St. Joseph is a prophet in the Byzantine tradition. What can we learn from their devotion?
On Dec. 8, 2020, Pope Francis announced that the new year would be dedicated to St. Joseph. Along with his apostolic letter, “Patris Corde,” he also encouraged specific prayers to St. Joseph in a decree published by the Apostolic Penitentiary. Catholic in scope, the decree also urged participation in the Byzantine commemoration of St. Joseph, in which he is commemorated along with the Old Testament figures David and Jesse.
In truth, contemporary devotion to St. Joseph in the Catholic Church is largely determined by Latin medieval theology and the growing experience of Western mystics. Pope Pius IX declared St. Joseph patron of the Catholic Church, partially because of the promptings of Blessed Jean-Joseph Lataste, O.P. Leaving aside the thorny problem of plenary indulgences attached to specific prayers and what this might mean for the Eastern Christian churches in union with Rome, the inclusion of the Byzantine commemoration in the festivities of the Year of St. Joseph can broaden and deepen contemporary piety around the figure of Jesus’ earthly father. Liturgical hymnography, a veritable source of theology for Eastern Christians, creatively makes sense of the biblical evidence. Entering into the unfamiliar world of the Byzantine tradition can work like a prism to refract colors and hues not normally seen by the naked eye in more recent Latin piety regarding Joseph’s fatherly heart, with which he loved the Lord.
Joseph: Man of Prophecy
The Byzantine tradition understands Joseph as a prophet. He is celebrated with his forebears, Jesse and David, on the Sunday after Christmas. The latter are regularly commemorated with other prophets—John the Baptist, Moses and Aaron, Elijah and Elisha—at the “prothesis,” the rite of preparation of the eucharistic bread at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy. This symbolic arrangement of the bread is an icon of sorts. The various rankings of saints are commemorated in the form of bread particles around the larger bread, known as the “lamb,” from which the Eucharist is cut and distributed to the faithful. It depicts the Mother of God, the ranks of angels and saints around the throne of God, as well as the living and the deceased. It evokes the Wedding Feast of the Lamb (cf. Rev 19; 21) and further connects that image with the church. The entire church is present on the “diskos” at every Divine Liturgy; heaven and earth are united in praise to the creator.
Yet to align Joseph as a prophet together with Jesse and David is a strange choice indeed. Jesse makes no prophetic utterance of his own; he is merely the fodder for Isaiah’s later reflection. “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a branch will bear fruit.” (Is 11: 1-2). Jesse is no divine mouthpiece. He is simply a stump, raw material presented to God, who then makes miracles out of Jesse’s life through the mysteries of God’s providence.
The Byzantine tradition understands Joseph as a prophet.
If Jesse is no orator, his son, David, does little better. David is known for being the sweet singer of Israel (2 Sm 23:1). As such he is considered the author of the Book of Psalms, which early Christians understood as prophecypar excellence, almost every line pregnant with a prediction of Christ.
Yet despite his professional skills on the lyre, David’s foibles hardly qualify him for prophecy. As the king of Israel, he uses power not as service, but as a weapon to get what he wants, specifically Bathsheba, the woman he spied upon as she bathed. After their affair, he arranged to move Uriah out of the picture by ordering him to serve in the front line of battle, assuring his death. But his true prophetic moment is his repentance through the cajoling of the prophet Nathan. This moment signifies a profound change in his life. David shifts from cunning politician to contrite penitent. Evidence of this is Psalm 51, recited not less than four times a day in the Byzantine tradition. If we look carefully at the psalm, its lines point prophetically toward a life beyond sin. A heart can be made new, but only after it is broken. In this, the broken crumbs of our life—much like the bread prepared before the liturgy—can be reformed into daily bread to sustain us.
What do Jesse and David have to say about Joseph’s prophetic vocation?
What do Jesse and David have to say about Joseph’s prophetic vocation? Much like Jesse, Joseph is no proclaimer of divine speech. In fact, Joseph has no recorded lines throughout the Gospels. He is a stump, raw material for God to work with. Joseph simply offers the line of Jesse and David to Mary, in order to fashion the fulfillment of prophecy: that a Messiah will come forth from the line of Jesse. Like David, he embodies Israel’s law, not as a king but as a righteous man. He could use this law to his advantage, protect his pride and the seeming betrayal through an allegedly ignoble birth. Instead, he extends his righteousness to protect Mary and the Son of God. Covering them with his own justice, he can spare them at least that shame and allow Christ to live a quiet life in Nazareth. From there Christ will burst forth at the banks of the Jordan River to begin his proclamation of the Kingdom of God in word and deed.
Joseph: Man of Resurrection
In the texts of Byzantine vespers for the Sunday after Christmas, Joseph is likewise implicated in prophecy: “In his advanced years, Joseph clearly saw the prophecies fulfilled.” In Joseph, we see very obvious parallels with the Old Testament son of Jacob: Both receive dreams; both spend time in Egypt; both revise their perspective based on these visions while asleep. Perhaps the Joseph of the New Testament is an early recipient of the gift promised by the prophet Joel, confirmed by the speech of Peter in Acts 2: “Your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions” (Jl 2:28; cf. Acts 2:17). Through this outpouring of the Spirit in his angelic dream, the elderly Joseph is capable of his greatest miracle: He can change his mind based on new facts. In the twilight of our years, we “get stuck in our ways.” Our stubborn patterns of thinking are rarely challenged. Yet Joseph is prophetic precisely in his ability to change his mind. He puts aside his ready-made decision to divorce his wife because of the angelic pronouncement. Now that Joseph’s hands are open, God may fill them with his new Spirit.
The troparion, or central thematic hymn, of the commemoration of Joseph gives him a prophetic task. However, in this hymn, Joseph does something strange that no other prophet does. Prophets speak to the present about the future, but here Joseph is asked to speak about the present to the past: “Joseph, proclaim the wonders you have seen to David, the forefather of God: the Virgin has given birth; you have given glory with the shepherds and worshipped with the wise men; you have been instructed by an angel. Ask Christ our God to save our souls.” Joseph teaches us not to predict our future as if it were some mystery or puzzle to figure out. He gives us the prophetic gift of looking at our past in a new way. Not unlike the risen Lord, who instructs his disciples on the road to Emmaus, Joseph is charged in this hymn to consider the history of Israel beneath the light of the advent of Christ. The fulfillment of the line of David in Jesus is proof that God is not a liar. The promise God makes is the truest promise there is. None of our other fickle promises can measure up. Joseph joins in concert with Paul that Jesus is the confirmation of these promises: “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why we utter the Amen through him, to the glory of God” (2 Cor 1:20).
Now that Joseph’s hands are open, God may fill them with his new Spirit.
Patristic interpretation considers the Old Testament Joseph as a type of the resurrection. This interpretation is enshrined in the Byzantine lectionary, where the Joseph cycle is read during the last week of Lent and is meant to parallel the liturgical celebration of the paschal mystery of Holy Week. In the language of Scripture, a journey to Egypt foreshadows and signifies a salvific end. When Moses sees the burning bush in the land of Midian, he is told to go down to Egypt, take the Jews out of the hell they are experiencing there and bring them into the Promised Land. Irenaeus, a second-century Greek bishop and theologian, sees in Moses’ mission a sketch of Christ’s descent from heaven to earth in his salvific mission for humanity. Beneath the light of the paschal mystery, one is able to interpret the past anew, just as Christ teaches his disciples on the road to Emmaus.
The Old Testament Joseph precedes this divine recognition. Joseph is likewise a righteous man, sent down to Egypt in the service of salvation. Consider how he looks at the past when his brothers come groveling before him. Formerly left for dead by his brothers, he now stands among the leaders in Egypt, carrying the entire land through the famine. The starving children of Israel come before him, face to face. Here, Joseph could exact vengeance rightfully. “‘As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus, he reassured them and comforted them” (Gn 50:20-21).
The same is true for Joseph in the New Testament. Joseph is told: “Get up, go down to Egypt,” so when the coast is clear, he can get about the work of the good news. Joseph is a man of resurrection. He sees in this world the pattern that God has woven into the fabric of existence: dying and rising. We receive new life not by suffering a little bit, but by dying, if we go down to Egypt, just as Christ came down to earth and went down into Hades. If we get comfortable with this pattern, we get comfortable with life in Christ.
The difference between Joseph and Herod is that Joseph lets himself be taught—and changed—by new facts.
Joseph: Man of Alleluia
The Akathist hymn to the Mother of God, a Byzantine liturgical poem that interprets the infancy narratives, is both an object of popular devotion and a unique recapitulation of the theological language about the Mother of God and the early life of Christ. In this hymn, Joseph and King Herod are set up as foils. Both men represent a form of righteousness. Joseph is a keeper of the Mosaic law. Herod is the embodiment of the legal code of the Roman Empire, and he functions as an icon of law and order. Both are faced with a challenge, not only to their own codes, but to the laws of nature—a strange birth without human seed. Both conspire “secretly” (cf. Mt 1:19; Mt 2:7). The Greek word is lathra, from lanthano, a rare adverb used only in these two instances in the synoptic Gospels and only twice more in the rest of the New Testament.
The contours between Joseph and Herod define the difference between right and wrong praise.
Joseph quietly resolves to remove his wife from the equation. Herod secretly brings the Magi aside, only to tell a lie: “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him” (Mt 2:8). The difference between Joseph and Herod is that Joseph lets himself be taught—and changed—by new facts. He puts down his defenses and protections of his self-righteousness. Instead, he turns his righteousness into a service. For Herod, this child is a threat to his claim to power. In his rage, he slaughters all boys aged 2 and under and all others even remotely similar to the king of kings.
Perhaps in this year of St. Joseph, before St. Joseph the Worker, we do well to celebrate Joseph, the man of Alleluia.
Making the comparison more explicit, both Joseph and Herod are offered the occasion to learn new songs: “Filled with a storm of contradictory thoughts, the wise Joseph was greatly disturbed. Having seen you an unwed, All-Blameless One, he now suspected crimes against the marriage bed. Learning that your conception was without seed he cried out, Alleluia” (Akathist Hymn, Stanza 6). Joseph learned new facts from the angel, that the conception of Mary was without human seed. Joseph lets his guard down before divine intervention; he untightens his grip around his own plan for divorce and opens his throat to cry out: “Alleluia.” Later in the hymn, Herod is offered the opportunity to sing. Instead, he becomes a parody of his own name, left as “the fool” (the hymn plays on the original Greek: Herode=Herod/lerode=fool). Tormented by the threat to his power, he urges the Magi to bring him the Messiah under the pretense of wanting to offer him praise. Herod’s foolishness turns upon a fundamental lie surrounding worship, for Herod “did not know how to sing ‘alleluia’” (Akathist Hymn, Stanza 10).
The contours between Joseph and Herod define the difference between right and wrong praise. As such, the Akathist Hymn offers Joseph as an image of a human being restored to his divine vocation. In his masterpiece, For the Life of the World, the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann suggests that before being Homo sapiens or Homo faber, the human being is summoned by his divine vocation to be a “Homo adorans,” standing before God and offering back to creation everything God has wrought through an act of thanksgiving. Restoring this attitude makes the difference between adoration and idolatry. In this salvation consists:
Now that we have seen this strange birth, let us estrange ourselves from this world and turn our minds to heaven. Indeed, it is for this that the God Most High appeared on earth as a lowly man desiring to draw up to heaven those who cry out to him: Alleluia.
Akathist Hymn, Stanza 14
Thus, perhaps in this year of St. Joseph, before St. Joseph the Worker, we do well to celebrate Joseph, the man of Alleluia.
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