Daily Reflection
May 1st, 2003
John O'Keefe
Theology Department
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Memorial of St. Joseph the Worker
Acts 5:27-33
Ps 34:2 and 9, 17-18, 19-20
John 3:31-36

Poor Saint Joseph.  Few biblical saints are given less credit than he.  The reasons are obvious.  In the tradition, Mary is the Mother of God, but Joseph is, well, the carpenter from Nazareth, the husband of Mary.  We can’t say that he is the Father of Jesus, so he just ends up being Joseph, that nice guy who deferred to the paternity of the Holy Spirit.

Today’s readings seem only to confirm Joseph in his rather lowly status.  The text from Acts stresses the importance of listening to God and not men, and the gospel is all about how Jesus’ divine origins require our obedience.  Set as they are on this memorial of Joseph, it seems almost that the designers of the lectionary were in some way deliberately avoiding giving even the slightest nod to Joseph’s role in the life of Jesus.  So, at the end of these readings I find myself saying again, poor Joseph?

Coincidentally, I was recently reviewing a collection of essays dealing with early Christian interpretation of the Bible.  One of the essays was called “Augustine, Sermon 51: St. Joseph in Early Christianity.”*  The first line of the essay runs thus: “The Church of the first millennium showed little interest in Joseph, the husband of Mary.  To our knowledge, no Father of the Church ever preached a sermon on Joseph. No feast of St. Joseph was celebrated before A.D. 1000, at the earliest.  The Fathers wrote little on Joseph. Indeed Joseph seems principally to have been an embarrassment, a possible obstacle to the Church’s doctrines of the divine paternity of Christ and Mary’s perpetual virginity.”  The article, however, goes on to explain that, although not a sermon dedicated to Joseph, Augustine’s sermon 51 contains one of the most complete early Christian reflections on Joseph from the early church, and it is largely positive.  According to Augustine we can say two important things of Joseph: 1) Mary and Joseph contracted a true marriage, and 2) Joseph may be called the father of Jesus.  Augustine explains: “Whoso then says that he ought not to be called a father, because he did not beget his son in the usual way, looks rather to the satisfaction of passion in the procreation of children, and not the natural feeling of affection.  What others desire to fulfill in the flesh, he in a more excellent way fulfilled in the spirit.”

Dare I say, invoking Saint Augustine, Joseph the worker, the father of Jesus?  Perhaps some hearing this will “become infuriated,” but I hope not.  As a father of four, I find it difficult to imagine Joseph not suffering with his wife as they experience the crucifixion of their son.  As the psalmist intones, “many are the troubles of the just man,” even just men working in quiet obscurity in Nazareth. 

Although largely out of the limelight, it is worth remembering that Joseph played an important role in raising Jesus and, perhaps, even helped Jesus develop his own image of the Father.  In this Easter season, however, it is perhaps best to remember that Joseph also experienced Jesus’ resurrection and lived into that mystery.  He is, after all, SAINT Joseph and worthy of our admiration and devotion.

*Leinhard, Joseph T. Augustin, Sermon 51: St. Joseph in Early Christianity.” In In Dominico eloquio-In Lordly Eloquence: Essays on Patristic Exegesis in Honor of Robert Louis Wilken. Edited by Paul M. Blowers, Angela Russell Christman, David G. Hunter, and Robin Darling Young. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002

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