March 19. Usually a chilly day in Buffalo. We’d be excused from school to attend the party hosted by my father’s eldest sister. Mama told us that Aunt Mary held two of these luncheon feasts: one for family and one for “the poor”.
Because the feast always occurred during Lent, the meal was meatless. I can remember passing up most of the dishes, as they were quite different from our normal fare. We were encouraged but never forced to eat the alien recipes. But the wonderful desserts were worth waiting for!
Extra tables were set up to accommodate the number of folks. In a place of honor, was a tall statue of St. Joseph, surrounded by vigil lights. The meal would be punctuated by random shouts of “Viva San Giuseppe!” initiated by an older cousin. Everyone joined in – even we younger ones who weren’t quite sure what the cheer meant but were thrilled to be there, an important part of the celebration. At the very end, each departing guest was given a brown paper bag containing a small loaf of home-made bread and one fresh orange. Maybe a cookie or two as well.
St. Joseph was held in high esteem by my family and others of Italian descent. I even used to think he must have been Italian too!
As I’ve grown older, my fondness and admiration for St. Joseph has deepened considerably, and it seems to me he’s highly under-rated. It’s probably because he’s never heard to say a word in the Gospels. But we know he’s listening, thinking, pondering, always devoted to doing the right thing, trusting and obedient to God’s will: the dilemma over his betrothed; the risks involved with accepting this pregnant woman to be his wife; the challenge of being chosen to protect her and the divine child. Joseph was constantly faced with the unknown, with a present and future where the only sure thing was danger. Travel had to have been fiercely difficult. Making treks to Bethlehem and then to Egypt was fraught with peril from natural conditions and most of all from robbers waiting to prey upon the innocent or the unwary.
Since the Gospels refer to Jesus and his “brother and sisters”, there are a lot of blank spaces that biblical scholars have tried to fill. Who were these siblings? Or was the relationship more like that of cousins? We are taught that Mary had only this one child. Did Joseph have other children from a previous marriage? If so, was there possibly some dysfunction, just as we find in the Old Testament concerning Joseph and his jealous brothers? I was shocked when I first found this passage in Mark:
He (Jesus) came home. Again the crowd gathered, making it impossible for them even to eat. When his relatives heard of this they set out to seize him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” (3: 20-21)
Wild as this seems, it’s all too plausible. We’ve all seen families where there’s been one member who is not like the others, and therefore suspect. If there were other (half) siblings around, how would Joseph, as pater familias, have managed to keep the peace?
We also know that Jesus’ family was known to people in his home town, which is why they had a hard time being impressed by him and couldn’t accept his teachings.
All of these situations are so common in families, and yet so stunning to find in this special family. Yet, while we honor Mary so much – and rightfully so – it seems that Joseph’s role in his family may be under appreciated. Both parents were responsible for Jesus’ godliness, in every sense of the word. Joseph taught Jesus his trade and modeled for him the traditional beliefs and practices for men of their faith.
Another wonderful tradition connected with St. Joseph is to pray to him for a happy death. We reason that since he predeceased Mary and Jesus, they were at his bedside for his death, a grace we all wish for.
Shouldn’t St. Joseph be a special model for families today who so often are fatherless? And not necessarily because of the father’s death. Franciscan writer, Father Richard Rohr who has served as a prison chaplain, has found that so many of the incarcerated have grown up with a fierce and unfulfilled “father-hunger”. Today we see empty-headed sitcoms where the father is usually outwitted by a child of any age. When did it become popular and acceptable to diss the father in the family?
Because of his track record for guiding this sacred family, I frequently pray to St. Joseph for family and friends. I’ve experienced unfailing help in response to particular requests. Lately, I’ve also adopted the habit of saying a short prayer to St. Joseph as I turn on the ignition. Since he did so well in protecting his family on the road, I count on him to keep me safe and also to protect those who are on the road with me.
I’ve become especially keen on holding up St. Joseph as a model of the strong but gentle father figure. He must have been so. God would not have wanted anything less for his precious Son.
Viva San Giuseppe!