One of the things I love most about religion is its unending ability to astonish. Such is the case with the feast which is celebrated today by traditional Western Christians. It is the Solemnity of Joseph, Husband of Mary. Saint Joseph is known as the last patriarch 1. In the words of Saint Bernadine of Siena: “in him the Old Testament finds its fitting close. He brought the noble line of patriarchs and prophets to its promised fulfillment.”
You are not astonished? The last patriarch, the greatest non-divine human example of what it means to be a man, is revered for his role as spouse. Saint Joseph is venerated because he was the perfect husband, because he accepted the vocation of guardian and protector of a child who was not his own, because he supported his wife in her divine mission.
It is hardly surprising that Saint Joseph was overlooked for years. After all, we have long ignored women whose identity came from being a spouse and parent, so why should a man be honored for taking on that role?
This is nothing short of uncomfortable for those of us who love traditional Christianity. We are accustomed to the fact that achieving perfection as a supportive spouse and parent is not enough to make one venerated as a Saint. And, more importantly, we know that men are responsible to do great deeds, while women derive their value from helping men. The idea that a man should derive his greatest value from supporting his wife in her vocation is laughable.
It is also the truth of the life of the Saint we honor second only to the Virgin Mother herself.
In recent years the Church has gained renewed appreciation for the “other” lives of those who were previously valued only for their supporting role as spouse to one who achieved the life of inherent value. Women have been urged to share their gifts outside the limits of the home and convent, and Saint Joseph has also been honored for his role as the model for all workers.
While I greatly appreciate this development of understanding, I still find myself especially loving Saint Joseph for his role of supportive spouse and father. I run to him for help finding employment, but I also ask him to intercede for me for the grace to be a supportive wife and to put the needs of my spouse above my own.
1. The term “patriarch” has two main meanings in traditional Christianity: the great fathers of the Hebrew Bible, and the super-bishops of post New Testament Christianity through the current day. “Patriarch” has also taken on additional meanings in modern Christianity, but that is a topic for another day.