The attributes of St. Joseph

Saint Joseph with the Infant Jesus, by Guido Reni, ca. 1635

Today, the Church celebrates the solemnity of St. Joseph, breaking the Lenten custom of fasting for a day. St. Joseph is the patron of many things, including the universal Church and yours truly. I chose his name at my baptism and confirmation in 2007, since I consider St. Joseph inspirational because of the trust  in God he displayed. When his soon-to-be wife was pregnant, he accepted the explanation offered to him in a dream, although he did not fully understand it. This is what faith means: it goes beyond a mere acceptance of something as being real. Faith is ultimately about trust, despite all human doubts and failings. In the movie The Nativity Story, these doubts are beautifully shown when Joseph wonders if he can ever teach the Son of God anything. But despite that he continued, silently and with bleeding feet, to Bethlehem, trusting in God the Father.

In art, all saints are usually depicted with certain attributes that identify them. A necessity since the catalogue of saints contains a rather large number of bearded men, among them St. Joseph, who has a certain variety in attributes. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Carpenter’s tool – Pretty self-explanatory: Joseph was a carpenter, although he probably didn’t do the same work as modern carpenters. He may have been an artisan in general, also working with stone, for example.

As a descendant of kings (the Gospels trace his lineage back to King David), Joseph was far from royal. Rather, we get the impression of a fairly average man, skilled perhaps, with a good source of income, but not powerful or overly important in his society.

His tools place St. Joseph firmly in Jewish society in the Roman Empire. Extended forward in time, he remains an average man. As such, his sainthood is an inspiration, showing that faith is not beyond the grasp of anyone. We don’t need any special tools for it, so to speak. But we do need to know what we’re doing, and what we can’t do or know.

A staff with lily blossoms – This can be traced back to an apocryphal legend about St. Joseph. When a husband needed to be found for Mary, each prospective husband was told to hold a staff. In all cases nothing happened, until it was Joseph’s. He was an unlikely candidate, far older than Mary. But when he took the staff, lilies sprouted forth from the tip, symbols of purity and chastity.

The marriage of Mary and Joseph was predetermined, as was their purity, which they kept up, the legend says, even after they were married.

A chalice and a cross – The chalice can mean many things, but the most direct meaning is that of the Eucharist, as the cup containing the Blood of Christ. It also signifies faith, something of which St. Joseph is an example of. The meaning of the cross is of course similar, being the symbol of our entire faith.

The infant Jesus – While we can hardly call Him an attribute, the presence of the child Jesus does indicate a special closeness to Christ. Of course, as His foster father, St. Joseph was indeed close to Him. We don’t read much about St. Joseph in the Gospels, but there are stories about his life with Mary and Jesus. He is usually depicted as being quite a bit older than Mary and it is indeed said that he died in the presence of his wife and the Son of God. That is why he is also the patron saint of a good death. What better way to enter heaven than to do so in the arms of Christ?

Prayer to St. Joseph for the Whole Church

O glorious St. Joseph, you were chosen by God to be the foster father of Jesus, the most pure spouse of Mary, ever Virgin, and the head of the Holy Family. You have been chosen by Christ’s Vicar as the heavenly Patron and Protector of the Church founded by Christ. Protect the Sovereign Pontiff and all bishops and priests united with him. Be the protector of all who labor for souls amid the trials and tribulations of this life; and grant that all peoples of the world may be docile to the Church without which there is no salvation.

Dear St. Joseph, accept the offering I make to you. Be my father, protector, and guide in the way of salvation. Obtain for me purity of heart and a love for the spiritual life. After your example, let all my actions be directed to the greater glory of God, in union with the Divine Heart of Jesus, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and your own paternal heart. Finally, pray for me that I may share in the peace and joy of your holy death. Amen.

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