Today, as we celebrate the life of a Roman named Patrick who brought the Christian faith to the Emerald Isles, I’m really looking forward to Wednesday, March 19, and the Feast of St. Joseph. If you are from the Southwest or California, you probably know him as San José.
I am not belittling Patrick. I have admiration for him, and Patrick has an amazing story. I am also wearing green in his honor, although I don’t have a drop of Irish blood.
There is simply something about St. Joseph that catches my imagination. My Italian heritage probably also plays a part in my admiration.
The folks from Mediterranean lands have been celebrating St. Joseph for centuries. Sicilians prayed to Joseph to relieve them from famine centuries ago, and his day is celebrated with feasting. Italians wear red to honor Joseph. More importantly, March 19 is close enough to the Spring Equinox to be considered the beginning of Spring. My dad would plant his tomato seeds in little pots and grow them under the lights, always on St. Joseph Day. In California, it’s the day that the swallows return to San Juan Capistrano.
But there’s more to the story of Joseph that inspires me. Much of it is based on tradition, as the Gospel stories are inconsistent and don’t give us much information. Joseph is the husband of the Virgin Mary, and thus, based on Christian tradition, is the earthly father of Jesus. Joseph is believed to have been a carpenter, or a worker in wood or metal. He probably taught his skills to Jesus.
But that’s still not the point. Based on tradition, Joseph married a pregnant Mary, and it wasn’t Joseph’s child. Why would he do that? He had a legal right to send her quietly away, but, after a dream or vision, he stepped forward and undertook the responsibility for her and the child. He moved beyond his comfort, what he knew and respected, and past his fear, to something surpassing comprehension.
Then we see him traveling with her to Bethlehem for a census. I have traveled in the luxury of a modern automobile on well-paved roads while pregnant. Most of the time, I was queasy and uncomfortable. Now imagine a trip, probably on foot (some art depicts Mary on a donkey) over dirt roads for miles. Joseph was responsible for getting them there safely.
Mary gave birth to the baby in Bethlehem (we all know the story). They probably stayed there a couple of years. It was enough time to get settled, get some work, support the family, and give the baby time to grow before enduring another long, dirty, exhausting trip back home.
And then Joseph is warned in a dream (by God or an angel) that a jealous King Herod, alerted by three learned visitors from the East, is searching for the baby Jesus to kill him. So Joseph takes Mary and Jesus and they go to Egypt. That’s a very long trip to a foreign country where they don’t know the language, don’t know anybody, and don’t know what to expect. No doubt, no hesitation. Strictly on faith, Joseph goes.
At this point you are thinking, “Joseph’s a carpenter; he’s in construction. He can always get a job.” Probably so. We don’t know. The point is — he was faithful. Faithful to his God, faithful to his family. He didn’t give in to his doubts. He did what he was asked.
A few years later Joseph is told in another dream that Herod is dead and it is time to return. So back they go, but they don’t settle in Bethlehem — it’s too close to Jerusalem and another nasty king. Joseph takes them north to Galilee and they settle in Nazareth. Another new town, this time a very small town, but close to a large city that was rebuilding — good work for a carpenter.
And the next time we hear from Joseph, it’s when Jesus is 12. Mary and Joseph and Jesus went to Jerusalem, and they thought Jesus was in the group returning home. He wasn’t. If you have ever “lost” your child at the mall or the supermarket for a few seconds, you know what fear is. (One of my kids liked to play hide and seek in the middle of the round clothes carousels at the mall. Talk about panic! ) So Jesus is who knows where, lost in the Big City. Mary and Joseph must have been a mess. Anyway, Joseph takes charge, goes back to Jerusalem with Mary, and they find Jesus in the Temple teaching. At that point I would probably have hit the roof, but tradition tells us that Joseph remained patient, even when the pre-teen Jesus makes comments about being about “his father’s business.” Staying calm when your kids are being kids: something else to admire.
The Gospels don’t mention Joseph at the death and burial of Jesus. Legend tells us that Mary and Jesus surrounded Joseph at Joseph’s death. A quiet, peaceful death after a long, faithful life.
And here I would like to propose that Joseph was “obedient.” He listened to that “clear, small voice” that we often do not let ourselves hear, and knew that he was being called to do great, but difficult things. Without the faith to be obedient, Joseph’s life, and by extension Mary and Jesus’ lives, would have been disastrous. Obedience in our modern age is a negative concept. Civil disobedience is played out daily on the international news. Parents worry about obedient children falling prey to predators. And yet without obedience, we would all run red lights and refuse to pay our taxes. We would have anarchy.
Back to Joseph. Joseph is considered the patron of workers including craftsmen, engineers, and working people in general. He is the patron of families, fathers, and mothers, including expectant mothers. He is the patron of a happy death. He is the patron of San José, California, and any other town or church named in his honor.
A real estate superstition considers him the patron of house buyers and sellers. I’ve never heard my mother laugh so loud and long as when we were told by a relative to bury a statue of St. Joseph upside down in the yard so she would sell the old family house quickly. She didn’t bury the statue, and the house sold.
I am an American Girl doll collector. If your daughter has read the American Girl books about Josefina, you should know that Josefina was born on March 19 and is named for her saint’s day — San José. (Josefina is a Spanish-speaking American Girl, and comes from the Santa Fe area when New Mexico was still part of Old Mexico.) It’s also my friend Josie’s birthday; her real name is Josefina. She was born on March 19, and named for her saint’s day.
Here in New Mexico, the traditional painted santos (or carved figure of a saint) of San Jose Patriarco (Saint Joseph the Patriarch) depicts him dressed in green and gold, holding the baby Jesus, and carrying a flowering staff. Local tradition has it that when Joseph was asked what the name of Mary’s child should be, he said “His name shall be Jesus” and his walking stick burst into flower. It’s a beautiful story.
Regardless of your faith or beliefs, or whether you hold the stories about Joseph as history or legend, I believe that there is much you can admire about Joseph. He was a man of principal and faith. He didn’t let his doubts keep him from acting and moving forward. He was a devoted family man. He was an industrious worker. He understood what was called of him, and was obedient. And he left this world without regret and in peace.
So on Wednesday, March 19, remember Joseph. Think of spring and the swallows returning to Capistrano. Think about wearing red in his honor, and celebrating.
March 17, 2014