Guido Reni, circa 1635

St. Joseph was born some time before the first century in Bethlehem. He became the guardian of Jesus Christ and the husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary. St. Joseph is especially honored in the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Oriental Orthodox, and Anglican (including Episcopal) Churches. He’s the patron saint of the Catholic Church, children, fathers, immigrants, workers, and more. It’s believed that he died some time between Jesus’s bar mitzvah and the beginning of His ministry at age 30.

March 19 is his feast day in Western Christianity. It’s celebrated on the First Sunday after the Nativity of Christ in Eastern Orthodoxy. Roman Catholics also celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker on May 1.

St. Joseph is the patron saint of many churches and places where his feast day is a community celebration. For example, in honor of St. Joseph, March 19 is also Father’s Day in Italy.

In the first few centuries, early Christians venerated only martyrs as saints. So there are no written biographies about St. Joseph until the fourth century when it occurred to someone in the East how important St. Joseph was and that he should be remembered and celebrated. Alas, none of the written stories about him from that point on can be considered accurate. Although subsequent saints and popes wrote much in the way of veneration of St. Joseph in heaven, everything we have about the biography of St. Joseph comes from the gospels.

The details are sparse because the purpose of the gospels was not to be a historical or biographical record, but to guide and teach early Christians how to pray and behave in their new world. Perhaps Mark left Joseph out of his gospel altogether because he didn’t want to confuse the new Christians with an extra father when the whole point of Jesus’s life and message was that he was the Son of God. Perhaps, too, this is why John only mentions Joseph once. However, Matthew and Luke mention Joseph several times with emphasis on different aspects of his life.

First we get the ancestry of Jesus in Matthew 1:1-18 and Luke 3:23-38. Matthew’s list goes back to Abraham while Luke’s list goes all the way back to Adam. The purpose of the genealogy was to prove that between Mary and Joseph, Jesus was born into the perfect family. According to Scripture, Jesus was a direct descendant of God’s chosen people.

Because of his lineage and upbringing, Joseph was a faithful Jew. Although there have been many theories, it’s unknown how old he was when he became engaged to Mary. Theories also abound regarding the translation of “brothers” or “cousins,” and/or the possibility of stepbrothers. Let’s go with the idea that theirs was a typical arranged marriage:

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. — Matthew 1:18-25

Gaetano Gandolfi, circa 1790

The gospels record no speech uttered by Joseph. Some people reason that this is because he was a humble, quiet man. It’s also possible that the authors felt the need to keep Joseph hidden and on the sidelines because his presence muddies up the fact that Jesus was the Son of God. If that’s so, I find it unfortunate that they had such little faith in the abilities of their readers to comprehend that Jesus could have his Heavenly Father as well as a father on earth charged with his care during his childhood.

Yet, the above biblical passage tells us a lot about Joseph. First off, the marrying age for females in their time and place in history was around 13 and the punishment for a woman charged by her husband with adultery was to be taken outside the city walls and stoned to death. So we can understand Joseph’s hesitation in publicly accusing Mary. Also, one can see in his character that he was probably more perplexed than angry. His decision to dismiss or divorce her quietly shows that he was the right man and open to the angel’s message.

Joseph remembered the details of the dream and did exactly what the angel of the Lord told him to do. As a pious Jew, he believed that the angel was speaking for God and he understood the reference to the scripture. At this point, he may not have fully understood who Jesus would turn out to be, but he obeyed God because he was indeed a righteous man.

Now, although Joseph was born in Bethlehem, he moved to Nazareth at some point in his life probably due to work:

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. — Luke 2:1-7

Marten de Vos, Circa 1577

In this time and place in history, many houses were adjacent to caves and livestock in the house was commonplace, especially during bad weather. So it’s possible that Mary’s delivery was routine and perhaps even that she was assisted by Joseph’s relatives or a midwife. The point of the manger is to emphasis that Jesus was born into a poor family and had a truly humble beginning. And then:

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah (Christ), the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace and good will among people.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. — Luke 2:8-20

Again no words from Joseph or about Joseph other than he was there when the shepherds told them about the angels and their message. If Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart, what did Joseph do or think? Like a good father, he took care of his family. He saw to their needs and comfort, then planned their trip to the temple:

After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. — Luke 2:21

Joseph followed the Jewish law in the above ritual. He named his baby Jesus as instructed by the angel of God. In Hebrew Jesus means “Yahweh saves.” In honor of this custom of giving babies names implying their destiny, many people name their children after saints. This shows respect and honor to the saints themselves (as well as older relatives), but it also particularly promotes the sharing of saintly character and reputation.

Another rite took place at the temple at the appropriate time:

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. — Luke: 2:22-38


Rembrandt, c. 1627

The offering of birds shows again that the family was poor and could not afford to offer something more expensive such as a lamb or calf.

The presence of Simeon in the temple links the Old Testament to the New Testament, and his words emphasize that the baby Jesus was the Messiah they had been waiting for. Anna’s recognition of Jesus adds validity to this identification.

Simeon blessed both Jesus’s mother and father. But he spoke only to Mary when he prophesied that she would be deeply hurt before the end. His leaving Joseph out of this prediction is a foreshadowing that there would come a time when he’d no longer be needed. We have no idea if Joseph allowed himself to recognize that part of the message.

After they returned to Bethlehem, they were visited by the wise men. It’s been calculated that Jesus was a toddler at this time. In fact, it was discovered that due to a mistaken calendar maker in the sixth century, Jesus was actually born around 6 B.C. What a blessed we’re-only-human irony! We switch now to Matthew:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. — Matthew 2:1-12

Bernardo Cavallino, 17th Century

Joseph is not named in this passage at all. It’s possible that he was out working when these men arrived at the home, but unlikely. According to custom, it was not appropriate for a woman of the house to accept male visitors without her husband or other adult male relatives also present. So Joseph was there and probably again in great awe as to the effect the little boy was having on the world. Perhaps he prayed for guidance in raising Jesus, so he didn’t need to be told twice on this one:

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” — Matthew 2:13-15

St. Joseph’s Church, Egypt, Ohio

Joseph and his family left immediately for Egypt and escaped the insane cruelty of Herod in the Massacre of the Holy Innocents.

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.” — Matthew 2:19-23

Luke leaves out the whole bit about the wise men, Herod, the Massacre of the Holy Innocents, and Egypt, writing only:

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. — Luke 2:39-40

John Everett Millais, 1850

Then again, Matthew left out the whole story of the nativity. This is due to the fact that their guidebooks had differing emphases for their early Christian readers. Thankfully, we have the option to read and combine all four versions of the gospels.

The last story about Jesus and both of his parents comes from Luke:

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”

He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. — Luke: 2:41-51

(See Blessed Mother Mary and the Boy Jesus in the Temple for Mary’s point of view in this passage.)

Why doesn’t Luke have Joseph speak here during this agitated situation in the temple? Why was it Mary who spoke to her son in the temple in front of all the teachers? One reason is because it was customary for a Jewish mother to be all in the business of her son. Plus, both Mary and Joseph were freaking out with worry and her speaking on behalf of Joseph shows her love and caretaking of him. Further, this event was a key part of the growth of Jesus, not only did He recognize Himself as the Son of God, but He declared it as well. Before this event, one can imagine how easy it would be for Mary and Joseph to get lost in the day-to-day duties of raising their son. So it’s possible that Joseph was simply shocked into silence.

And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. — Luke 2:52

When they returned home to Nazareth, Jesus continued his apprenticeship to his father the tektonTekton is a common word in ancient Greek which means artisan, carpenter, builder, iron worker, smith, or stone mason. So it’s hard to say which was Joseph’s area of expertise. He may have been something like a contractor, knowledgeable in everything needed to create a home. These are the skills he taught Jesus.

Jesus probably took over the business from his father, perhaps as Joseph’s health declined. Because there is no mention of Joseph being at the Wedding at Cana or at any event during Jesus’s ministry, it’s more than likely that Joseph died before Jesus turned 30. Odds are that when Joseph died, he was with his precious son who was God on earth, and his beloved wife through whom Jesus came to him. So the likelihood that Joseph had an easy and joyful passing to heaven is so high that he’s remembered as the patron saint of happy death even though there’s no mention of it in the gospels.

The next and only time Joseph is mentioned in the gospels is in John after Jesus began preaching to large groups:

Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” — John 6:41-42

Jesus refers indirectly to his loving relationship with Joseph every time He describes how much our Father in heaven loves and cares for us. We can also find references to Joseph’s teachings of the every day stuff of life in Jesus’ parables.

In his lifetime, did Joseph ever truly understand everything there is to know about Jesus? I think not. He learned gradually as do we all. Sometimes if we are open as well as blessed, we get messages somewhat similar to Joseph’s angelic communiqués. More likely than not though, our learning and understanding of Jesus builds upon itself day by day.

Did Joseph allow this lack of full understanding of Jesus, along with the knowledge that he wasn’t His biological father, get in the way of loving Jesus and caring for Him the best way he knew how? Of course not. There is enough information in the gospels for us to see that Joseph loved God, the Son on earth, and his own precious child all in one. It’s a love that only gets complicated if you think about it too hard — a father’s love.

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, for ever and ever. Amen. — Collect, Book of Common Prayer

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LIVES OF THE SAINTS by Richard P. McBrien


St. Joseph’s Day Altars

Before I begin my research on each saint, I call my father and ask, “What did Grandma do for St. ________’s Day?” For St. Joseph’s Day, I noticed the repetition of our conversations when he said, “She went to church.”

“Did she cook anything special?”


Something important about my grandmother Antoinetta’s faith finally occurred to me. She went to church every day. And by that I mean, every day.

My father remembers that she would walk to the 7:00 morning service an hour before she had to start work at the pretzel factory. She and her neighbor Carmela Rigano would leave Lester Avenue together and by the time they arrived at St. Vito’s Church in Mamaroneck, New York, “there would be 80 women with them.”

My epiphany is that for my grandmother every day was a saint day which she celebrated spiritually in church – a holy day, but not necessarily a holiday. The one saint holiday my father most remembers the family celebrating is the feast day of St. Anthony of Padua who is the patron saint of Collepietro, a mountain village in the Abruzzi region of Italy, from where both sides of his family emigrated.

So holiday celebrations of saints are regional and cultural. For example, St. Joseph’s Feast Day is widely celebrated in Sicily. According to medieval legend, St. Joseph answered the Sicilian people’s prayers for intercession for rainfall to end a severe drought. The rains fell and the crops, especially fava beans, thrived. The people were saved.

Festa di San Giuseppe is a major holiday in Sicily, southern Italy, and American communities where immigrants from these areas settled such as New Orleans, Louisiana; Gloucester, Massachusetts; Providence, Rhode Island; and many cities in New York and New Jersey.

People celebrate the day with the wearing of red, the eating of fava beans, a yummy pastry called zeppole, and breads sprinkled with breadcrumbs or sesame seeds representing the sawdust of St. Joseph’s workshop.

St. Joseph’s Day is also celebrated with the giving of food to the needy. Churches set up a St. Joseph’s altar or a Holy Family feast table including the above mentioned foods as well as meatless dishes because St. Joseph’s Day always falls during Lent.

Meanwhile, speaking of learning gradually and sometimes getting bammed in the face with information that changes everything; in the course of researching for this post, I uncovered a list of foods that, according to written historical references as well as archaeological discoveries, were available during the first century in Nazareth and the surrounding areas. I’m happily in the process of updating some of my earlier posts.

The following is a recipe that’s a version of what the Blessed Virgin Mary may have actually served to her family — St. Joseph and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ:


Conveniently being a lovely meatless dish to serve during Lent. All the ingredients listed below would have been available in first-century Galilee in some form or another. This recipe makes four servings but can easily be multiplied.

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

2 leeks, chopped

4 cups vegetable broth

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup French green lentils (or any type of lentils) rinsed in cold water

1 teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper

½ teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon dried thyme or 2 sprigs fresh thyme, minced

3 or 4 cups butternut squash cut into ½ in cubes (or acorn squash)

5 cups fresh or 1/2 cup frozen spinach (kale or collards), chopped

1 tablespoon dried parsley or 1/2 cup minced fresh parsley

1 cup fresh or frozen peas

3 oz goat cheese crumbles

1/4 cup of red wine vinegar or to taste

Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add onion and leeks. Cook until translucent, about three minutes.

Add vegetable broth, garlic, lentils, salt, pepper, cumin, and thyme. Bring to a boil, and then reduce to medium-low.

Add butternut squash. Simmer for 20 minutes. Stir occasionally.

Add spinach, parsley and peas. Cook on medium for 20 minutes or so until vegetables are tender and most of the liquid has been absorbed.

Remove from heat and stir in goat cheese. Serve immediately.

Bake a nice loaf of St. Andrew’s Barley Bread sprinkled with sesame seeds on top to represent the saw dust of St. Joseph’s workshop and you’re all set!

Originally posted on 3/18/2014 to Saints and Recipes on Blogger.)

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