Solemnity of St Joseph
St Joseph is often presented as a model of masculinity and a model of chastity. Yet these two words are rarely associated in our culture. Manly men – from James Bond to the ideal men of lads’ mags – are presented as those who know what they want and know how to get it, with little concern for consequences. Self-control, especially mastery over sexual desires, is rarely part of the picture. St Joseph represents an older tradition, which saw virility (literally ‘manliness’, from the Latin ‘vir’) as including self-control, not being subject to changing desires. It is for this reason that he is represented with a lily, the flower which represents purity. A statue of a bearded man holding a single lily looks bizarre to us, even when we understand the symbolism at work, but I think that says more about us and our vision of masculinity than it does about Joseph.
Let’s turn to the Bible for some background. We are sometimes inclined to interpret purity as ‘keeping a clean sheet’. Like a goalkeeper who doesn’t let in a single goal, someone is ‘pure’ if they never fall or stumble into sin. Scripture offers a slightly different take on this. Throughout the Old Testament, the ideal of the ‘undivided heart’ or ‘singleness of heart’ is presented. So in Psalm 86, the Psalmist prays: ‘Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name’ (Ps 86:11). In Ezekiel 11, where the Lord promises to resettle Israel, He adds: ‘I will give them an undivided heart’ (Ezekiel 11:19). This is an image we can instantly relate to, or rather, we can recognise its opposite: the divided heart. How often do we do something that only part of our heart wants – we don’t really want it, with all our heart (cf. Rom 7:15).
Our loves are scattered, disordered: we spend more time with our Xbox than our family; we cheat on our girlfriends in the heat of the moment; we preach one thing and do another. Against this universal experience, Scripture holds out the hope that our desires can be integrated, that our complexity can become simple, and our shakiness firm, in short, that God can grant us an undivided heart.
St Joseph is not described in great detail in the Gospels. St Matthew tells us that he was ‘a just man’, because he did not want to publicly shame his betrothed when he found her unexpectedly pregnant. He is obedient: when an angel visits him in a dream to explain the true nature of Mary’s child ‘he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him’ (Matt 1:24). He quietly obeys again when the Lord commands him to take his wife and the child to Egypt, and again when told to return (Matt 2:14, 21). St Luke shows Joseph, along with his wife, going devoutly to Jerusalem at the Passover and searching anxiously for Jesus when he is lost (Luke 2:41-52). This is not much to go on, and the figure of Joseph doesn’t emerge in any great vividness, but I propose that his very quietness is his greatness.
Other biblical figures like Jacob, David, Job and Jonah have more spectacular struggles with God – they find it hard to obey Him, they fall in love with lesser things than God, they fail to trust God’s plans. But when God said to Joseph, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother…’, Joseph simply ‘rose and took the child and his mother’, without drama or self-assertion. His heart is not a kaleidoscope of competing claims, but integrates great and small desires under the sovereignty of God. The white lily – white being the integration of all the colours of the spectrum – is surely an excellent summary of his singleness of heart.
In our time, masculinity is generally held to be in crisis, and fatherhood certainly is. When our culture proposes that men are (and even should be) irresponsible, self-indulgent omnivores, it is a good time to consider St Joseph and his simple self-control, it is a good time to ‘consider the lily’.
Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them. Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart.