St Joseph was a quiet man, it seems. He was told by the angel to name Mary’s child – so we know that he pronounced the holy name of Jesus. But otherwise, the Gospels put no words in his mouth. And for many centuries St Joseph, we can say, lived a quiet, hidden life in the Church. He was overshadowed perhaps – and gladly – by his beloved Mary, and by early Christian devotion to St John the Baptist, the apostles and the martyrs.
As the centuries have passed, though, he has stepped out of the shadows and, always in his own quiet way, made his presence felt. St Francis of Assisi’s focus on the incarnation and birth of Jesus, the making of cribs, the fascination with the Christ Child all gave him a space to occupy. It was by no chance that Franciscan saints and theologians were the leading medieval advocates of devotion to St Joseph, and that the calendar owes this feast to a Franciscan Pope, Sixtus IV.
St Teresa of Avila, in her autobiography, spoke of how St Joseph became part of her awakening to the Christian life. “I took for my advocate and lord the glorious St Joseph and earnestly recommended myself to him…I don’t recall up to this day ever having petitioned him for anything that he failed to grant. It is an amazing thing that great many favours God has granted me through the mediation of this blessed saint, the dangers I was freed from both of body and of soul. For with other saints, it seems that God has given them grace to be of help in one need, whereas with this glorious saint that he helps in all our needs and that the Lord wants us to understand that just as he was subject to St Joseph on earth…so in heaven God does whatever he commands. This has been observed by other persons too, also through experience, whom I have told to recommend themselves to him. And so there are many who in experiencing this truth renew their devotion to him” (Autobiography, ch. 6). It is striking how she emphasises this as a matter of experience.
And so it has gone on. It has proved a matter of experience: people looking for a job or money or a house or a spouse or for other more spiritual things, the terminally ill too, have all found St Joseph very present, very responsive to our real-life situations. Contemplatives, likewise, wanting to deepen the spirit of silence and prayer, and closeness to Mary and Jesus. For men and fathers, he can be a model of manly responsibility and of healthy, respectful attitudes to women and children. Many other saints have spoken up for him, from St Francis de Sales to St Faustina Kowalska and St John Paul II. As St Teresa of Avila mentions, there’s something omnicompetent about Joseph. His reach seems universal. So, perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Popes, who are guardians of the Church universal, have been strong champions of St Joseph. Not long ago when Pope Francis wrote an Apostolic Letter on St Joseph (Patris corde) and decreed a Year to honour him. In the 19th century, Pope Pius IX declared him Patron and Protector of the Universal Church. Nearer our own time, Pope Pius XII instituted the feast of St Joseph the Worker. St John XXIII added his name to the 1st Eucharistic Prayer in 1959, and more recently Pope Francis, following up an intention of Pope Benedict, added his name to the three other Eucharistic Prayers. All this is not just unchecked enthusiasm. It springs from spiritual experience and theological insight and comes alive in the liturgy. I appreciate very much the mention of Mary and Joseph together in the Eucharistic Prayers. It evokes the family circle of Nazareth. It is followed by mention of the apostles, the circle of disciples in Galilee and Judea. Then come the martyrs and saints of subsequent Church history. And so we enter into ever-widening circles of holiness, but with the Holy Family as a point of origin, the earthly reflection of the Holy Trinity. And so we know we are carried through our lives by the communion of saints. Today’s Collect too gives a beautiful perspective: St Joseph had care of Mary and Jesus, “the beginnings of human salvation” and the Church in turn keeps constant watch over the unfolding of the mysteries of human salvation in subsequent history. St Joseph, then, like his wife, is a type or pattern of the Church, but in his own way. There is something Josephite, as well as Marian, to the Church, especially perhaps in pastors and parents. St Joseph had great responsibilities: he named the child, he called him Jesus. So, after Joseph, the Church proclaims the name of Jesus in all her authentic preaching and teaching. St Joseph too held Jesus. So, after him, do the ordained when they hold up the Eucharistic Lord in the Liturgy, when they keep the Holy Bread safe in the tabernacle, as true breadwinners for the family of God. They share the fatherhood of Joseph. And just as St. Joseph, like a good father again, led the young Jesus out into the world of his day, so too the Church helps us take our faith into ordinary life and the culture of our times.
The Joseph of the Gospels is a figure to treasure and contemplate; Mary must have done that often. His genealogical connection to David enabled Jesus to be called the Son of David, the Messiah. He took Mary as his wife, and gave her the protection of his husbandhood. As a father, he led Jesus to the fulness of his manhood, taught him a trade, initiated him into the worship of his people. With the faith of an Abraham, he allowed himself to be led along the paths of the Lord and his angels. And out of his quietness, he comes close to us.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 20 March 2023