In His great wisdom, God has placed tremendous examples of holiness among the members of the Church. Outstanding among these, as we have seen in the past three articles, is Mary, the Mother of Our Savior. As St. Thomas has observed, there can be no doubt that she who was closest to the very font of grace for the human race, namely the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, surpasses all others in grace (III, 27, 5). Like the piece of metal that takes on the white hot glow of the furnace when it is thrust into the fire, so Mary took on, more than any other, the fiery likeness of God that we call holiness. Her unique closeness to the divine radiance emanating from Christ made her absorb that radiance all the more. Next to her, however, the one to whom we give the greatest honor is St. Joseph. Not certainly to the same extent as Mary, but far more than that of any other member of the Church, he was illumined by the divine radiance of the Eternal Son. In the next two articles of Light and Life we will be looking more closely at the virtues and holiness of this saint so hidden from our eyes, yet so great among the company of saints.
The devotion to St. Joseph, strangely enough, arose rather late in the span of Church history. Cardinal Newman observes that if any of the saints were to receive devotion early on, Joseph would be an obvious candidate: "Who, from his prerogatives and the testimony on which they come to us, had a greater claim to receive an early recognition than he? A saint of scripture, the foster father of our Lord, he was an object of the universal and absolute faith of the Christian world from the first . . . ." Yet so slow were the faithful to respond to him in popular devotion: "When once it began, men seemed surprised that it had not been thought of before . . . ." (quoted in F. Filas, S.J., Joseph: the Man Closest to Jesus, 351).
Certainly it was not a matter of doubt about the greatness of his sanctity. Other circumstances were at play. Foremost among these was the role of martyrdom in the early Church’s veneration of saints. What caught the attention of early Christians was the sacrifice of life for the sake of faith. How could it not? On the one hand, it is the ultimate form of Christian witness and the most intimate kind of participation in Our Blessed Lord's passion. But on the other hand, the sheer numbers of martyrs, and the real threat of execution for the average Christian, made them the overwhelming candidates for veneration. The outlook of the times is well reflected in the book of Revelation, written by St. John around A.D. 95. In one of his visions John sees a vast multitude clothed in white robes with palm branches in their hands. They are "before the throne of God, and serve him day and night within his temple..." (7:15). A few chapters later they are described as those who "loved not their lives even unto death" (12:13). John's vision of the saints in glory is a vision of martyrs.
The first saints other than martyrs to receive special veneration by the Church did not come along until the later fourth century, including figures like the abbot St. Anthony of the Desert, and bishops St. Athanasius and St. Martin of Tours. These were the "confessors," Christians who bore witness to Jesus not by heroic death on account of His name, but by heroic virtue in the midst of life's trials. Still, with this new category of saints there was an immediacy of contact. These were people known and revered by their contemporaries, and the reputation for holiness during their lives here on earth provided the impetus for turning to their intercession after death. What we can say, then, is that the early veneration of saints tended to be in response to a life that could be seen and experienced first hand.
Aside from Blessed Mary, only much later did popular devotion turn to people like St. Joseph, St. Elizabeth, and St. Zachaiah. The holiness of such individuals (which, if at all, could perhaps be attested by only a few people living at the end of the first century) depended solely on pondering the scriptures. Hence, the scriptural commentaries of the church fathers were an important part of this rise in devotion to such saints, particularly St. Joseph. Through the likes of St. John Chrysostom, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine, the greatness of Joseph's holiness was brought before the faithful.
Eventually the popular devotion grew to the point where St. Joseph was brought into the celebration of the liturgy. This happened first in the post-Christmas liturgies of the Eastern Church. The Sunday after Christmas, a practice continued to this day in Eastern Christianity, was dedicated to St. Joseph the Betrothed. In the West, a special commemoration of St. Joseph began around 700 in northern Europe on March 20, which by a hundred years later had moved to its present date of March 19. As the devotion to St. Joseph continued to spread in the West, so did the prominence of the liturgical observance. At first only a locally observed commemoration, by the 1300's it had moved up to the rank of feast. Then, with the proclamation of St. Joseph as Patron of the Universal Church by Pius IX in 1870, it had moved to its present status as a solemnity celebrated by the entire Church. One final, and again, surprisingly late development, was the addition of St. Joseph's name to the list of saints in the Roman Eucharistic Prayer; this not until 1962, under the insistence of Pope John XXIII.
Although in the early Church there was no particular attention given to St. Joseph liturgically, he was nevertheless far from being ignored. As we have mentioned, there were the scriptural commentaries of the church fathers extolling his greatness. But another very popular kind of early Christian literature in which Joseph receives extensive treatment are the apocrypha. These were short stories, so to speak, based upon the Gospel accounts, but often launching into bizarre and fanciful elaborations. They pretend to offer "secret" information about early life of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph; hence the name "apocrypha," Greek for "things hidden." Their authors are unknown, though they were commonly attributed to one of the apostles or evangelists to enhance their reputation among the faithful. One of the better known apocryphal accounts is the Protoevangelium of James, which scholars have dated to the early part of the first century. The material it contains was taken up by later apocryphal works, which continued to be written through the seventh century.
The Protoevangelium tells us of the birth of Mary to an elderly couple, Joachim and Ann. Mary, as a small child, is consecrated to God and is taken in by the virgins who live and pray in the Temple. When she reaches the age for marriage, arrangements are made to find a spouse for her. Elderly widowers are asked to present themselves before the High Priest, and a prayer is raised that God would indicate by a miraculous sign who is to be Mary’s husband. The sign comes when out of the staff of Joseph flies a dove that alights on his head. The couple are then betrothed. Joseph is thus presented as an old man who will protect and provide for the Virgin Mary, but will obviously not be capable of marital relations. What is more, he has children from his previous marriage. These, so the Protoevangelium implies, are the explanation for passages in the Gospels regarding the "brethren of Jesus". The story concludes with a highly fictionalized portrayal of a true event, one of the teachings of the Church, the miraculous preservation of Mary’s virginal integrity at the birth of Jesus.
Essentially, the story is a defense of Mary’s virginity before, during, and after the birth of Jesus. To further its apologetic aim, Joseph is presented as an elderly widower with children, which proved to be very useful in the early Church’s defense of Mary’s perpetual virginity. In fact, the theme of the elderly widower became the standard response for many of the church fathers to questions regarding the brethren of the Lord. St. Epiphanius, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Ephrem, and St. Hilary all support the idea of a previous marriage for Joseph. Among these fathers, St. Jerome had very much of a different mind.
St. Jerome was the first to propose that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph compose a family distinctly marked by virginity. Addressing the heretic Helvidius, who denied the perpetual virginity of Our Lady, Jerome writes:
What he, in effect, is suggesting is a method of interpreting the scriptural data about St. Joseph in a way that harmonizes with the virginal calling of Our Blessed Lord and His mother. The gospels are silent on a previous marriage of St. Joseph. So does this mean we turn to the imaginary accounts of the apocrypha? Not at all. We must not be led by the "ravings of the apocryphal accounts." Rather he directs our attention to the life of perfect chastity lived by Jesus and Mary, which speaks so loudly and eloquently of their relationship with God. In the life of Jesus, we can see how this chastity proclaims that whole purpose of His entering the world was to fulfil the will of His heavenly Father. In the life of Mary it proclaims that she who conceived the Son of God by the power of the Holy Spirit now has been sanctified, and whose body is entirely consecrated to God. So this virginal vocation of both Jesus and Mary, Jerome implies, is what needs to guide our interpretation of Joseph. In this context, it would be surprising for Joseph not to be a virgin. It would be surprising that the virgin mother who begets the virgin child, was not protected and sustained by a husband who was virgin as well; that the divine calling of virginity was not present throughout the family. Thus we discern who St. Joseph is through the one for whom he is husband, and the One for Whom he is foster father. The sacred virginity of their lives tells us of the sacred virginity that God must have wanted to characterize Joseph's life as well.
St. Jerome’s interpretation begins a trend that becomes dominant in Western authors. Scriptural commentators from Bede in the seventh century to Rabanus Maurus in the ninth, basing themselves on St. Jerome, spoke of the life-long virginity of St. Joseph. By the middle of the eleventh century, there was such a common conviction about it that St. Peter Damian could say: "If it does not suffice for you that not only the mother is a virgin, there remains the belief of the Church that he who served as the father is also a virgin" (Filas, 99).
St. Thomas, about two hundred years later, adds that further confirmation of St. Joseph's virginity is to be found in Christ's words to his mother standing beneath the cross. There, St. Thomas implies, God reveals the kind of person he wishes to care for Blessed Mary. Whom does he choose? A virgin, John the apostle. In his commentary on Galatians, St. Thomas tackles the issue of children of Joseph by a deceased wife. He pointedly states: "But this is false, for if the Lord did not wish his virgin mother to be entrusted to the care of anyone but a virgin [i.e., the apostle John], how could he have suffered that her spouse was not a virgin, and as such would have persisted?" (Ad Galatas, I:19). And this, St. Thomas lead us to realize, should be persuasive. Such an act of Christ on the cross is just as much a work of Divine Providence caring for the Blessed Virgin as the Providence He was exercising when providing her with a husband. The Providence of God on the cross entrusting His mother to a virgin reveals the Providence of God in preparation for His incarnation.
Both St. Peter Damian’s statement and St. Thomas’ insistence on the falsehood of the apocryphal legend show how fully St. Joseph’s virginity has been accepted into Church teaching. From their time to our own this belief has prevailed in the West, and for the past one thousand years it has never been seriously challenged. This thousand year period of acceptance is itself a profound confirmation of the truth of Joseph’s virginity. Having said this, however, it should be clarified that our belief in St. Joseph’s virginity has never been considered part of the deposit of the faith, and therefore obligatory for us to accept. Room continues to be made for viewing St. Joseph as an aged widower, as many of the Greek fathers taught, a tradition maintained in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Given what has been said about the place virginity played in the lives of Mary and Joseph, particularly in their marriage, some important questions can be raised regarding the nature of their relationship. What effect does their complete abstinence from marital relations have on the reality of their relationship as husband and wife? Is the marital bond truly present? Does their chastity prevent them from having a true marriage?
St. Thomas is a great help with these questions. He explains that the perfection of matrimony comes from what truly gives marriage its "form," which is to say its most essential characteristic, that which distinguishes marriage from any other relationship between a man and a woman. "The form, however, of matrimony consists in a certain indivisible union of souls, through which one spouse is held to maintain an unfailing fidelity to another" (III, 29, 2). So what makes a relationship between a man and woman to be a marriage is not, at its most basic level, the sharing a common bed, nor the emotional and material support couples provide for each other, nor even the procreation of children. These all do indeed contribute to and express a marital relationship, but all of these can be part of relationship where there is no marriage present. This we can unfortunately see these days in so many couples choosing cohabitation before they commit to marriage. What in fact establishes the marriage is the indivisible union of souls in matrimonial consent.
Here we find the marriage of Joseph and Mary as true and real as any. Granted, their special relationship did not correspond to a typical marriage with respect to conjugal relations. These, St. Thomas says, Mary and Joseph would have conditionally consented to, insofar as this would have been part of God’s plan for them. But realizing the unique mission God had given them, their intent would have been no other than living in an affectionate relationship expressed in the purest form of love. It was a communion of souls of the highest order. And it was because of such pure and holy love, says Pope John Paul II, that God so wonderfully used Mary and Joseph to reveal his intent to purify and sanctify family life:
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