Within two or three generations of the Church’s founding, Christians reflected on the meager biographical information given in the apostolic writings. They began setting down traditions passed down to them concerning characters mentioned in the Gospels, including St. Joseph and the role he played in the drama of salvation as the strong, silent protector of the Holy Family.
Around 130, the Protoevangelium of James appeared, followed by the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew — works similar to novels or fan fiction. They sought to flesh out the characters of Joseph and Mary with situations showing how God favored them.
Readers of the Protoevangelium (in Greek: “before the gospel” or “the first gospel”) learned how Anna and Joachim yearned for a child. An angel tells them their prayer had been heard: they will have a child. “And they graciously thanked the God of Israel.” After Mary’s birth, her parents bring the miraculously conceived child of their old age to the priests so she might be raised within the temple, the House of God. Mary, a lively though reverent child, is educated there.
When Mary turns 14, the priests deem her old enough for marriage. Knowing how special and prayerful Mary’s been, they determined to leave the choice of husband to God. A number of eligible Judæan bachelors assemble, bringing staffs to be placed before the Lord.
Since he is 90 years old and a widower with grown sons, Joseph the carpenter — scion of the House of David — continues with his work, dismissing the event despite being blessed with youthful vigor. Another set of tales, “The Life of Joseph” dating to the 400s, says he was 40 at the time, living to be 111. “But his eye grew not dim and he retained all his teeth.”
Finally persuaded, Joseph set down his axe and brought his staff to the temple, laying it beside the others. Amazingly, a dove flew out of his staff’s end — or lilies bloomed thereon. Joseph was convinced; Mary and he were betrothed.
Attentive readers will see obvious elements taken from the birth and youth of Samuel the prophet (1 Samuel 1:6 ff), and a recast of the story describing the blossoming of Aaron’s rod (Numbers 17:16 ff). Joseph’s long life and vitality originated with the description of Moses before his death (Deuteronomy 34:7).
At the same time these tales underscored Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity was further solidified by presenting Joseph as an elderly man reluctant to marry her.
A later text, “The History of Joseph the Carpenter” dating from the 500s, took even greater pains to assure the reader of Mary’s perpetual virginity: “And I chose her of my own will, with the concurrence of my father and the counsel of the Holy Spirit” Jesus declares, sharing his memories of Mary and Joseph with the apostles on the Mount of Olives, verifying that his brothers and sisters are from Joseph’s earlier marriage.
Attesting to Joseph’s goodness, Jesus speaks of his death. Touchingly, the carpenter earnestly begs forgiveness for his sins, especially for not originally believing Mary. She comforts him and Jesus reveals that, due to his chastity and faithfulness, Joseph will be taken body and soul to heaven.
The Angel of Death becomes visible to Joseph and he is saddened that he hadn’t accomplished more in his life. Jesus asserts, “I drove back Death and all the host of servants which accompanied him.” He calls on the archangels Michael and Gabriel to restrain the death angel while he and Mary embrace and console Joseph. “And the holy apostles have preserved this conversation, and have left it written down in the library at Jerusalem.”
While the text contributed to the Church pointing to St. Joseph as patron for a happy death, belief in his having an assumption similar to Mary’s was considered merely derivative.
Devotion to St. Joseph as patron of fathers grew slowly but was aided by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223. During the era when miracle, mystery and morality plays were presented in churches, Francis preached a sermon on the birth of Jesus within a tableau of Christ’s birth. Within the next two centuries, the practice became widespread throughout Europe. This beloved tradition became known as the Christmas crèche (French: originally mean-ing specifically “manger”; by the 19th century the word described the entire “manger scene” of Christ’s birth).
Every year, therefore, Joseph is featured in many homes, Catholic and otherwise. Indeed, his image was found all over America as part of the Christmas crèche in stores, restaurants and offices, even in civic displays — until some 30 years ago when the culture began turning against overtly religious displays.
A similar situation occurred after the fall of Rome. With Europe in shambles, overrun by barbarian tribes, education came to a standstill. Yet the Church, continuing to preach the Gospel, worked out a method of artistic identification allowing the faithful to become familiar with episodes in the Bible, and identify saints they wished to venerate.
Studying statues, paintings and stained-glass windows in various churches one realizes how art in the Western Church has fluctuated over the centuries in its portrayal of Joseph as an obviously old man with white hair and beard, and a much younger, more robust foster father of Jesus, with brown hair and short beard. The Eastern Church has much more consistently presented Joseph iconographically as the elderly guardian of the Holy Family.
As part of this tradition, St. Joseph is frequently seen wearing a brown cloak thrown over a green, or possibly purple, tunic. The brown symbolizes Joseph’s humble existence, or the wood with which he worked. The green denotes a verdant faithfulness to God’s call; purple signifies Joseph’s royal descent from King David.
As symbolic art developed, Joseph became associated with items recalling his trade, along with scenes from the Gospels, apocryphal tales and popular devotion:
- The carpenter’s square, saw, axe, awl, drill or other woodworking tools;
- The flowering staff, possibly the most widespread of St. Joseph’s insignias, recalls his choice by God to be Mary’s husband;
- Three lilies, sometimes seen united to a heart enflamed with love, related to the flowering staff, signify Joseph’s magnificent courage, chastity and obedience to God’s will as protector of the Holy Family;
- The letter “J” obviously refers to his name;
- A pair of turtle doves, the humble sacrifice offered to God by the poor, recalls Joseph’s participation in the Presentation of Jesus;
- The Star of David is a more recent addition to the list of Joseph’s emblems, recalling his being a “son of David,” as well as his devotion to the Mosaic Law;
- Benevolently standing over St. Peter’s Basilica with his arms outspread, Joseph is depicted as the Catholic Church’s guardian patron.
St. Joseph is often depicted as sleeping, sometimes with an angel surrounded by clouds hovering over him. This recalls the occasions on which he received angelic instructions in dreams and immediately set out to follow God’s will.
As patron for a happy death, Joseph is depicted on his deathbed smiling, seeing Mary and the adult Jesus beside his bed.
Joseph is most often shown holding the Christ Child in his arms, denoting how he discharged most faithfully the parental love and care he gave the Son of God, whom he was privileged to raise as his own.
By the decree “Quemadmodum Deus,” Blessed Pius IX, responding to a petition made by the fathers of the First Vatican Council, along with requests made by the faithful from around the world, proclaimed St. Joseph “Patron of the Universal Church.”
The decree was published Dec. 8, 1870, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. On the same date, 150 years later, Pope Francis declared a year devoted to St. Joseph ending Dec. 8, 2021.
The original decree of 1870 sought the carpenter’s intercessory protection especially during those troubled times. The times continue to be troubled. Let all those who love his foster Son, look to St. Joseph, the man who protected Jesus.
(Sean M. Wright, an Emmy-nominated television writer, is a Master Catechist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He is also part of the RCIA team at Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Santa Clarita, CA. He responds to comments sent him at Locksley69@aol.com.)