Today is the feast day of Saint Joseph. Ora pro nobis. (2017 moved to Monday, March 20)
Adapted from The Liturgical Year by Abbot Gueranger and other sources.
Today St. Joseph, the Spouse of Mary, the Foster-Father of the Son of God, comes to cheer us by his dear presence. In a few days hence, the august Mystery of the Incarnation will demand our fervent adoration; who, after the Angel of Annunciation, could better prepare us for that grand Feast, than he that was both the confidant and faithful guardian of the divine secret?
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 would be recognized as the Son of God, His Mother's honor had need of a protector: some man, therefore, was to be called to the high honor of being Mary's Spouse. This privileged mortal was St. 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 fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaias: There shall come forth a rod from the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root (11: 1). The rich pretenders to a marriage with Mary were set aside; and St. 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: “Thy father and I have sought Thee, sorrowing” (Luke 2: 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 (justus—the just man Matt. 1: 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's 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, honored 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 though it was, to flee into Egypt with the Child and His Mother; the hardships of that exile, the poverty and 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 Angels and the Eternal Son of God, both of whom honored and tenderly loved him as the head of the family—yes, St. Joseph was beloved and honored by the uncreated Word, the Wisdom of the Father, and by the Virgin Mary, the masterpiece of God's power and holiness.
We ask, what mortal can justly appreciate the glories of St. 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 St. 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 Savior's being sold; the second Joseph, that he might avoid Herod's envy, led Jesus into Egypt. 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 grain, 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” (Homily 2, on Missus est).
Such a life could not close save by a death which was worthy of so great a Saint. The time came for Jesus to quit the obscurity of Nazareth, and show Himself to the world. His own works were to bear testimony to His divine origin; the ministry of St. 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 (at the Ascension of Our Lord). As Joseph laid on his bed of death, there was watching by his side He that is the Master of life, and Who 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 Spouse. It was thus, with Jesus and Mary by his side, caring for and caressing him, that St. 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.
This Feast appears to have been celebrated first by the Coptic Christians—some historians say as early as the beginning of the fourth century—who fixed it on their calendar on July 20. Some time after the ninth century, the Greeks began to commemorate St. Joseph on the two Sundays—before and after Christmas. According to Pope Benedict XIV, “the general opinion of the learned is that the Fathers of Carmel were the first to import from the East into the West the laudable custom of giving the fullest cultus (liturgical honor) to St. Joseph” (De Servi Dei Beatif. I, iv, n. 11; xx., n. 17). His feast was introduced towards the end of the 13th century into the Dominican calendar. Gerson, the Chancellor of Notre-Dame, composed on Office in honor of the Espousals of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph in 1400, and promoted it at the Council of Constance in 1414. Finally Pope Sixtus IV (1471-84) fixed this Feast in the Roman Calendar on March 19. At first it was only a festum simplex; but the next Pope, Innocent VIII (1484-92) quickly raised it to the rank of duplex. In 1621 Pope Gregory XV declared it a Holyday of Obligation, at the request of the Emperors Ferdinand III and Leopold I, and of King Charles II of Spain. Pope Clement XI (1700-21) raised it to the rank of Double of the Second Class.
One Feast was not enough to satisfy the piety of devout Catholics. The Feast of the Espousals of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph, as we have seen, was strenuously advocated by Gerson and first permitted by Pope Paul III to the Franciscans. Later it was extended to other Religious Orders and Dioceses, and in 1725, to all countries that solicited it—the day appointed being January 23. St. Teresa of Avila had very much promoted devotion to St. Joseph, especially amongst the reformed Carmelites. In 1621 the reformed Order chose St. Joseph for its Patron, and in 1683 were allowed to celebrate the Feast of his Patronage on the 3rd Sunday after Easter. This Feast, soon adopted throughout Spain, was later on extended to all states and Dioceses which asked for the privilege. In 1847 Pope Pius IX extended the Feast of the Patronage of St. Joseph to the Universal Church; in 1870—just months after the Vatican Council had adjourned and Rome had fallen to the troops of Victor Emmanuel—the same Pope solemnly declared St. Joseph the Patron of the Universal Church, and enjoined that the Feast of March 19 be raised to the rank of Double of the I Class. Pope Benedict XV confirmed this injunction in 1917. Meanwhile the Feast of the Patronage was transferred by Pope St. Pius X, in 1911, to the Wednesday before the Third Sunday after Easter—as the Solemnity of St. Joseph. This was replaced by Pope Pius XII, in 1955, with the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, May 1.
O sublime minister of the greatest of blessings, intercede for us with God made man. Ask Him to bestow humility upon us, that holy virtue which raised thee to such exalted dignity, and which must be the basis of our conversion. It is pride that led us into sin, and made us prefer our own will to that of God; yet He will pardon us if we offer Him the sacrifice of a contrite and humble heart (Ps. 50: 19). Obtain for us this virtue, without which there can be no true penance. Pray also for us, O St. Joseph, that we may be chaste. Without purity of mind and body we cannot come nigh the God of all sanctity, Who suffers nothing defiled to approach Him. He wills to make our bodies, by His grace, the temples of His Holy Spirit: do thou, great Saint, help us to maintain ourselves in so exalted a dignity, or to recover it if we have lost it.
And lastly, O faithful Spouse of Mary, recommend us to our Mother. If She cast a look of pity upon us during these days of reconciliation (the Holy Season of Lent), we shall be saved: for She is the Queen of Mercy, and Jesus, Her Son, will pardon us and change our hearts, if She intercede for us, O St. Joseph! Remind Her of Bethlehem, Egypt, and Nazareth, in all of which She received from thee such marks of thy devotedness. Tell Her that we, also, love and honor thee; and Mary will reward us for our devotion to him who was given Her by Heaven as Her protector and support. (10)
by Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876
“There was not found the like to Him.”–Eccl. 44.
“Out of many hearts thoughts shall be revealed,” thus spoke Simeon in the temple to Mary, the mother of the divine Child. Nineteen centuries have passed away since that hour, and how wonderfully have the predictions of Simeon and that of Mary herself, which she so solemnly made from Jerusalem's height, been verified. “Henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.” Every Catholic heart feels, in the love and devotion of a child of God, the most tender veneration to Mary, and a confidence which has never yet been disappointed; and the same is true of the holy father St. Joseph, who, with Mary, the mother of the divine Child, presented himself before Simeon. To Joseph, also, Simeon could direct those words: “But on you, also, the hearts of men shall be revealed.”
It is true that the faithful experience, in regard to the different saints, different sentiments of love and devotion, and have for this or that saint a greater veneration, or a greater confidence in his power. There is, however, one saint, of whom it can be asserted, that the entire body of the faithful unite in entertaining a particular veneration for him, and that saint is the great St. Joseph.
To prove the truth of this, you may ask your own hearts: “Do you not feel a special reverence for St. Joseph? and do you not cherish the utmost confidence in his intercession?” There can be but one answer, and that is, yes; but still I doubt whether you have considered and reflected upon the justice of the reasons which prove that St. Joseph is not only a great and mighty saint, but that his intercession is, after that of Mary, the most powerful in heaven.
Let me place clearly before your eyes today that this is the case. St. Joseph, after Mary, the greatest of all the saints, raised highest in Heaven, next to Mary, will be the theme of my sermon for his feast today. O Mary, bless the words which issue from my lips for the glorification of your virginal spouse, the great St. Joseph! I speak in the most holy name of Jesus, for the greater glory of God!
I say: Honor St. Joseph more than any one of the other saints; for he is not only a great saint, but he is also, next to Mary, the holiest of them all, and, therefore, his intercession is the most powerful. Certainly it is not becoming for us, as St. Alphonsus Liguori, with other doctors of the Church, admonishes us, to attempt to estimate the greatness of the saints, according to our own pleasure and predilection, and in this way maintain a preference for one above the other. There can be saints, who, beyond a doubt, exteriorly accomplished many more astonishing and glorious deeds; but God sees the heart of His unknown servants, and what they accomplished before Him will not be known by the world till the day of judgment, which will reveal it all.
However, as the same St. Alphonsus and other equally unquestionable authorities teach, we may, in regard to the holy Apostles, assert without hesitation that they are elevated in heaven above all the choirs of saints, nearest to Christ. The reason of this assertion lies in the position which they held upon earth in the kingdom of God.
For what determines the degree of our future glorification in heaven? First, the degree of election, which was bestowed upon us on earth in the kingdom of God; secondly, the measure of grace, corresponding to this calling; thirdly, the zeal and fidelity with which we made use of them. Let us apply what I have said to St. Joseph.
Christ spent an entire night in prayer, and selected twelve from among the whole human race to be with Him. These twelve formed His Apostolic Court. And as Christ departed this world, He directed to them these words: “As My Father has sent Me, I also send you. Whosoever hears you, hears Me. Whosoever honors you, honors Me. Go forth into the whole world, and preach the gospel to all nations. Whatsoever you bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven. I have elected you.” By these words Christ refers to the most glorious calling of the Apostles in the kingdom of Christ upon earth,–a calling which elevated the Apostles above all the rest of the human race, and by which undoubtedly they will be forever distinguished in heaven by the most resplendent glory.
“You will sit with Me on twelve thrones;” thus Christ Himself assures us. But however glorious was the calling of the Apostles in comparison to that of other men, how immeasurably higher still was that of St. Joseph!
Joseph, by the side of Christ here on earth, was to represent the place of the heavenly Father, as the foster-father of Jesus, the virginal spouse and husband of the Mother of Jesus Christ, the Queen of heaven and earth. He stood in this relation already at the manger, when Jesus entered into the world, and remained not only three years, as the Apostles did, by His side, but during nearly thirty years.
The Apostles walked with Christ, surrounded by a multitude of people; Jesus seldom spoke to any one of them. Joseph abode with Jesus alone, and conversed with Him at pleasure at any time, as his fosterfather was entitled to do.
Christ confided to the Apostles the establishment of His Church. To St. Joseph was assigned the care of Him who is the Founder of that Church. In this position, as the foster-father of Christ, it was fitting that St. Joseph should lead so holy a life that, according to the common family life, it might, could such a thing have been possible, have served as a model even for the Child Jesus Himself. St. Joseph had to lead such a life of perfection that Christ, as the foster-Son, could not but feel obliged to honor it with child-like reverence.
Such was not the case with the Apostles. They were frail men, whom Christ found it sometimes necessary to reprove; where, as any thing like this, can never be thought of in regard of St. Joseph. Therefore, St. Joseph must surely have so lived that no shadow of imperfection ever fell upon him; yes, so as to leave not the slightest reason for us to think that Jesus could ever have evinced the least desire to say: “This or that man would have been more worthy than you to be My foster-father.” No; the testimony which Holy Scripture gave to St. Joseph, “He was a just man,” literally proves itself. He was holy, and no other saint ever attained to as great a degree of sanctity.
The same is consequently true of his relations with Mary. The man is the head of the family, and should, therefore, in his situation, live, so as to be a pattern to his wife. But it was fitting that Mary also should honor St. Joseph, and that he should live so that, could such a thing again have been possible, Mary, who is the mirror of justice, might have taken example from him, and had reason to admire the sanctity of her earthly spouse.
What a saint, therefore, was St. Joseph among the saints! I remarked secondly: The degree of glory in heaven, depends on the measure of graces which are imparted to the Christian here on earth, on account of his state in life; therefore, a fuller measure of grace was meted out to the Apostles than to other saints; since Christ elected them for an office which was above that of all others. They were to become the heralds of faith, the foundation and pillars of glory, surrounding the throne of Jesus Christ in heaven.
If this be so, how great must not have been that measure of grace which was imparted to St. Joseph, whose office far surpassed that of the Apostles, as we have just now considered!
The means to increase grace in our hearts is, above all, prayer; therefore, even the Apostles admonish the faithful to pray for it. How effective, therefore, must the prayer of St. Joseph have been, of him who lived in the closest proximity to Jesus and Mary; prayed with them, and to whom they surely never refused a petition. Not only that; but it was he for whom Jesus, as his foster-Son, and Mary, as his virginal spouse, were obliged to pray.
O Joseph, thrice happy saint! St. Bernardine of Sienna is right, when he draws from this single reason the conclusion that Joseph was the greatest of all the saints on earth, and is now abiding nearest to Mary in heaven, and, after her, nearest the throne of the Source of all graces!
Finally, the degree of glory in heaven depends on the fidelity with which a soul uses the graces imparted to her for her blessed end. Such was the case with the Apostles. They lived so that they all with perfect justice could cry out to the faithful, with St. Paul: “Be ye my imitators, as I am an imitator of Christ.”
Still, how much more does this hold good of our holy father St. Joseph, who had the example and pattern of Christ, during thirty years before his eyes, and, therefore, the opportunity of earning daily, yes, hourly, merits of the highest degree of recompense in heaven. The Apostles cared for the salvation of souls, which were once slaves of the devil. St. Joseph had to provide for Jesus and Mary!
Besides this, a tradition exists in the Church which asserts that St. Joseph is already united with His glorified body in heaven; and would it not be most appropriate that he, as the third person of the holy family, should, like Jesus and Mary, be thus glorified above all the choirs of saints? And it is an incontrovertible fact that no relics of the great saint have ever been found.
Honor, therefore, St. Joseph as the greatest of saints, above all the other celestial inhabitants of heaven. Christ, indeed, speaks of St. John as the greatest of all born of a woman; but as it is evident that he and his blessed Mother are exceptions to this, we may believe that St. Joseph, for the reason above mentioned, is likewise not included. His place in heaven, as it was on earth, is by the side of Jesus the King of all saints, and by Mary their Queen, and his glory therefore outshines that of the most glorious. Therefore, children of the Church, honor him as the greatest, the dearest, the most powerful of the saints, and recommend yourselves to his protection now and at the hour of your death. Amen! (7)
Image: St Joseph with the Infant Jesus, artist: Guido Reni, circa 1620. (26)
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff