Monday, 19 March 2012

The mystery of Saint Joseph (2)

"As Son of God, [Jesus] has a Father but no Mother; as Son of Man he has a mother but no father."

In St Joseph in Early Christianity (St Joseph's University Press, 1999), from which this quotation is taken, Joseph T. Lienhard describes the development of two distinct traditions concerning St Joseph. One was that of the Eastern and Orthodox Church, which followed the apocryphal stories about Joseph, designed to make the perpetual virginity of Mary seem more credible, according to which he was an old man, perhaps in his 90s and a grandfather, when he married Mary to be her protector rather than her husband. The Latin tradition followed SS
Jerome and Augustine in arguing that he was nearer to Mary's own age, yet determined to remain a virgin in the light of Our Lady's state. This tradition was associated with the development of the discipline of celibacy within the Latin Church. Pope John Paul II clearly follows the Augustinian line of thought when he says in a General Audience of 1996 that we may presume that
"at the time of their betrothal there was an understanding between Joseph and Mary about [Mary's] plan to live as a virgin. Moreover, the Holy Spirit, who had inspired Mary to choose virginity in view of the mystery of the Incarnation and who wanted the latter to come about in a family setting suited to the Child's growth, was quite able to instil in Joseph the ideal of virginity as well. The angel of the Lord appeared in a dream and said to him: 'Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit' (Mt 1:20). Thus he received confirmation that he was called to live his marriage in a completely special way. Through virginal communion with the woman chosen to give birth to Jesus, God calls him to co-operate in carrying out his plan of salvation."
John Paul writes in detail about St Joseph in his Apostolic Exhortation Redemptoris Custos. There he reinforces St Augustine's argument that despite this determination to remain virginal, the marriage of Mary and Joseph was a true marriage. For the genealogies trace the ancestry of Jesus through Joseph, implying his legal while denying his biological fatherhood. Jewish marriage began with espousal (kiddushin– which in this unique case was extended indefinitely to allow for the possibility of a celibate marriage. The fact that marriage is for the sake of procreation and the raising of children is "covered" by the fact that in this case the child was provided miraculously, making sexual intercourse unnecessary (and, after the birth, inappropriate or even sacrilegious).

Thus Joseph became the willing collaborator in Mary's mission and vocation and that of her Child. He became the guardian of the mysteries of the Incarnation. As he died in the bosom of the Holy Family, he is for Christians also our initiator into the mysteries of death. As a craftsman and builder, he is the patron of workers but also a faint image of the Father who created and built the universe. It is fitting that the man who gave Jesus his own tomb was also called Joseph, and that the bones of the Old Testament Joseph accompanied the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land.


  1. Saint Augustine? Google First Scandal.

  2. OK, sorry, I see what you mean. I have googled 'First Scandal' and found your website. Will comment when I have read.

  3. Your interpretation of the Fall in Genesis is ingenious but I don't find it convincing. If the Garden is the body-in-a-state-of-grace, why do they not find themselves outside it as soon as they have sinned? And why do we have to assume the two trees are those particular parts of the body? There are plenty of other possible interpretations. For my money John Paul II's interpretation is the most illuminating so far. It is important to let ourselves be guided by the Church in interpreting Scripture, or we go down all kinds of back alleys and dead ends. But then, no doubt the Scripture bears a multitude of possible interpretations, so if this one makes sense to you... Just don't call the rest of the Church (or St Augustine) wrong too easily. By the way, this is not an invitation to further discussion, at least not here. We have the Forum for that. Thanks for your interest!