Skip to comments.Father & Child (An Evangelical Minister preaches on St. Joseph)
Posted on 12/14/2005 11:33:44 AM PST by NYer
Four days before Christmas in 1994, John David Edington, 22, the adopted son of a Presbyterian minister named Howard Edington, was driving home through an Orlando, Fla., downpour when he lost control of his car and ran into a tree. He died instantly. The tragedy was mourned deeply in lofty reaches of the evangelical world because the Rev. Edington is an extremely respected minister and at the time was the personal pastor to Bill Bright, founder of the megaministry Campus Crusade for Christ.
Edington could have retreated into his grief, but instead, he preached three Christmas sermons that week on a topic he had never talked about before: Joseph, the husband of Mary and, as he pointed out, the "adoptive" father of Jesus. But he did not stop there. He began working on a book about Joseph that further delved into the nature of the relationship between the older man and his holy child.
At a certain point, however, Edington ran out of verses for exegesis. Joseph appears in the Nativity story of Matthew and more briefly in that of Luke but is then severely--eventually terminally--marginalized. The Bible never even quotes him directly. Yet with Bright's encouragement, Edington extended his research beyond the New Testament to early nonbiblical sources. In 2000 he published a slim book called The Forgotten Man of Christmas: Joseph's Story, which combined biblical analysis with material suggested by his additional reading, along with brief recollections of his own family's story. The pastor admits that it may have seemed a strange project, especially among Protestants, who don't recognize Joseph's sainthood and whose approach Edington describes as "'We don't know anything about him? Then just leave him there.'" But he concluded that "there is great spiritual value to capture, or recapture in Joseph's story, and if that takes a combination of just good serious Bible study and some recreative imagination, I think it's a valid exercise."
And recently, he has had company in that exercise. Even without that much imagination, a Christian curious about Joseph can take some sturdy, basic inspiration from the carpenter who is, at a minimum, humanity's stand-in, a lunch-pail hero not born to holiness but who, by his hard-won and steadfast belief, finds a role in salvation. This season two big-name writers have taken Joseph's story a step further. He is a major supporting character in erstwhile vampirologist Anne Rice's current best seller, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. And he has a lead role in Holding Heaven, a novella by Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the Left Behind series. An audio version of the new book will air on more than 300 radio stations around Yuletide. "I'm his cheerleader," says Jenkins of Joseph. "He doesn't have to be a saint. He was chosen to be the earthly father, and he was really good at it."
Both authors had to work around the Scripture's Joseph deficit. In outline, his life seems rich: after an initial moment of stunned disbelief at Mary's condition, he receives his own Annunciation in one of four angelic dreams; he marries her and gets her to Bethlehem; spirits mother and child off to Egypt when they are threatened by the murderous King Herod; then settles them in Nazareth. Yet there are strange omissions and truncations. Joseph is not described as present at Jesus' birth or the reception of the shepherds. The Egyptian trip is not actually recounted. The last reference to Joseph as a living person--a single sentence--occurs when Jesus is 12, shortly after Christ has made a rather cutting distinction between his parents on earth and his real "Father." Joseph's death goes unrecorded.
Yet scarcity can be liberating. "Because there's so little--because he's not quoted--we can make him work for whatever we want him to work for, as long as we stay within the intent of Scripture," says Jenkins. In fact, Edington, Rice and Jenkins are just the most recent participants in a lively and long-standing tradition. From almost the moment the Gospels were set down, early Christian communities, church fathers, Pontiffs and random laity have colored in the lightly sketched character of Joseph, and in some cases extended his contour considerably. At first they elaborated his story to buttress embattled doctrines like the virginity of Mary. Later interpreters repurposed him to respond to crises in the church or in society, as various Popes raised up the image of Joseph as the Family Father, the Worker, or the patron of the entire church. It is a varied cavalcade, and it can be hard to imagine all those Josephs meshing into a single personality; but then, a certain capaciousness is practically a job requirement for a biblical figure. Notes the Rev. Joseph Chorpenning, editorial director of St. Joseph's University Press in Philadelphia and director of the university's annual St. Joseph's Day Lecture: "To the extent that the Gospels are spare on Joseph's details and he seems to disappear from the scene somewhat unceremoniously, I think this prompted a kind of meditation on him by some of the great figures in Western Christianity and generated a fuller portrait."
The Chaste Caretaker
"Audiences," writes Louise Bourassa Perrotta, author of Saint Joseph: His Life and His Role in the Church Today, "do not generally react well when favorite characters are retired early," citing Sherlock Holmes and Joseph. Nor did early Christians appreciate potshots by contemporaries who suspected Jesus might have been Joseph's son after all, or questioned Mary's virginity when Scripture talked about his having several "brothers" and "sisters." Among the first attempts to address all those issues were the vivid set of books known as the Apocrypha.
The most influential one elaborating Joseph's story was a 2nd century text called The Protevangelium of James. Its story runs, in part, like this: the girl Mary, herself the product of a miraculous pregnancy, grows up in the great Jewish Temple receiving food from the hand of an angel. But as she approaches puberty, she can live there no longer, and the High Priest searches for a chaste caretaker to look after her. Under divine guidance, he collects the wooden staffs of all the widowers of Israel and prays over them, awaiting a sign. One by one he returns each rod, unchanged. "But Joseph received the last rod," reads the Protevangelium, "and lo, a dove came forth of the rod and flew upon the head of Joseph." Joseph protests, saying "I am old. But she is a girl. I fear lest I should become a laughingstock." But he eventually gives in.
By making Joseph an old man, the Protevangelium made his impregnating Mary less likely. By assigning him children from a first marriage, it answered the question of who Jesus' siblings were. The Protevangelium portrays Joseph's initial agitation with Mary far more fully than Scripture. It also tells how the dismayed High Priest later puts them both through a trial by ordeal (they must drink a potentially lethal "water of conviction") before he accepts that the pregnant Mary is still a virgin. A bright light obscures Joseph's view of the birth, but the Protevangelium has already assigned him a beautiful epiphany, beginning, "I ... was walking, and I walked not. And I looked up to the air and saw the air in amazement. And I looked up unto the pole of the heaven and saw it standing still, and the fowls of the heaven without motion."
Other accounts edited or added to the story. In one later embellishment, Joseph's staff blooms before the dove flies out: the flowering rod became his standard accessory in Western art--and is why in Mexico hollyhocks are known as varitas (little staffs) de San José. Some tales set Joseph's age at the time of the betrothal at as high as 91. Several portrayed Jesus in his father's workshop, keeping busy by magically correcting Joseph's building errors. Most alarming is The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, in which Jesus strikes dead playmates who annoy him, and other adults beg Joseph to teach his "son" how "to bless and not to curse." He tries to do so, at one point yanking Jesus' ear, only to have Jesus growl something along the lines of "Do not vex me" (manuscripts differ).
Other Apocrypha speculated marvelously on the "flight into Egypt." In one version, dragons along the Nile bend their knee to the baby, and palm trees bow to offer dates. Another features a robber who will turn out to be the "good thief" crucified with Jesus. The flight made Joseph an early favorite of the Egyptian Coptic Church, which mapped a detailed itinerary reaching as far north as Dimyana, near the Mediterranean, and south far past the pyramids down to Deir al-Muharraq. The Coptic History of Joseph the Carpenter provided one of the first descriptions of his death, at age 111, attended by Mary and an 18-year-old Jesus.
The Alienated Cuckold
The Apocryphal accounts had a mixed legacy. Several became sources--centuries later--for both Western art and the miracle plays that were medieval Europe's precursor to modern theater. The plays had fun with Joseph. In one he announces that he is so "olde [that] both myn leggys [be]gyn to fold," while in another the High Priest's waters of conviction simply get Joseph and Mary soused. But the dramas offered a common man's appreciation for Joseph's early fear that he has been cuckolded, and other human touches. In one play, when Joseph renounces his jealousy, Mary allows him a brief, companionable kiss.
Doctrinally, however, the Apocrypha were a dead end in the Western church. Their creativity was a liability. The 4th century church father Jerome called them "deliria." Although Eastern Orthodoxy continues to accept Joseph's prior marriage and children, in the West, Jerome doubly secured Mary's virginity by proposing that Joseph too was a virgin and that Jesus' siblings were cousins, a view still held by most Roman Catholics. (Protestants eventually decided that Joseph and Mary did have additional children.) Church fathers debated earnestly over whether Mary and Joseph's union could actually be called a marriage (yes) and whether Joseph could actually be called Jesus' father (a mixed verdict.)
But this was not exactly the exciting makings of mass devotion, and for a long time, says the Rev. Joseph Lienhard, an expert in the early church at New York City's Fordham University, "Joseph was not a popular saint." That's an understatement. His name did not pop up on any Western saints lists until 1000. The Koran, which dates from the 600s, dedicates a chapter to Mary but omits Joseph. According to Sandra Miesel, a Catholic journalist with a specialty in medieval history, a list of 30,000 Florentine men of the officeholding class before 1530 contained precisely one "Giuseppe."
Early Christian art, notes Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, a religious-art specialist affiliated with Washington's Georgetown University, sometimes omitted Joseph from the Nativity. When present, "he's either disinterested or separate, a doddering old man with a bald head or gray beard, a stock character," she says. The Rev. Michael Morris, an expert in art and Catholic theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., says Joseph was occasionally painted sleeping through the event. This may have been a nod to his prophetic dreams, but Morris notes that even among Catholic clergy today, "if someone says he's going to take a St. Joseph's meditation, it jokingly means he's taking a nap."
The Adoring Protector
The earthly fortunes of saints, however, can fluctuate as wildly as tech stocks--depending on the needs of believers. And beginning in the late 1300s, Joseph enjoyed one of the greatest religious rehabilitations in the history of Christianity. The 14th century saw famine, the Hundred Years' War and the Black Death. The church itself was ill, increasingly corrupt and at one point contested by three papal claimants. Families were warped or ripped to shreds, with élites suffering a particular crisis of affection: to avoid having many children who would then divide their estates, noblemen waited until they were quite old before taking young wives and producing much younger sons. "Now," asks Chorpenning of St. Joseph's University, "what does that sound like?"
Two dynamic clerics thought it sounded enough like Joseph, Mary and Jesus to propose the carpenter as the paternal model for what would eventually be called the nuclear family--and for much, much more. Unlike the writers of the Apocrypha, they did not add to the biblical story, but they concentrated fiercely on the implications of the Egyptian exile and Jesus' unknown life in Nazareth prior to his ministry. Jean Gerson, the chancellor of the University of Paris in the late 1300s, thought a 90-year-old Joseph ridiculous in light of the rigors of travel in Egypt and recalibrated his age at Jesus' birth to 36, the Aristotelian "prime of life." In contrast to earlier descriptions of a distant and alienated parent, Gerson portrayed (in a 2,957-line poem, among other vehicles) an adoring father to Jesus: "Joseph leads him," he wrote. "Joseph soothes him with kisses." Meanwhile, Bernardine of Siena, a powerhouse preacher whom Miesel describes as "the Billy Graham of his day," scored points with the Italian merchant class by pointing out that in Egypt and back in the Nazareth carpentry shop, Joseph would have had to have been "a diligent administrator."
They were styling him, says Chorpenning, "as a figure who would help navigate the crisis of the family and the church: as a protector, a nurturer." Moreover, Gerson and Bernardine maintained that Joseph's bond with the Messiah and the Virgin was so close that, like them, he was assumed bodily into heaven--where, as Bernardine put it, "just as this holiest of families ... lived together on earth in a laborious life and affectionate grace, so do they now rule in affectionate glory in heaven." That novelty, eventually known as the Holy Family, became a church staple and effectively transformed Joseph, as a member, from a nobody into one of the universe's most powerful personages. Why not pray to St. Joseph, Bernardine asked, since "Christ does not now deny to Joseph that intimacy, reverence and very high honor which he gave him on earth, as a son of his father."
That was radical, highly charged stuff, but in time it found a suitable champion. Teresa of Avila, born in 1515, was one of the Catholic Church's great mystics and--through tireless work founding and defending a new model for convents and monasteries--a heroine of the Counter-Reformation, Catholicism's vigorous response to the challenge of Protestantism. After prayer to Joseph cured her of an early case of paralysis, she adopted him as her "true father," stating that "in heaven God does whatever he commands." Teresa took the Nazareth household as the model for her order and named 12 of 17 monasteries after Joseph. "The devotion snowballed," says Chorpenning, and the Earthly Trinity, as Jesus, Mary and Joseph came sometimes to be called, took Catholic Europe by storm. It had also leaped to the New World, where Joseph became the patron saint of both "New Spain" and "New France." He remains the official saint of Catholics in Mexico and Canada.
His look changed. In 1570 Johannes Molanus, the Counter-Reformation's religious-art czar, banned the old, bald Joseph and stipulated a younger model. Artists like Murillo responded, resulting in, as Miesel puts it, "a vigorous, really studly Joseph." His saintly portfolio became extraordinarily diverse. (He now enjoys 24 "patronages.") Jerome's old notion had turned him into the patron of virgins, even as his paternal status made him the patron of families. The apocryphal scene of his death surrounded by Mary and Jesus was translated into his patronage of good deaths. ("When I was a little Catholic girl," recalls Anne Rice, "we used to pray to Joseph for a happy death.") Eventually he was assumed to protect the Universal Church from heaven as he had the Family on earth. In 1955 Pope Pius XII traded on Joseph's identification as a working man, decreeing a second feast day for him on May 1 to compete with communist May Day galas. In 1962 Pope John XXIII inserted Joseph's name in the canon of the Mass, reportedly the first such addition in over 1,300 years.
The Modern-Day Evangel
Yet today, the most creative popular inquirer into Joseph's merits may well be an evangelical Protestant. Jerry Jenkins looks cautious, almost nervous discussing Holding Heaven's boldness. "If we get criticized for Left Behind," he says, "it's, 'Are you adding to Scripture?' And we say, 'We're not adding. We're saying what prophesy would really look like.' You're really on more dangerous territory, though, when you quote an entire chapter and a half of a novella from a guy who's not quoted in Scripture, ever."
Holding Heaven, Jenkins' project with illustrator Ron DiCianni, has only two scenes: one in Egypt as Joseph talks his restless infant to sleep by describing the miracles of his life thus far and another 30 years later at the Nazareth carpenter's deathbed as the old man querulously but determinedly extracts from the adult Jesus the grim story of Christ's future and his good news for humanity.
The book is not high art, but it stirs a pang of recognition in any man who has rocked a sleepless infant or grasped a bedridden father's hand--as well as a tingly intuition of the special nature of those particular players. When the young Joseph muses that "when You settled into my arms it felt as if I were holding heaven," the Christian reader is meant to realize that he actually was.
Protestants have never felt the kind of unease with Joseph that, in a kind of allergic response to Catholicism's elaborate exultation of Mary, inhibited their relationship with the Virgin. On the other hand, he doesn't particularly interest them either. There are exceptions. The neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth championed Joseph's role of taking care of Jesus. The black church in the U.S., says Robert Franklin, an expert on that topic at Atlanta's Emory University, has long felt a connection between Joseph as patriarch of an unexpectedly blended family and African-American slave history, in which men "found their own wives full with child and at the birth discovered the child was a mulatto." But for the most part, explains David Steinmetz, a religious historian at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C., "Joseph plays a very small role in Protestantism, aside from cameo appearances in Advent and on Christmas."
But Jenkins may be tapping into two relatively recent trends in the Protestant church, particularly in its Evangelical wing. The first involves his tight focus on the relationship between Joseph and Jesus. The attendance in most U.S. churches skews female, provoking a search for strong masculine Biblical role models and ways to create church-based male bonding, especially between younger men and mentors. Joseph is the original Promise Keeper. Also, Jenkins sees a shift in even conservative Evangelical preaching from stringent exegesis, or analysis of text, to more free-ranging storytelling. "There are guys who can spend an hour just talking about one verse, and that happens to be my favorite form of preaching," he says. "But there is a marketplace of ideas. People now have access to iPods and TV and movies." Christian fiction is booming, and "if you go to a good, big, Evangelical church now, you'll hear a guy weaving a story."
That plays to Joseph's strengths. The more that belief strictly cleaves to "what the Bible says," the less will be heard of him. But the moment the believer imagines himself or herself into the biblical story, Joseph explodes back onto the scene. Scripture plain may not spend a sentence describing the Egyptian sojourn, but anyone reconstructing a narrative of the Bible will recognize it as an episode and Joseph as its hero. The same holds true for those extensive yet ill-chronicled Nazareth years.
You can see the storytelling principle at work in Rice's Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, which is her version of the Holy Family's return from Egypt's Alexandria to Nazareth and a Holy Land rocked with violence following Herod's death. Rice is Catholic, but when she focuses on Joseph, she is writing not hagiography but a modern description of his leadership of a sizable clan and his reluctance to tell the boy Jesus too much of his backstory until he is more mature. "I think he was a resolute man, an unshakable man, but he had no need to make a lot of noise about it," says Rice. "He takes over and does what has to be done, and I think he could definitely be a patron of foster parents." The series' next book, she says, will tell Joseph's death in a set of flashbacks.
The most fruitful road to Joseph seems to be, as the Rev. Edington noted, one combining "good, serious Bible study and some recreative imagination." Edington's own book is not really storytelling. It can be divided into four sermons, one for each of Joseph's angelic dreams. But it is peppered with mildly speculative sections titled "How it must have been," and it speaks humbly but with feeling to the bond in faith--and other things--between a father and son not related by blood. Edington's book ends with a meditation on the power of love to ennoble the lover, especially if the beloved is God--a model of Joseph as believer that would surely pass muster in almost any Christian church. "Joseph took God's son into his home in Nazareth, thus providing Jesus with a normal, loving family environment in which to grow," Edington writes. "Joseph took God's son into his heart, thus discovering a purpose for his own life within the greater purposes of God." Then he addresses his readers: "My prayer is that you will do the same."
It's amazing how, little by little, the Evangelicals begin to resemble Catholics.
Yeah, but don't tell them that.
THanks for the ping. Interesting and informative article!
BTTT on the Solemnity of St. Joseph, husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary, this year celebrated on 3-20-06!
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