Today, we have a guest post from the lovely Sophie. Sophie is an aspirant with the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth here in Australia. She is also writing her honours thesis on the Holy Family through art history. (Which is such a fantastic subject, amiright!?) She graciously agreed to share this post on St Joseph with us!
As this New Year came round, I started thinking about last year’s highlights. There were a few big ones and some not-so-big ones, but one that stuck with me took form in the addition of five words to the Eucharistic Prayers II, III and IV of the Mass:
“With Joseph, her [Mary’s] blessed spouse.”
I must confess, I’m a genuine nerd when it comes to St Joseph. So you can imagine my enthusiasm (borderline insanity) when I discovered that his name would feature in the Mass. I’m pretty sure I spent the whole week celebrating (alright, that may be a slight exaggeration).
Let’s face it, even though St Joseph now has a place in the Order of Mass, we don’t know a heap about him. More often than not he either gets confused with Joseph, son of Jacob, about whom we know much more, or manages to confuse us with his somewhat ambiguous role as Jesus’-father-but-not-really. It truly is incredible that we know (or speculate) as much as we do about a man who features only eight times in Scripture and who never speaks directly.
So, what are some of the things we know or assume about St Joseph?
Here are five:
1. He was married to Mary, Mother of God.
This is pretty obvious, right (being her “blessed spouse”)? Knock that one off the list!
2. He was old.
This idea is believed to have come about as a means to explain Mary’s Perpetual Virginity and the instances in Scripture which mention Jesus’ brothers (Matthew 12:46). By casting Joseph as balding, frail and arthritic alongside a youthful, virginal Mary, any concerns about their marital relations and about Jesus’ extended family, who were often considered by scholars to be Joseph’s children from a previous marriage, could be dispelled.
We have no definitive knowledge regarding Joseph’s age, but for him to have adhered to Jewish custom, to have taken such arduous journeys, to have provided for his family through work and to have been considered by outsiders as Christ’s natural father, he is more likely to have been a man in his late teens.
3. He was an extraordinary man.
St Joseph was a man of outstanding virtue, but this doesn’t stop him from being absolutely dumbfounded by the news that his wife (at the time of the Annunciation they would have been married but not living together) was pregnant. He’s got no idea what to do.
The only clarity he has comes from a mysterious dream (Matthew 1:20) and from the word of the pure, innocent woman he loves. It is therefore in deep faith and trust that he accepts Mary as his wife. The likelihood that he was a teenager at the time, as we have said, makes his sense of justice, his inner goodness and his incredible fidelity even more paramount. This clearly was no ordinary man.
4. He had polydactyly
Polydactyl is having six toes on one foot. I’m not kidding, this is actually a thing. It all comes from paintings such as Raphael’s Sposalizio (Marriage of the Virgin), which clearly gives Joseph an extra digit.
Traditionally, the extra toe could indicate a number of things: Joseph’s humanity; his great wisdom and righteous needed to care for Mary and Jesus; or the physical hardship experienced in his travels to Bethlehem, Egypt and Nazareth. Whatever it could mean, there’s no Scriptural evidence for Joe’s extra toe.
5. He was a background figure in the life of Jesus.
The sparse references to Joseph in Scripture by no means indicate he had a limited, passive role in the life of Christ. Through Joseph, Jesus is born at Bethlehem, given his name and circumcised, and is made a home for in Nazareth. No one can have authority over Christ as a divine Person, yet he chooses to humbly subject to his parents (Luke 2:51). These examples indicate that St Joseph, according to God’s will, had paternal rights over the Child Jesus. It is from him that Jesus would not only have learned Jewish customs but also the skills of his profession, carpentry.
Typically, artworks depicting the Holy Family have denied Joseph his paternal authority, usually as a means to highlight the importance of the Virgin and her Son. Take the image below as an example: note where St Joseph is placed, how he looks and what he is doing. He is certainly not a prominent or central figure in either of these works, despite the fact this work is titled “The Holy Family”.
St Joseph was and remains important.
He’s the patron of numerous causes and is celebrated within the Catholic Church on at least three occasions throughout the year. He is remembered for his righteousness, for his faith and courage, and for doing and continuing to do a very important job – to protect Christ and His Mother, and ultimately to lead us to them.
In this New Year, I encourage you all to spend some time with St Joseph – whether it’s reading up on a devotion or learning more about his life, character and potential extra toe.
May St Joseph, protector of the Holy Family, pray for us all.