Friday, March 19, 2004

Not just your average Joe!

Today is the Feast of Saint Joseph, husband of Mary, and foster father of Jesus. As a solemnity (first-class feast) of the liturgical year having fallen on a Friday, the usual requirement of abstinence from meat is dispensed for this day (Canon 1251).

We know little about Joseph, other than what is in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. He was a "just man," descended from the royal house of David. He was a carpenter by trade, in the little town of Nazareth, in Galilee. It is safe to assume that he passed on the family business to his Son, who might well have practiced the trade as a young man, before beginning His public ministry.

Many saints had a particular devotion to the "noble Joseph." In 1960, Pope Blessed John XXIII had his name inserted into the Roman Canon, among the listing of the saints. The overall impression of him is that of a silent and heroic guardian, who led Mary and Jesus to safety in Egypt.

It is generally believed that Joseph died while Jesus was still a young man, before his public ministry. He is therefore also known as the "patron saint of a happy death."

There are folk tales about Joseph, arising from the apocryphal, or "lost Gospel" accounts. It is said that he was an old man and a widower, with six children from a previous union, including James "the brother of Jesus" who later became an Apostle. Since the term for "brother" in the original languages was used rather broadly, it is more likely that James was a cousin, as opposed to being a brother or stepbrother. All in all, the story is not a reliable one. The same also applies to the Yuletide ballad known as "The Cherry Tree Carol" (from The Oxford Book of Ballads, 1910), when Joseph first learns of Mary being with child.

There are also miracles attributed to Joseph. In the Middle Ages, a famine in Sicily was ended after the people prayed a novena to Joseph. His feast remains a special occasion throughout Italy, and in "Little Italy" neighborhoods throughout North America, culminating in the blessing of "Saint Joseph altars" featuring special "altar breads."

More recently is the "traveling carpenter" who offered to build a spiral staircase in a convent chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, then mysteriously disappeared. No engineer can explain how the structure is supported, and to the present day it has never needed repair.

"O God, who in Thy ineffable providence didst vouchsafe to choose blessed Joseph to be the Spouse of Thy most holy Mother: grant, we beseech Thee, that we may have him for our intercessor in Heaven, whom on earth we venerate as out most holy Protector. Who livest and reignest world without end..."

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