Sunday, December 24, 2006


I was super excited to see this article in USA Weekend this morning. I found it intriguing and it will probably lead to me reading more about Joseph, asking questions, etc. So, I figured I'd share it with all of you. Merry Christmas!

Why Joseph matters today

A scholar traces the holy figure's journey from neglected member of the Nativity to modern-day hero.

By Chara Armon

The image of Joseph as a good earthly father to Jesus has made him beloved for 600 years.
In the first family of Christendom, Joseph often has stood in the shadows. There's Jesus the Savior, of course, and his mother, Mary, who long has inspired worldwide devotion. But Jesus' earthly father and Mary's husband, with his low profile in the Bible, often seems like a neglected member of the trio. However, when Joseph becomes a main character in an Anne Rice novel ("Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt"), is front and center in the current movie "The Nativity Story" (see below) and is the inspiration for a men's group, it's clear that his star is on the rise. In fact, for the past 600 years, Joseph has quietly been one of Christianity's most beloved holy figures. And as scholars and writers such as Dan Brown, in "The Da Vinci Code," re-examine the identities of the people close to Jesus, and as Americans worry about the weakening role of fatherhood in today's culture, Joseph is attracting renewed interest. But how did Joseph evolve into a modern-day hero, a model for men and families?

Joseph in the Gospels

The Gospels say little about Joseph, but here's what we know: Matthew explains Joseph's betrothal to Mary, his distress about her premarital pregnancy and the angel's appearance to calm Joseph's doubts and explain Jesus' role as Savior. Both Matthew and Luke discuss his leadership on the holy family's journey to Bethlehem, while Matthew tells of the flight to Egypt, when Joseph saved the Savior by protecting him from Herod.

We also know that Joseph is descended from the house of David, which allows Jesus to be the fulfillment of prophecies that the Messiah would come from King David's line. The Gospels identify Joseph using the Greek word tekton, which means carpenter or building contractor. Both Gospels state that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, but in their reference to Joseph as Jesus' "father," they create uncertainty about Joseph's role. Joseph disappears from the Gospels from the time Jesus is 12. His absence from accounts of Jesus' public life has been interpreted to mean that he died before Jesus began teaching.

Early depiction as comical
Joseph received little attention in the early church. Apocryphal gospels (those not included in the regular canon of Gospels approved by Christian churches), such as the Gospel of James (2nd century) and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (5th to 9th centuries), challenge the canonical Gospels by portraying Joseph as an elderly widower, not a virgin, and reduce his image of holiness by depicting him as a timid father.

In the 5th to 10th centuries, as theologians developed Christian doctrine, Joseph received limited attention because of his potential to confuse teachings on Mary's virginity and Jesus' status as the son of God.

In medieval European plays and poetry, Joseph is a comical elder. In some plays, he even describes himself as a "fool" when he believes that Mary has become pregnant by another man; after Jesus' birth, he says he is too old to go obtain doves for the temple offering. Medieval artists sometimes presented Joseph as a sleepy, elderly figure curled in the corner of a nativity scene and at other times portrayed him as a strong presence protecting both Mary and Jesus, doing their laundry or preparing a meal.

Transformation into a role model
Still, there were glimmers of hope for Joseph's eventual transformation into a role model. At the turn of the 5th century, St. Augustine helped Joseph's case by praising him for fulfilling the role of Jesus' father spiritually, rather than "in the flesh."

When 12th- and 13th-century theologians, including Thomas Aquinas, decided that a virginal marriage could be a real marriage, they legitimated Joseph's unconsummated union with Mary and initiated increasing interest in Joseph as a saint. Although many medieval writings on fatherhood viewed the role as one of power and discipline, some writers used Joseph as an example of the kind of father who parented "by love and service," in the words of a 12th-century monk.

From the 12th century on, theologians defended Joseph's status as Jesus' parent with more vigor. My own research examines several Franciscans who argued that although Joseph was not Jesus' biological father, he served as his father in every other way. The influential friar Bernardine of Siena (1380-1444), preaching in Italy's public squares, presented Joseph as so perfect in his treatment of Mary and Jesus that he should serve as a model for all husbands and fathers. He spoke of how "Joseph held Christ in his arms like a father and spoke baby talk ... [and] with sweetness heard the little babbling child call him Father!" And in France in the late 1300s to early 1400s, church leader Jean Gerson praised Joseph for "all the care that a good and loyal and wise father can and should show to his true son."

Franciscan sermons in the 1400s and 1500s inspired biographies of Joseph, churches dedicated in his honor, organizations named for him and stories attesting to his miraculous powers. Holy relics associated with him became popular. In the 15th century, the Italian towns of Perugia and Chiusi fought over an engagement ring believed to have been given to Mary by Joseph.

Although Christian women had Mary as an example of a virtuous mother and wife, Christian men lacked a comparable model. So the idea of a strong and protective Joseph especially appealed to people in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, when wars, epidemics and famine created instability throughout Europe and heads of families had to be especially courageous.

After Jesuits and others brought faith in Joseph to the New World in the 1500s and 1600s, Joseph became the patron saint of Canada and Mexico, and he replaced St. James as patron of the Spanish empire.

The church fully embraces Joseph
The Catholic Church began fully embracing Joseph in the 19th century. In 1870, Pope Pius IX proclaimed Joseph the Patron of the Universal Church, acknowledging his unique position in the holy family and the Christian faith. Along with Joseph's traditional feast day of March 19, in 1955 the Catholic Church began to honor him on May 1 as "Joseph the Worker," as an alternative to Communist May Day celebrations. Joseph also is known as the patron of a good death and of families, virgins, immigrants and home sellers.

Joseph appeals today because "after Mary, he was the first Christian, a model believer," says Father Joseph Chorpenning of St. Joseph's University Press in Pennsylvania. Joseph's example can give anyone encouragement, Chorpenning notes, because he accepted the mystery of God even though he did not understand everything that was happening in Jesus' life.

"Many men have experienced an absent or emotionally distant father," says Steve Wood, founder of the St. Joseph Covenant Keepers, a men's group based in South Carolina. "St. Joseph is that tangible role model that fathers can have for parenting and protecting their own children, for faithfulness in marriage and for a being a pure man, morally and sexually."

Ultimately, Joseph's story is one of a lengthy transformation from the shadows of Christianity to its forefront, from an uncertain status to a majestic position as the protector and nurturer of Jesus, Mary and Christian believers.

Cover illustration by Marc Burckhardt for USA WEEKEND

Our Joseph Scholar, Chara Armon, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on St. Joseph in the Middle Ages, teaches humanities at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

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Bringing Joseph to film

On one level, Catherine Hardwicke's "The Nativity Story" is a retelling of the birth of Christ. On another level, though, it's the story of two people who begin with misgivings about each other, but, through faith and emerging love, build a relationship.

Building on the few references to Joseph in scripture, director Hardwicke and screenwriter Mike Rich used history and tradition to fill in the character. "We gave him a community, friends, a context," Rich says, "but his defining attribute is the righteousness -- his sense of fairness. It explains why he is drawn to Mary in the first place: She is virtuous." Righteousness also guides him when Mary shows up pregnant, and he knows the child is not his. "Joseph did not place his pride before her well-being," Hardwicke says. "His decision to accept Mary and her child and to trust the word of God took great faith and courage."

The filmmakers were able to flesh out Joseph's character during the couple's journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, when Joseph often is called upon to protect and care for Mary and the child she is carrying. His devotion is rewarded when Mary, who is depicted as not really loving Joseph at the time her parents arranged their marriage, reciprocates his efforts, at one point washing his feet, and at another telling him, "I draw strength from God, and from you." As the couple grows closer, they share their feelings about the responsibility of parenting the Messiah that has been uniquely assigned to them. At one point, Joseph acknowledges that being part of a mystery can be mystifying. "I wonder if I'll be able to teach him anything," he muses.

"When I took this role, I wondered, 'How should I play that I'm having the Son of God?' " says actor Oscar Isaac. "Then I realized that that was similar to the question Joseph must have had. I looked at the great paintings of the nativity. Joseph was always in the back, and that was the answer. The key to his character is his humility."

-- Jamie Malanowski

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