Monday, December 22, 2014

Seveteen Things We Know About Joseph

The day is approaching once again for St. Joseph to grab his staff and take up a post by the manger while Mary gives birth to the baby Jesus.

Thinking this morning about my own favorite saint, I wondered what we really know about him from Scripture.

Many books have been written about Joseph, the patron saint of the Universal Church. Shrines have been erected in his honor. Devotions, litanies, and novenas have been developed over centuries of Catholic worship.

But what documented facts do we have about him? I counted seventeen facts in Scripture, all of them from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

From Matthew we learn that:
1. Joseph was the son of Jacob, in direct descent from King David (1:16).
2. Joseph was a “righteous” man (1:19).
3. Joseph was a “carpenter” (13:55).
4. Betrothed to Mary, Joseph discovered that she was pregnant before they lived together (1:18).
5. Instead of divorcing Mary, Joseph was prompted by an angel who appeared to him in a dream to take Mary into his home (1:20–24).
6. Living with Mary, Joseph remained chaste “until” she bore a son (1:25).
7. Joseph named the son Jesus, as ordered by the first angel in #5 above (1:25).
8. After the visit of the Magi, Joseph met a second angel in a dream. The second angel told him to flee Herod’s wrath by taking Mary and Jesus to Egypt. He did so (2:13–15).
9. Later a third dream angel alerted Joseph that it was safe to return to Israel (2:19–21).
10. Back in Israel, Joseph was warned by a fourth dream (no angel mentioned this time) to take his family to Nazareth in Galilee instead of some place closer to Jerusalem (2:19–23).

Luke fills in a few details while possibly confusing things:

11. Jesus’s birth occurred in Bethlehem near Jerusalem because Joseph took Mary there in response to a census. Bethlehem was the city of David and Joseph was of David’s house (2:1, 4).
12. When shepherds visited the infant Jesus, Joseph was present (2:16).
13. Joseph was an observant Jew, who had his newborn son circumcised after eight days and “presented” in the temple “when the days were completed for their purification” (2: 21, 22, 39, 41).
14. With Mary, Joseph was “amazed” at Simeon’s prophecy about Jesus during the rite of presentation (2:33–35).
15. Despite Joseph’s apparent inclination to return from Egypt to someplace in Israel closer to Jerusalem, as in 10 above, we learn that Joseph was from Nazareth all along (2:4). This is confusing.
16. Twelve years after the boy’s birth, Joseph somehow left Jesus behind in Jerusalem but found him three days later (2:42–44).
17. Joseph was “astonished” when he found the boy conversing with teachers in the temple (2:46–48).

That’s the extent of our Scriptural knowledge about Joseph. There’s nothing in the other two Gospels. Mark and John are mum about the foster father of Jesus and husband of Mary.

So what can we conclude? From the Scriptural record, I conclude that, like me, maybe like you, Joseph was a good practical person and something of a dreamer. Four times he dreamed. Four times he followed the message of his dream. At least three of these messages were delivered by angels.

Although pious and God-fearing, Joseph was “amazed” and “astonished” to learn that his child was extraordinary, as in 14 and 17 above. As you and I might have been amazed and astonished.

Much about Joseph is left for the exegetes and theologians to ponder, and for us to meditate on. The professionals have dealt with questions about Joseph’s celibacy after the birth of Jesus, his possible previous marriages (which might have given him the “brothers” of Jesus), his age, his death, and so on. We—I—meditate on Joseph as a model of piety and good parenthood, and we ask his prayers on our behalf.

The result of all this pondering and meditation for two millennia is a cult of St. Joseph that seems to be completely out of proportion with what we find in Scripture. I’ll take up that subject in my next post, about Jacques Gauthier’s little book, Saint Joseph: Man of Faith. 

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