St. Joseph: Imagination, Ancient Fan Fiction, and the Humanity of Jesus

Feast Day: March 19
St. Joseph with the Infant Christ. Anonymous, 17th century Italian. Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access.

I wonder if Mary and Jesus thought at all about St. Joseph on Good Friday. Did they miss him? That’s the thought that came into my mind as my parish prayed the Stations of the Cross last week. Mary has to meet her broken son on the road to Calvary. She watches her son be tortured to death on the cross with only a couple of friends to support her. Another Joseph (of Arimathea) comes to help her claim and bury the body, but not the Joseph with whom she had shared a home. Her husband is no longer alive to help bear the unimaginable emotional torture of that day with her.

My wife and I pray a novena (a prayer a day for nine days) every month and this month we chose St. Joseph of Nazareth. There are lots of Joseph novenas out there, including a pretty popular one for women looking for husbands. I’ve been told it works. That’s not the one we chose. What attracted us to the one we did choose were the following lines:

O Saint Joseph, we never weary of contemplating you and Jesus asleep in your arms. We dare not approach while He sleeps near your heart. Instead, hold Him close in our name and kiss His fine head for us, and ask Him to return the kiss when we draw our dying breath.

Adapted from a traditional prayer

The mystery of Jesus being both human and God is sweet to contemplate here, so unlike the cross. Both though gain their meaning from God becoming one of us. I’d like today to reflect on how Christians have turned to St. Joseph as a guide to help us enter that mystery.

St. Joseph with the Christ Child and the Flight into Egypt. Anonymous, German, 18th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access.

St. Joseph’s Hidden Life

We know little about St. Joseph. Scripture tells us that he was a righteous man and a descendent of David (though Luke and Matthew disagree about exactly how). He was betrothed to Mary. He was ready to quietly dismiss her for her pregnancy (rather than publicly punishing or even stoning her), but had the faith to accept the impossible message that God gave him in a dream: the Holy Spirit had conceived Mary’s child, not a man. He had the faith also to listen to another dream and flee to Egypt to protect his family. One Gospel verse labels him an artisan—probably a carpenter—and that is presumably how he spent his years as Jesus’ adoptive father.

Both tradition and scholars agree that Joseph must have died before Jesus began his public ministry given his absence from the rest of scripture. And that is all that the Bible really reveals.

St. Joseph in Ancient Christian Fan Fiction

We do, however, have lots of St. Joseph stories written down after the Bible. There are so many loose threads left hanging in Scripture that Christians naturally have wanted to explore them and weave stories to attach. They started to do so before the ink on the Gospels had had a chance to dry and continue to do so today (for example, the popular series The Chosen). At their best, these “apocrypha” are valuable spiritual meditations that may preserve kernels of historical memory or help us uncover the meaning of the past through storytelling. They are the kind of story that Christians want to keep retelling because the people around Jesus—like Joseph—help us interact with Jesus.

The two earliest sources of these stories are the Protoevangelium of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (both from the 100s A.D.). The first text paints a portrait of Joseph as an old widower with six children suddenly asked to take on the role of young Mary’s protector. Perhaps she is to also be a good stepmother and example for his children. We can imagine Joseph’s anguish and puzzlement at Mary’s pregnancy—such a wonderful woman and the prized ward of the temple priests (in this story). How much faith did it take to overcome that horrible disappointment? Perhaps that helps us ask ourselves in what extraordinary ways Jesus comes into our own lives and whether we can overcome the disappointment when it doesn’t happen the way we expect.

Saint Joseph and the Christ Child, attributed to Nicolaas van der Veken. 17th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access.

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is frankly weird, but lots of its stories stuck in people’s heads. Jesus plays with clay on the Sabbath sculpting pigeons, and when Joseph is asked to remonstrate with him, Jesus makes the pigeons real so that they fly off. Jesus, at age five, apparently also has an unfortunate habit of causing playmates who hit him or break his stuff to fall down dead (to be fair, he sometimes raises them back to life afterwards). Their parents understandably complain to Joseph who tries to figure out how to discipline his young son. Honestly, I have trouble with this author’s imagination. That’s not the Jesus I know. But what was Jesus like as a young child? Scripture tells us he “grew in wisdom (Lk 2:52)—what does that mean for where he began? If you were Joseph, how would you approach the charge of being a good father and guiding God himself to “grow in wisdom”? I prefer the traditions that say Jesus never caused his parents any grief (and many later narratives say that), but reading pseudo-Thomas drives home to me the enormity of the task Joseph undertook with humble sanctity as Jesus’ dad.

St. Joseph and a Happy Death Surrounded by Family

Christians traditionally admire Joseph for three things: his loving and faithful protection of Mary and Jesus, his quiet sanctity as a humble workingman, and his example of a happy death. Alumni of the University of Notre Dame may remember a painting of his death in the basilica there. It’s a popular theme. The story behind it seems to originate with the History of Joseph the Carpenter. This text, in which Jesus reminisces with his apostles about his father, is late (at least four centuries after Jesus), but I like it because of the way the author weaves together the human and the divine. The author finds in Joseph an anchor for understanding Jesus as God and man, which is one of the gifts of Joseph’s particular sanctity.

Joseph, in this story, remains healthy and vigorous until the age of 111. Then he falls ill and feels death coming. He prays in the temple, remembering all the hidden greed, desires, and selfishness that had troubled his thoughts and at times seduced him over the years. He lays in his deathbed thinking and dreading what will happen to him when he will close his eyes for the final time.

Then Jesus comes to him and listens. His father begs for his help as the Son of God and, at the same time, asks for reassurance that he had been a good father. Could Jesus forgive him for having doubted Mary when she first became pregnant and Joseph wanted to renounce her? Did he do wrong in scolding Jesus as a child for striking his playmates dead (yes, the author had read the Infancy Gospel of Thomas)? Would Jesus comfort him?

Jesus calls his adopted father a righteous and blessed man. He sits by Joseph’s bed, holding his hand for the last hour of his life. He tries to support his mother as she sits by the bed as well. She—and the apostles listening to this later—wonder if Jesus couldn’t do something, anything so that a man he loves so well doesn’t have to die. Jesus sadly says that every human must die. There is no escape, even for his mother and even for Jesus himself. Yet through death they will find the door to everlasting life. Then the moment of death arrives. The devil and the fiery hordes of Hell descend to claim another soul—and Jesus is there, waiting to drive them back. He calls on angels to escort Joseph’s soul to heaven. The darkness of death flees in defeat and Joseph’s soul rises in beautiful light.

Jesus calls angels down once again to wrap his father’s corpse in an incorruptible burial shroud to preserve his body until its resurrection on the last day. Jesus sits there, still speaking to his departed father, and promises him that, as a gift to the man whom he loved, Jesus will grant everyone who practices charity in Joseph’s name a place with him in heaven. As he talks, Jesus thinks about his life with his dad going back to his earliest memories as a child with Joseph in Egypt. He throws himself on his adopted father’s shrouded body and breaks down crying.

The Death of St. Joseph by Robert van Audenaerde (Flemish, Ghent 1663–1743). Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access.

St. Joseph: Helping Us Approach Jesus in His Humanity

How do you imagine Jesus? How do you picture him in the day-to-day as a child and later? God became man. That is extraordinary. There is so much about Him that is incomprehensible but, thanks to the great miracle of Jesus’ humanity, we can legitimately imagine him and his parents. We can glimpse divine love in their quiet love together and begin to savor it in our imaginations.

I appreciate how those Christians who came before us put time and effort into a creative contemplation of that love and of Joseph. I also appreciate that they acknowledged both the terrifying glory of God among us and the real concerns that come with being human. Am I doing well enough? How can I guide this child? How can I face my own death or losing someone I love?

Storytelling isn’t meant to provide cut-and-dried answers to questions like these. Rather it immerses us into something rich and meaningful that helps us to sense truths that can’t be reduced to a few statements of bare fact. So I invite you to contemplate St. Joseph and his family on his feast day. Think about what it would be like to cradle God in your arms, to lead him as a child, and to hold Jesus’ hands in the hour of your death.

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