As we celebrate this official Year of St. Joseph, announced on December 8, 2020 by Pope Francis, Catholics readily join in paying tribute to a great and well-loved saint. Surely Our Lord’s foster-father has always held a prominent place in the hearts of the faithful? Surely, we have always invoked the trio of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph? At the risk of shocking those who remember writing J+M+J on parochial school papers and those who make a personal consecration to the saint, the answer is no.
A world without St. Joseph
Imagine a world where no Christian is named for St. Joseph, where no religious entity bars his name. Picture St. Joseph absent from the Missal, the Breviary, the Church calendar, and the Litany of the saints. No shrines, no devotions, no hymns, no solo images, no popular customs, no festive foods honor St. Joseph. This world without St. Joseph was Christendom into the fourteenth century. Up to that point, St. Joseph was almost universally ignored, reduced to a mere spear carrier in the pageant of Salvation.
This situation still prevails in Greek Orthodoxy. Although their tradition calls St. Joseph “The Holy Righteous Elder the Betrothed,” it gives him no independent cult or solo feast day. Instead the Greeks commemorate him together with King David and St. James “The Brother of the Lord” on the first Sunday after the Nativity or on 26 December. Pointedly rated a minor figure, St. Joseph is something of an ecumenical stumbling block in the East.
The long obscurity of this now exalted saint seems incredible. But St. Joseph’s long march from Zero to Hero is a fascinating episode in the history of Catholic spirituality and one that resonates with modern issues.
Scripture provides minimal materials to fashion a popular cult of St. Joseph. The Gospels record not a single word of St. Joseph’s: he is a silent as well as a “just” man. Only 15 times do the Evangelists refer to him by name, which means “may God add/ gather,” (Compare this to seven mentions for Joseph of Arimathea who went on to star in legends of the Holy Grail.) Mark never uses his name, although John does call Jesus “son of Joseph” twice. Only the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke depict St. Joseph in person. After Jesus’ youth, he simply disappears, presumably dying before the Savior’s public life begins. He has no traditional burial site and leaves no bodily relics.
None of the above would have necessarily pushed St. Joseph into the background. Imaginative legends were concocted for nameless New Testament cameo players who came to be known as Sts. Martial, Veronica/Bernike, Longinus, and Dismas. So why did Christians ignore St. Joseph for so long?
A major cause was the anxiety of the Early Church to defend the Virgin Birth and the perpetual virginity of Our Lady. Minimizing Joseph magnified Mary. Although they mention him here and there, the Fathers remained studiously incurious about his life. For instance, the three volumes of William A. Jurgens’s popular Faith of the Early Fathers contains only six references to St. Joseph, all concerning his chaste but nevertheless real marriage.
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