19 March 2013

With the Saints in Lent (35): Saint Joseph, 19 March

‘Christ in the House of His Parents’ (1850) by Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896)

Patrick Comerford

Today [19 March] is marked in the calendars of the Church of Ireland, the Church of England, and most mainstream churches in Western Christianity as the Feast of Saint Joseph.

However, it is likely to go unnoticed in Ireland today as people get back to work after Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations continued yesterday [Monday, 18 March 2013], making it a holiday weekend more than halfway through Lent.

We have very little information about Saint Joseph in the Gospels, and he figures in the only two Gospels with infancy narratives, the Gospels according to Saint Matthew and Saint Luke. Even in those accounts, he never speaks. But he responds to God’s call – he is a man of action rather than words, a doer rather than a sayer.

He is described as a τέκτων (tekton), a word traditionally translated as “carpenter,” although the Greek word refers to someone who works in wood, iron or stone, including builders. Saint Joseph’s specific association with woodworking is a theme in Early Christian writings, and Justin Martyr, who died ca 165, wrote that Jesus made yokes and ploughs.

On the other hand, Geza Vermes says the terms “carpenter” and “son of a carpenter” are used in the Talmud for a very learned man, and he suggests that a description of Saint Joseph as naggar (“a carpenter”) could indicate that he was considered wise and highly literate in the Torah.

The Holy Family by Giovanni Battista Pittoni, the Altar Piece in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge … the depiction of Saint Joseph was typical until centuries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Until about the 17th century, Saint Joseph is often depicted in art as a man of advanced years, with grey hair, usually bearded and balding, and occasionally frail. He is presented as a comparatively marginal figure alongside Mary and Jesus, often in the background except, perhaps, when he was leading them on the flight into Egypt. More recently, he has been portrayed as a younger or even youthful man, going about his work as a carpenter, or taking part in the daily life of his family.

We can see this later emphasis in ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’ (1849–1850), is a painting by the Pre-Raphaelite artist, Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896), depicting the Holy Family in Saint Joseph’s carpentry workshop. The painting, now in the Tate Britain in London, was controversial when it was first exhibited, prompting many negative reviews, most notably one by Charles Dickens, who accused Millais of portraying Mary as an alcoholic who looks “so hideous in her ugliness that ... she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin-shop in England.”

Critics also objected to the portrayal of Christ, one complaining that it was “painful” to see “the youthful Saviour” depicted as “a red-headed Jew boy.” Dickens described him as a “wry-necked boy in a nightgown who seems to have received a poke playing in an adjacent gutter.” Other critics suggested that the characters displayed signs of rickets and other disease associated with slum conditions.

But this painting brought attention to the previously obscure Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and was a major contributor to the debate about Realism in the arts.

The painting depicts the young Jesus assisting Joseph in his workshop. Joseph is making a door, which is laid on his carpentry work-table. Jesus has cut his hand on an exposed nail, leading to a sign of the stigmata, prefiguring the Crucifixion. As Mary’s mother, Saint Anne, removes the nail with a pair of pincers, a concerned Mary offers her cheek for a kiss while Joseph examines his wounded hand.

A young John the Baptist is bringing in water to wash the wound, prefiguring his later baptism of Christ.

One of Joseph’s assistants, representing potential future apostles, watches these events.

In the background we see objects pointing other theological points being made by the artist. A ladder, representing Jacob’s Ladder or the ladder used by Joseph of Arimathea to take Christ’s body down from the cross, is leaning against the back wall.

A dove, representing the Holy Spirit, is perched on the ladder.

The sheep in the background remind us of the story of the Good Shepherd and his flock.

The panting had a strong influence on the images in a poem I selected for Poems for Lent postings last year. This poem about Joseph, ‘Man of the House,’ by Katherine Tynan (1861-1931), was first published in the Irish Monthly, Vol. XXXVI, (December, 1908), p. 700. In this poem she develops some images that she already used in ‘Adveniat regnum tuum,’ which was included a year earlier in Twenty One Poems by Katharine Tynan: Selected by W. B. Yeats, published by Dun Emer Press in Dundrum in 1907:

Thy kingdom come ! Yea, bid it come!
But when Thy kingdom first began
On earth, Thy kingdom was a home,
A child, a woman, and a man.
The child was in the midst thereof,
O, blessed Jesus, holiest One!
The centre and the fount of love
Mary and Joseph’s little Son.

Wherever on the earth shall be
A child, a woman, and a man,
Imaging that sweet trinity
Wherewith Thy kingdom first began,
Establish there Thy kingdom! Yea,
And o’er that trinity of love
Send down, as in Thy appointed day,
The brooding spirit of Thy Dove!

Man of the House, by Katherine Tynan

Joseph, honoured from Sea to Sea,
This is the name that pleases me,
“Man of the House.”

I see you rise at dawn and light
The fire and blow it till the flame is bright.

I see you take the pitcher and carry
the deep well-water for Jesus and Mary.

You knead the corn for the bread so fine
gather them grapes from the hanging vine.

There are little feet that are soft and slow
follow you whithersoever you go.

There’s a little face at your workshop door,
a little one sits down on your floor.

Holds his hands for the shaving curled
the soft little hands that made the world.

Mary calls you: the meal is ready;
you swing the Child to your shoulders steady.

I see your quiet smile as you sit
and watch the little Son thrive and eat.

The vine curls by the window space,
the wings of angels cover the face.

Up in the rafters, polished and olden,
There’s a Dove that broods and his wings are golden.

You have kept them through shine and storm,
a staff, a shelter kindly and warm.

Father to Jesus, husband to Mary,
hold up your lilies for Sanctuary!

Joseph, honoured from Sea to Sea
Guard me and mine and my own rooftree.
“Man of the House.”


God our Father,
who from the family of your servant David
raised up Joseph the carpenter
to be the guardian of your incarnate Son
and husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary:
Give us grace to follow his example
of faithful obedience to your commands;
through our Lord Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.


II Samuel 7: 4-16; Psalm 89: 26-36; Romans 4: 13-18; Matthew 1: 18-25.

Post Communion Prayer:

Heavenly Father,
whose Son grew in wisdom and stature
in the home of Joseph the carpenter of Nazareth,
and on the wood of the cross perfected
the work of the world’s salvation.
Help us, strengthened by this sacrament of his passion,
to count the wisdom of the world as foolishness,
and to walk with him in simplicity and trust;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Tomorrow 20 March: Saint Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne

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