consigned to the shadowlands. It was only in the sixteenth century that official encouragement was extended to his cult. Around that time St. Joseph, began to figure more widely in popular preaching as the ideal "provider and protector." In 1870 Pius IX declared him Patron of the Universal Church.
The person of Joseph, the husband of Mary, puzzles exegetes but rejoices the spirituals. Exegetes wrestle with his person: was he older than Mary, married before he met Mary, with as many as six children from his previous marriage, and how old was Jesus when Joseph died? Exegetes wrestle with Joseph's origin: was he from Bethlehem or Nazareth; did he move with his family from Nazareth to Bethlehem, or from Bethlehem to Nazareth? A further issue among exegetes is Joseph's character and in particular his response to Mary's pregnancy: did he suspect Mary of being unfaithful; was he a compassionate man and desirous to spare Mary shame; did he know about the virginal conception and felt inadequate with such marvelous mystery; was he respectful of the Old Testament law but unwilling to expose Mary publicly? Finally, exegetes struggle with the genealogy of Joseph. Is his father Jacob (as indicated in Matthew) or Heli, as suggested by Luke?
In his encyclical (Redemptoris Custos), John Paul II was careful to refrain from speculations on specifics of Joseph's biography and daily life. However, the Pope offers numerous insights relevant for the understanding of the relationship between Joseph and Mary. The thrust of the Pope's message is that Mary and Joseph's relationship is essentially found in their mutual call to devote themselves to the Divine Child.
On the other hand, St. Joseph is one of the most popular saints of modern times, especially since the post-reformation period. He is the patron saint of many countries, for example, Austria, Canada, Mexico and Peru, and many causes: for a good death, chastity, orphans, marriage and families, inns and innkeepers, refugees, fundraisers, carpenters and woodcutters.
Saints and spirituals were influential in renewing and deepening emphasis on Joseph by their personal devotion and insights. Among these were Theresa of Avila, Francis de Sales and Bernadette. Consider the following from Francis de Sales: "I find nothing sweeter to my imagination than to see little Jesus in the arms of this great saint, calling him father in childlike words and with an absolute filial and loving heart." What exegete could refute this meditation? Or take this prayerful mediation from the Akathist Hymn. It offers a wonderful blend of honest questioning with praise of God's supernatural action:
"Filled with a storm of contradictory thoughts, the wise Joseph was
greatly disturbed: until then he had seen you a virgin, and now he
suspected you of secret guilt, All-blameless one! Learning that your
conception was of the Holy Spirit, he cried out: Alleluja."
St. Joseph answered.
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