20 March is the Solemnity of St Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary
In the Gospels, Joseph is the quiet man. He is rarely mentioned and always in connection with Mary and Jesus. As a saint, he is not an alpha male. He is not a planner but a responder. He does what God asks him to do.
Joseph receives most attention in the Gospel of Matthew. We meet him when he is confronted with the pregnancy of Mary. He has decided not to shame her but to separate from her quietly. The Angel, however, explains to him in a dream that Mary’s pregnancy is through the Holy Spirit and he should live with her and her child. After Jesus’ birth, an angel then warns him in a dream that Herod wants to kill Jesus as a threat to his throne infant and that he should take Mary and Jesus to Egypt. After Herod dies, the Angel tells him that he should return to Israel. Since Herod’s son rules there, Joseph makes his own decision to live in Galilee.
Matthew writes his Gospel for an audience for whom the stories of Scripture are alive. His presentation of Joseph echoes the stories of the earlier Joseph in the Book of Genesis. In his genealogy of Jesus, Matthew describes Joseph as the son of Jacob, as was the earlier Joseph. The earlier Joseph was also known for his dreams, and was sold into slavery in Egypt. There he was able to save his family from famine in their own land. In the Scriptures, he is the bridge between the Jewish people’s slavery in Egypt and their freedom under Moses. Jesus will be the second Moses.
Apart from Matthew’s stories, Joseph is mentioned only once by name, when people surprised by Jesus’ mission ask dismissively, ’Is he not the son of Joseph the carpenter?’ That line has led painters to represent St Joseph with a hammer or saw. He also accompanies Mary when Jesus is lost and found in the temple. Elsewhere the Gospels mention Mary and Jesus’ family but are silent about Joseph. For that reason, an early Christian story of Joseph represents him as an elderly man who died during Jesus’ childhood.
Devotion to Joseph spread in the Western Church when Christians became fascinated by the human details of the life of Jesus and the saints. Joseph became a central figure in the cribs that St Francis of Assisi encouraged. Pictures of the Holy Family represented Joseph teaching Jesus how to use the tools of his trade while Mary attended to the cooking. In more recent years, Joseph became the patron saint of workers. His feast is celebrated to emphasise the dignity of workers in the social teaching of the Church. His feast was celebrated on 1 May, which is also International Workers Day.
St Joseph is also patron of the Universal Church. On the anniversary of this feast day, Pope Francis spoke in Patris Corde powerfully about St Joseph as a father. He described him as a father much loved in the Church, as tender and loving, obedient, accepting, courageous, as a worker, and as God’s shadow in which Jesus grew up and we live. An attractive model of fatherhood, and indeed of parenting today.