Dom Prosper Guéranger:
The Son of God, when about to descend upon this Earth to assume our human nature, would have a Mother. This Mother could not be other than the purest of virgins, and her Divine Maternity was not to impair her incomparable virginity. Until such time as the Son of Mary were recognised as the Son of God, His Mother’s honour had need of a protector: some man, therefore, was to be called to the high honour of being Mary’s spouse. This privileged mortal was Joseph, the most chaste of men. Heaven designated him as being the only one worthy of such a treasure: the rod he held in his hand in the temple suddenly produced a flower, as though it were a literal fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaias: “There will come forth a rod from the root of Jesse, and a flower will rise up out of his root” (Isaias xi. 1).
The rich pretenders to an alliance with Mary were set aside, and Joseph was espoused to the virgin of the House of David by a union which surpassed in love and purity everything the Angels themselves had ever witnessed. But he was not only chosen to the glory of having to protect the Mother of the Incarnate Word. He was also called to exercise an adopted paternity over the very Son of God. So long as the mysterious cloud was over the Saint of Saints, men called Jesus the son of Joseph, and the carpenter’s son. When our Blessed Lady found the Child Jesus in the Temple, in the midst of the Doctors, she thus addressed Him: “Your father and I, sorrowing, have sought you” (Luke ii. 48), and the holy Evangelist adds that Jesus was subject to them, that is, that He was subject to Joseph as He was to Mary.
Who can imagine or worthily describe the sentiments which filled the heart of this man whom the Gospel describes to us in one word when it calls him the just man? (Matthew i. 19) Let us try to picture him to ourselves amidst the principal events of his life: his being chosen as the spouse of Mary, the most holy and perfect of God’s creatures; the Angel appearing to him and making him the one single human confidant of the mystery of the Incarnation by telling him that his Virgin Spouse bore within her the fruit of the world’s salvation; the joys of Bethlehem, when he assisted at the birth of the Divine Babe, honoured the Virgin Mother, and heard the Angels singing; his seeing, first the humble and simple shepherds, and then the rich Eastern Magi, coming to the stable to adore the new-born child; the sudden fears which came on him when he was told to arise and, midnight as it was, to flee into Egypt with the child and the Mother; the hardships of that exile, the poverty and the privations which were endured by the hidden God, whose foster- father he was, and by the Virgin Spouse, whose sublime dignity was now so evident to him; the return to Nazareth, and the humble and laborious life led in that village where he so often witnessed the world’s Creator sharing in the work of a carpenter; the happiness of such a life in that cottage where his companions were the Queen of the Angels and the Eternal Son of God, both of whom honoured and tenderly loved him as the head of the family — yes, Joseph was beloved and honoured by the uncreated Word, the Wisdom of the Father, and by the Virgin, the masterpiece of God’s power and holiness.
We ask, what mortal can justly appreciate the glories of Saint Joseph? To do so, he would have to understand the whole of that Mystery of which God made him the necessary instrument. What wonder then if this foster-father of the Son of God was prefigured in the Old Testament, and that by one of the most glorious of the Patriarchs? Let us listen to Saint Bernard who thus compares the two Josephs: “The first was sold by his brethren out of envy, and was led into Egypt, thus prefiguring our Saviour being sold. The second Joseph, that he might avoid Herod’s envy, led Jesus into Egypt. The first was faithful to his master, and treated his wife with honour. The second, too, was the most chaste guardian of his spouse, the Virgin Mother of his Lord. To the first was given the understanding and interpretation of dreams, to the second the knowledge of, and participation in, the heavenly Mysteries. The first laid up stores of corn, not for himself, but for all the people. The second received the Living Bread that came down from Heaven, and kept It both for himself and for the whole world.”
Such a life could not close save by a death that was worthy of so great a Saint. The time came for Jesus to depart from the obscurity of Nazareth and show Himself to the world. His own works were henceforth to bear testimony to His divine origin. The ministry of Joseph, therefore, was no longer needed. It was time for him to leave this world and wait, in Abraham’s bosom, the arrival of that day when Heaven’s gates were to be opened to the Just. As Joseph lay on his bed of death, there was watching by his side He that is the master of life and that had often called this His humble creature, Father. His last breath was received by the glorious Virgin Mother whom he had, by a just right, called his souse. It was thus, with Jesus and Mary by his side, caring and caressing him, that Joseph sweetly slept in peace. The spouse of Mary, the foster-father of Jesus, now reigns in Heaven with a glory which, though inferior to that of Mary, is marked with certain prerogatives which no other inhabitant of Heaven can have.
The First of May is a religious feast in honour of Saint Joseph under the title of ‘Saint Joseph the Worker.’ At a time when the influence of the Italian Communist Party and other left-wing parties was on the rise in the political life of the nation, the Venerable Pius XII abolished the feast of the Patronage of Saint Joseph (instituted in 1847) and replaced it with a Christian feast for workers to counter the secular and atheistic celebrations of the day. The feast of Saint Joseph the Worker was established on the First of May 1955 in fulfilment of a request from the Christian Association of Italian Workers, “to point out to all the world’s workers the way to personal sanctification through work, and thereby to restore the perspective of authentic humanisation to the drudgery of daily life” (Pope Benedict XVI, the 27th of January 2006). As Pope Leo XIII wrote many years earlier, Saint Joseph “passed his life in labour, and won by the toil of the artisan the needful support of his family. It is, then, true that the condition of the lowly has nothing shameful in it, and the work of the labourer is not only not dishonouring, but can, if virtue be joined to it, be singularly ennobled. Joseph, content with his slight possessions, bore the trials consequent on a fortune so slender, with greatness of soul, in imitation of his Son, who having put on the form of a slave, being the Lord of life, subjected himself of his own free-will to the spoliation and loss of everything.”
A particular devotion to Saint Joseph was slow to develop in the West. In the East there was a feast of the saint as early as the beginning of the fourth century, and an oratory dedicated to Saint Joseph formed part of the Basilica in Bethlehem erected by Saint Helena. However, it was not until the twelfth century that the first church in the West was dedicated in his honour, and only two centuries later was there any real new impetus to the devotion.
The spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary and foster-father of Our Lord Jesus Christ was “of the house and family of David,” (Luke i: 27 and ii: 4) and was “a just man” (Matthew i: 29). Doing as the Lord commanded him through His angel, he took Mary as his wife and named her child Jesus, fled with them into Egypt to keep Our Lord safe from King Herod, and returned with them to settle in Nazareth after Herod’s death (Matthew ii: 13-23). Saint Joseph was still alive when Jesus was 12 years old, because Saint Luke tells us that the Holy Family went up to Jerusalem (as they did every year) for the Passover, “according to the custom of the feast” (Luke ii: 42). When Mary and Joseph were returning home and realised that Jesus was missing, they went back to find him, after three days, in the Temple “in the midst of the doctors,” listening to them and asking questions (Luke ii: 46). After Our Lady reproached her Son for going missing, “he went down with them and came to and was subject to them” (Luke ii: 51). After this event, the Gospels are silent on the remainder of Saint Joseph’s life. It is not known when he died, but when Jesus attended the marriage at Cana, at which he performed his first public miracle, only his mother was there. And Saint Joseph was not present with Mary and the Beloved Disciple John at the foot of the cross when Jesus died.
As the head and protector of the Holy Family and a humble carpenter, Saint Joseph is the perfect role model for men as a father, husband and worker. He is rightly venerated and loved for his deep faith and heroic virtues of pious humility and ardent charity, his perfect obedience and submission to the will of God, and his chastity and holiness. As Patron of the Universal Church, he is also a role model for the interior life for priests and religious.
To an age in revolt against lawful authority, and puffed up with a spirit of independence and inquiry, the Church holds up St. Joseph as a model of perfect obedience and resignation, without murmur or hesitation, to God’s holy will. To an age devoured by love of wealth and riches, St. Joseph is a model of holy poverty, ministering with joy and happiness to the wants of Jesus and Mary, by the labour of his hands. To an age corrupt and wallowing in sensual pleasures, the Church presents St. Joseph as a model of perfect continence and holy purity. To an age enslaved by ambition for honours, applause, glory and high station, the Church presents St. Joseph, the noble descendant of the royal house of David, hidden and unknown, as well as happy and contented, in his workshop at Nazareth. To all Christians St. Joseph is a perfect model of simple faith in the most sublime mysteries; of prompt obedience to the calls of Divine Providence; of perfect resignation in all things to God’s holy will; of immaculate purity of soul and body; of a laborious and holy life; and of a happy death in the arms of Jesus and Mary (Kinane, St. Joseph: His Life, His Virtues, His Privileges, His Power, 255).