St. Joseph, the loving spouse of Mary and the foster father of Jesus, is honored with a Feast Day on March 19th, two days after the great feast of the Apostle of Ireland, St. Patrick. It seems not only unfortunate, but unfair to have the two great feasts of two great saints so close together. Each year St. Joseph runs the risk of being buried beneath all of the tickertape and the detritus left over from the St. Patrick's Day parades, and so we don't often take the time to consider who St. Joseph really was. Yet poor St. Patrick can't take all the blame for this oversight. For many, the trouble stems from the fact that we simply don't know that much about St. Joseph.
Given that there are many personalities in the Old and New Testaments about whom we have far greater knowledge of their backgrounds, character and so forth; it is hard to say why so little is known about St. Joseph. We know more of Mary Magdalene and Zacchaeus and the tax collectors than we do of Joseph. Apart from the obvious and most important fact that he was the spouse of Mary and Jesus’ foster father, and had, as a matter of fact, a royal lineage going back to King David, little else is known.
Even the date of his death is a mystery; he is believed to have died before the commencement of Jesus’ ministry and certainly before Jesus’ crucifixion. (According to some sources, Joseph might have been dead by the time of the Wedding Feast at Cana, when the account has Mary there by herself.) But while the presence of Joseph was brief among the key players of our salvation history, the curious fact remains that there is not a recorded word of his left behind for us to read or ponder. Even in the account when Jesus was lost, when Mary and Joseph found the 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple, it was Mary who questioned Jesus, not Joseph. We know of Joseph's reputation as a carpenter, that he was a hard worker and, as such, dedicated to his craftsmanship; it can be deduced that because of his life’s work, he made sure he provided for those in his care, Mary and Jesus, and that being human, he naturally must have communicated with them and others. We do not know what neighbors, friends or wider family he had or might have had. Surely, Joseph was a man of deep feelings and had a desire to express them. And yet while many who inhabit the New Testament stories are voluble and mightily expressive, the Gospel accounts leaves Joseph silent and unspoken.
We also know that Joseph did his share of listening, particularly in his dreams. He is perhaps one of the precious few people in the entire Bible (but certainly in the New Testament) whose life was determined by his dreams. It would be safe to assume that a hardworking carpenter like Joseph would welcome the respite that would come from his labors with a night’s restful slumber; but to have his rest disrupted surely did not help to relax or content his mind and body, even though the dreams he had (to follow through with his betrothal to Mary and the directive to escape to Egypt with his wife and child) surely worked out to the peace of his soul. The brief account of his life that is presented to us only offers us those two dreams in particular. But one must wonder if there were others. Did he ever dream about what would become of him, Mary and Jesus? Did he have a dream in which the child Jesus was lost at the Temple? Did he dream about the purpose of it all? We will never know; but it is somewhat comforting that even saints can have troubling dreams and that somehow, they worked their way through them, like Joseph.
Despite our lack of historical facts about St. Joseph, perhaps we do in fact know the most important things about him: The Gospel writer Matthew described Joseph in exactly three words: “a righteous man” (Mt 1:18). That has to be the most succinct biography of a human being ever written, and in St. Joseph’s case, accurate and enough. He had to be “righteous,” but he was also all of those other things that are attributed to him in our novena prayers: Joseph is the “most” just, prudent, loving husband, strong and obedient and faithful. But he is also the pillar of families, the patron of the dying and the terror of demons. The adjectives of the prayers are superlative and numerous. Perhaps, Joseph didn’t need to utter any words—the words of our prayers about him say it all.
St. Joseph is also one of the few people depicted in sacred art as tenderly holding in his arms the Child Jesus. The Blessed Mother has this honor, of course. The only other saint to be depicted in this way is Saint Anthony, who had begged the Lord for that privilege, which was granted to him. St. Joseph is depicted in some artwork as being either very young and virile, and in others, very grandfatherly and old. Either way, the Joseph that is depicted is one who displays love and tenderness toward the Child. The inner man is revealed through the tender love he displays in the way he holds Jesus; it is a rewarding and fulfilling love, thoroughly reciprocated: Joseph is a true man.
It is this love that we need to remember on Saint Joseph’s Day. And it is part of the novena prayer that is most evocative: “Oh, Saint Joseph, I never weary contemplating you and Jesus asleep in your arms. I dare not approach while He reposes near your heart. Press him in my name and kiss His fine head for me, and ask Him to return the Kiss when I draw my dying breath. Saint Joseph, Patron of departing souls, pray for us. Amen.”
So, on this your Feast Day, dear Saint Joseph, help us to repose near your heart and with your prayers; help us put aside all worries, knowing that you look on us with care, so that we, too, can have a heart just like yours, tender and true.