The Feast of Saint Joseph
Saint Joseph plays a pivotal role in the history of our salvation, and yet we know very little about him. We know that he was descended from King David, but the Gospels give us no idea of his age at the time he was betrothed to Mary, nor do we know anything about his death. We read about him in the narratives of the Nativity of our Lord and know that he was at first inclined to back out of the engagement with Mary, but changed his mind when an angel spoke to him in a dream. From then on his devotion seems to have been absolutely selfless: he was willing to go to great lengths to protect Jesus and Mary when Herod threatened to kill the newborn Messiah, leaving behind his home and his work to move the family to Egypt until the threat was past. Finally, we know that he was a carpenter by trade. The details are few, but from them we may reasonably infer a picture of a man of considerable faith and generosity, a man willing to take risks and to put his own interests aside for the good of others, particularly his family. In our own age, when the traditional family and so-called "family values" are thought by some to be endangered, it is worth noting that the Holy Family was not a traditional family and had it not been for the remarkable character of Joseph, the Holy Family would have been a one-parent family. In marrying Mary, who was evidently pregnant out of wedlock and by someone else, Joseph went against the values of his society, preserving Mary from shame and giving a home to a child whom few men would have been willing to adopt under any circumstances. The whole business was contrary to local values, yet Joseph embraced Mary and Jesus unconditionally, setting a standard for family values that changes the story entirely from a textbook lesson in morality to an invitation to membership in the divine family where unconditional love transfigures us into a new creation.
Tradition has attempted to fill in some of the gaps about Joseph. An English ballad that dates back to the 15th century, The Cherry Tree Carol, depicts Joseph as an old man who has not yet reconciled himself to his wife's pregnancy. In fact, the tradition has generally thought of Joseph as older than Mary, probably a widower with children from his first marriage. Icons of the flight into Egypt sometimes include his son Saint James (later first bishop of Jerusalem) leading the donkey which Mary is riding with the infant Jesus in her arms. His vocation as a carpenter has earned him the more modern title of Saint Joseph the Worker. As protector of Mary and Jesus, he is regarded the patron and protector of the universal Church. And the belief that he died in the presence of both Mary and Jesus has made him the patron of a holy death.
The Feast of Saint Joseph is particularly popular among Italians, especially Sicilians, because it was through his intercession that Sicilians believe they were delivered from a devastating drought in the Middle Ages. Even though his feast invariably falls in Lent, this is, quite naturally, an occasion for a great feast and the Italian tradition is to set up a special table full of food, and usually surmounted by a statue of the saint. In deference to Lent, the food is meatless, but that is the only concession to the season. Otherwise, abundance and richness is the rule. Pasta is garnished with breadcrumbs, rather than cheese, symbolizing the sawdust on the floor of the carpenter's shop. Bread is baked in a variety of different symbolic shapes. Fava beans are featured because they were the one crop that did not fail during the drought. And the meal is always capped with pastries, most especially Sfinge di San Giuseppe (St. Joseph's Cream Puffs), which are stuffed with a filling that includes ricotta cheese, chocolate, and pistachios. Fisheaters.com has several delectable recipes for the occasion, none of which will violate your Lenten abstinence or fast.
In addition to customs involving food, there are other popular customs associated with this day. As the Irish wear green on Saint Patrick's Day, Italians wear red on Saint Joseph's Day. But a custom that transcends ethnic boundaries and speaks simply and directly to the significance of the day is the tradition of children giving gifts to their fathers on Saint Joseph's Day.
Saint Joseph's Day is also the occasion of a natural event which recurs annually: the return of the swallows to San Juan Capistrano in southern California. You can read the whole story on Fisheaters.com, just below the recipes for the feast.
Saint Joseph is also associated with the Hollyhock,
a flower which had its origins in China and was introduced to the Holy Land by
travelers along the Silk Road. Crusaders took this hardy plant back to Europe
with them where it became known as the Staff of Saint Joseph. Later, the Spanish
imported it to the New World. The award-winning Hispanic author Rudolfo Anaya
has imagined a somewhat different account of the arrival of this flower in the
American Southwest. How the Hollyhocks Came to New Mexico is a charming
children's book, illustrated by the noted New Mexican santero, Nicolas Otero. It
is available through our Bookshop.
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