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St. Joseph of Nazareth

St. Joseph of Nazareth by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM

Artist Narrative:

This icon depicts St. Joseph with the Christ Child, when Christ was presented in the Temple. By Jewish law, a mother had to bring an offering to the Temple and be purified 40 days after giving birth. The normal offering was a sheep, but a poor family, like Christ’s, could bring a pair of doves instead. Behind Christ is the cave where he was born in Bethlehem. Above Joseph’s other shoulder is the city of Jerusalem, with its Temple. While the doves are to be offered on this day, at the end of Christ’s life, he himself will be the sacrificial victim in Jerusalem.

Departing from strict Byzantine iconography, Joseph is depicted as a middle-aged man rather then with white hair. Possible confusion about Mary’s virginity is not a modern issue. Today we struggle with issues of affection, and it is more important to respect Christ’s need for a father figure in his childhood. Like any other child, Christ needed and wanted, a father’s love and example.

The Greek inscription in the upper corners of the icon reads "St. Joseph of Nazareth." The Greek letters next to Christ’s halo are abbreviations for "Jesus Christ," and the letters inside his halo are the divine name revealed to Moses: "I am who I am."

His feast day is March 19.

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Venerated as a saint in many Christian sects, St. Joseph is a biblical figure who is believed to have been the corporeal father of Jesus Christ. Joseph first appears in the Bible in the gospels of Matthew and Luke; in Matthew, Joseph's lineage is traced back to King David. According to the Bible, Joseph was born circa 100 B.C.E. and later wed the Virgin Mary, Jesus's mother. He died in Israel circa 1 A.D.

Fact and Fiction

Everything we know about St. Joseph, the husband of Mary and the foster father of Jesus, comes from the Bible, and mentions of him are underwhelming. The 13 New Testament books written by Paul (the epistles) make no reference to him at all, nor does the Gospel of Mark, the first of the Gospels. Joseph first appears in the Bible in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, one of which (Matthew) traces Joseph's lineage back to King David.

To add to the problem of not knowing enough about Joseph, some apocryphal writings—such as the second-century Protevangelium of James and the fourth-century History of Joseph the Carpenter—muddy the historical waters further, presenting him as a widower with children when he met Mary and claiming that he lived to the age of 111. These claims, however, are spurious and are not accepted by the church.

Marriage to Mary

After marrying Mary, Joseph found that she was already pregnant, and being "a just man and unwilling to put her to shame" (Matt. 1:19), he decided to divorce her quietly, knowing that if he did so publicly, she could be stoned to death. An angel, however, came to Joseph and told him that the child Mary carried was the son of God and was conceived by the Holy Spirit, so Joseph kept Mary as his wife.

After Jesus's birth in Bethlehem, an angel came to Joseph again, this time to warn him and Mary about King Herod of Judaea and the violence he would bring down upon the child. Joseph then fled to Egypt with Mary and Jesus, and the angel appeared again, telling Joseph that Herod had died and instructing him to return to the Holy Land.

Avoiding Bethlehem and possible actions by Herod's successor, Joseph, Mary and Jesus settled in Nazareth, in Galilee. The Gospels describe Joseph as a "tekton," which traditionally has meant "carpenter," and it is assumed that Joseph taught his craft to Jesus in Nazareth. At this point, however, Joseph is never mentioned again by name in the Bible—although the story of Jesus in the temple includes a reference to "both his parents."

Death and Sainthood

The circumstances of Joseph's death are not known, but it is likely that he died before Jesus's ministry began, and it is implied that he was dead before the Crucifixion (John 19:26-27). Already a patron saint of Mexico, Canada and Belgium, in 1870, Joseph was declared patron of the universal church by Pope Pius IX, and in 1955 Pope Pius XII established May 1 as the "Feast of St. Joseph the Worker" to counter the Communists' May Day.