About the Festival
No fully historical account of even a part of Joseph’s life is possible, for he left only a faint imprint on the tradition. He is not mentioned in Mark’s Gospel; John mentions only his name in the phrase “Jesus son of Joseph” (1:45; 6:42).
Genealogies of Matthew 1:2-16 and Luke 3:23-38, although different, both trace Joseph’s ancestry through David and are concerned with showing that Joseph was Jesus’ legal father. While Matthew and Luke agree that Joseph’s historical connections were with Bethlehem, Matthew implies that Joseph was a resident of Bethlehem who settled in Nazareth to avoid living under Archelaus in Judea (2:22-23), while Luke says that he lived in Nazareth before the birth of Jesus and went to Bethlehem according to the requirement of the enrollment (2:1ff., 39).
Joseph is an accessory figure in the infancy narratives who was present at the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:16), the circumcision (2:21), the presentation (2:22), and the search for Jesus in the Temple (2:41-52). His trade was that of a carpenter (Matt. 13:55), although the Greek term could mean simply “artisan,” as was Jesus also (Mark 6:3). Joseph is portrayed as a “just” man (Matt. 1:19), that is, a devout adherent to the Law; one who was kind and wise, like the patriarchs gladly responding to visionary dreams; a faithful and affectionate father to Jesus.
He was apparently alive when Jesus’ ministry began (Matt. 13:55), but we do not hear of him again. Presumably he had died by the time of the crucifixion so that Jesus commended his mother to the care of the beloved disciple (John 19:26-27), a gesture that would have been unnecessary if Mary’s husband had been alive. Yet the usual portrayal of Joseph as an old man is not explicitly supported by the Gospels; it begins rather in the second century in a Gospel attributed to James the Less. A fifth-century History of Joseph the Carpenter says that Joseph was widowed at eighty-nine years of age and that Mary became his ward when he was ninety-one.
The first known commemoration of Joseph occurs in an eighth-century calendar from northern France or Belgium, which for March 20 lists Joseph and calls him “spouse of Mary.” The title remained, and on the present Roman calendar as well as the United Methodist calendar in For All the Saints, Joseph is identified as “husband of Mary.” In the early ninth-century calendars, such as the Reichenau Martyrology of ca. 850, Joseph is commemorated on March 19; the reason for the change in date is not known. The Franciscans, especially Bernardine of Siena (d. 1444), promoted the feast of St. Joseph. The celebration was introduced in Rome about 1479 and, especially since the fifteenth century, its popularity has greatly increased. Joseph’s cult spread rapidly after Teresa of Avila dedicated the motherhouse of her order to him. The late spread of the feast probably accounts for its omission on Lutheran and Anglican calendars at the time of the Reformation. In 1870 Pius IX declared Joseph to be the patron and guardian of the universal Church; the 1920 edition of the Missal introduced a special proper preface for the day, retained in the present Roman Sacramentary (1970); in 1962 John XXIII introduced Joseph’s name into the canon of the Mass. In 1955 the Roman Catholic Church added May 1 as the feast of St. Joseph the worker as a response to the Socialist May Day in honor of labor and a symbol of the rights of workers. The Feast of the Holy Family on the Sunday within the octave of Christmas (or, if there is no Sunday within the octave, on December 30) also commemorates the parents of Jesus.
In the Eastern Churches, Joseph is grouped with the patriarchs of the Old Testament. He is the last of that line, which culminates in Jesus, the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2), and when Joseph flees to Egypt with his family, he recapitulates the pilgrimage of the patriarch Joseph as a preparation for the new exodus and the Christian Passover (Genesis 37; 50:22-26; Hos. 11:1; Matt. 2:13-23).
St. Joseph is regarded as a patron saint of Canada.
Excerpts from New Book of Festivals & Commemorations: A Proposed Common Calendar of Saints by Philip H. Pfatteicher, copyright, 2008 by Fortress Press, an imprint of Augsburg Fortress.
See also: Saint Joseph
From a sermon by Bernardine of Siena
There is a general rule concerning all special graces granted to any human being. Whenever the divine favor chooses someone to receive a special grace, or to accept a lofty vocation, God adorns the person chosen with all the gifts of the Spirit needed to fulfill the task at hand.
This general rule is especially verified in the case of Saint Joseph, the foster-father of our Lord and the husband of the Queen of our world, enthroned above the angels. He was chosen by the eternal Father as the trustworthy guardian and protector of his greatest treasure, namely, his divine Son and Mary, Joseph’s wife. He carried out this vocation with complete fidelity until at last God called him, saying, “Good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord.” [Matt. 25:21]
What then is Joseph’s position in the whole Church of Christ? Is he not a man chosen and set apart? Through him and, yes, under him, Christ was fittingly and honorably introduced into the world. Holy Church in its entirety is indebted to the Virgin Mother because through her it was judged worthy to receive Christ. But after her we undoubtedly owe special gratitude and reverence to Saint Joseph. In him the Old Testament finds its fitting close. He brought the noble line of patriarchs and prophets to its promised fulfillment. What the divine goodness had offered as a promise to them, he held in his arms.
Sermon 2, from the English Translation of the Office of Readings from the Liturgy of the Hours, International Committee on English in the Liturgy, Inc.
O God, who from the family of your servant David raised up Joseph to be the guardian of your incarnate Son and the spouse of his virgin mother: Give us grace to imitate his uprightness of life and his obedience to your commands; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.
BCP; rev. in ELW
Readings: 2 Samuel 7:4, 8-16; Psalm 89:1-29 or 89:1-4, 26-29; Romans 4:13-18; Luke 2:41-52 or Matthew 1:18-24a
Hymn of the Day: “Our Father, by whose name all fatherhood is known” (H82 587, LBW 357, LSB 863, ELW 640) or “Come now and praise the humble saint” (H82 260) or “By the Creator, Joseph was appointed” (H82 262)
Prayers: For fathers and foster parents; For quiet confidence; For humble service; For those who work with their hands: artisans and laborers; In thanksgiving for the patriarchs and prophets.
Preface: Epiphany (BCP)