Thursday, March 19, 2009

Joseph, We Hardly Knew Ye, Part One

Feast of Saint Joseph, Husband of the Virgin Mary and Protector of the Child Jesus
Patron of the Universal Roman Catholic Church
Patron of laborers (a separate observance of St. Joseph the Worker is held on May 1,
intentionally coinciding with the observance of Labor Day in countries outside the US)

Today's Word:
2 Samuel 7:4-16 (God will raise up heir after heir from the House of David)
Psalm 89: 2-5, 27-29 (The son of David will live forever)
Romans 4:13-22 (It was not through the law, but on righteousness through faith that Abraham became the 'father of nations')
Matthew 1:16-24 (Joseph takes Mary under her care, even knowing that he is not the father of the child she bears)
or Luke 2:41-51 (Twelve-year-old Jesus remains at the Temple; "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?")

For the first time since Ash Wednesday, the Church seriously disrupts its observance of Lent to honor possibly the least understood man in all of Christian scripture.

The accounts of the Nativity and early life of Jesus portray Joseph as a man with some rather distinctive traits. He is compassionate. He obviously found love in his relationship with Mary, at a time when marriages were still arranged and women were considered little
more than property. The depth of his compassion, though, shows when he discovers that Mary is pregnant - out of wedlock, no less - and the child is not his. Under the Law, Joseph could have turned her over to the authorities, where she potentially faced being stoned to death (and that's not by getting high, folks). Instead, he had decided upon getting her away from potential attention, and then breaking off the relationship. But when the archangel Gabriel pays him a nocturnal visit, Joseph takes the word of the messenger in faith and Mary becomes his wife.

Joseph is also diligent. No doubt he had to work hard to provide for his family. Another visit from an angel warned of a threat to the child's life; so they bid a hasty retreat from Bethlehem and take up residence in Egypt for two years before it was safe to return. It's
generally assumed that as Jesus became old enough, Joseph began to teach the young boy in the skills of carpentry.

Above all this, Joseph is a man of faith. When Jesus remains behind in the Temple at age 12 and is ultimately found again, Joseph does not take up an argument to Jesus' being about 'his Father's business.' He knew Jesus would not become a carpenter by trade; he took it on faith that the child was destined for something far greater.

Joseph is not mentioned again in the Bible after this last event. Some traditions suggest that he and Mary had other children, which is disputed by Catholics. This is an interesting subject and I am prompted to consider this in a follow up post. For the moment it is of lesser importance. What is important is that Joseph was no part-time or 'deadbeat' dad.

That brings me to a related item. A new US government study reports that births to unwed mothers reached an all-time high of 40% in 2007, the most recent statistical year available. More than 3/4 of this group of moms were age 20 or older.

For a variety of reasons, it's become more acceptable for women to have babies without a husband, said Duke University's S. Philip Morgan, a leading fertility researcher.

Even happy couples may be living together without getting married, experts say. Some cited a growing trend among all adult women to have children regardless of their marital status, says the Associated Press story.

But it begs the ultimate question: will these couples make the ultimate commitment - to each other and their children - through marriage, or will the relationship break up at the first sign of serious trouble, leaving a mess in its wake?

Joseph and Mary made that commitment in spite of any reason to shy away from it.


Today is a break from some of the disciplines of Lent among those of Polish, Italian, and Spanish cultures.

In Spain, it is the Dia de Las Falles. In Valencia, the Falles celebrates Saint Joseph's Day, and at about midnight the city will go up in flames – or so it will seem as about 300 massive fires are lit. The first written records of this now hugely popular festival date from the mid-18th Century and the early 19th, though it's thought that the Falles started in the Middle Ages, when artisans put out their broken artefacts and pieces of wood that they had sorted during the winter and burned to celebrate the Spring Equinox.

A group called the Casal Faller meets, one in each neighborhood of the city, and works all year long holding fundraising parties and dinners, usually featuring the famous regional seafood dish, paella. Formerly, much time would also be spent at the Casal Faller preparing the ninot

During the week leading up to today, each group takes its single favorite huge ninot out for a grand parade, and then mounts it, each on its own elaborate firecracker-filled cardboard and papier-mâché artistic monument in a street of the given neighborhood – this complete assembly being the Falla proper.

In Poland and more notably, Italy, the feature of the day is the St. Joseph's table, which displays the earth's bounty and represent the householders' gratitude for the saint's continued protection. The foods are meant to be shared with the poor. Three disadvantaged children are invited into the home; often these three are dressed in bed sheets to represent the Holy Family and they are treated as guests of honor. Called virgineddi, they eat from the many dishes on the table, which include pastries and breads, because St Joseph is patron saint of pastry chefs and fry cooks. They always have maccu di San Giuseppe, a stew with five kinds of legumes and many other vegetables and herbs. Italian-Americans traditionally wear red today. Children born today are lucky and a Scottish highland belief has it that they cannot be shot in battle. A clear St Joseph's day presages a fine and fertile year ahead.


Today also marks one of the natural wonders of the world, though by no means unique as marvels of migration of insects and birds are around us every day, whether we notice or not. Having left on October 23 (traditional date), the swallows traditionally return to San Juan Capistrano Mission (founded in 1776), in California, from Goya, Corrientes province, Argentina, on or around St Joseph's Day (March 19) each year, greeted by large numbers of locals and visitors from all over the world. It is one of Earth's best-known equinox (or near-equinox) events.

A story about another Joseph (whose observance even got by me) as Part Two.

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