Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Odd Man Out: Sometimes the Extra at History's Greatest Dramas, Saint Joseph Still Has an Important Role. (Testaments)

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Odd Man Out: Sometimes the Extra at History's Greatest Dramas, Saint Joseph Still Has an Important Role. (Testaments)

Article excerpt

I OFTEN THINK OF JOSEPH AS THE OLD MAN CROUCHED AT the bottom of Giotto's Nativity, overcome by sleep and his own irrelevance in the face of recent events. The majority of the picture is given over to Mary and her newborn, and rightly so. A midwife is on the scene, assisting Mary with the baby, and the situation is well in hand. Angels form a choir loft above the bed, and shepherds and attendant animals crowd the outer edges of the space. Joseph, worn from travel and worry, having got his wife to safety before the birth in the nick of time, is justifiably through for the night. His services are no longer required, and so he dozes.

Dozing, perchance to dream? If I were Joseph, I'd have a hard time surrendering to sleep! Here is a man riddled with dreams, his waking world hardly distinguishable from them in strangeness and mystery. Angels come to him night after night, giving him an earful about what heaven plans to do next in his backyard. Upon waking, he has to deal with the fact that his new wife is having a child that is not his, and he is regrettably the only man in his village who knows under what circumstances this has happened.

Life could not have been easy for Joseph, as the vacillations of the traditional stories make clear. Mark's gospel whites him out entirely: Jesus is known only as the son of Mary. The Gospel of Luke makes Mary the primary actor with whom the angel confers in the infancy stories, as if Joseph's compliance is taken for granted. In Matthew's gospel alone, Joseph is taken seriously. It is with him that angels speak and make their holy bargains. And so the dreams keep coming, filling his sleep with divine designs so new and troubling that another man might certainly skip town and head off the coming era of responsibility.

Who wants to be Joseph? Who wants to be a man whose child is not his child, and whose wife is not his wife in any natural sense of the word? Who wants to slump at the bottom of history's most sensational moments, as the one unnecessary character on the scene? A review of art history makes it abundantly clear that for most of the past 2,000 years, Joseph was fated to do just that. Through the Middle Ages and beyond, pictures of the Madonna and child abound; but Joseph, when he appears at all, is kept in the background, gathering figs for his hungry family or tending the donkey or playing his trade as a carpenter. He is the traditional breadwinning male, relegated to the outskirts of family life and scarcely enjoying the company of those for whom he provides. Keeping Joseph isolated, especially from the spotless Virgin Mary, was the whole point for the artists. He had to be kept out of touch, nearly out of sight, and mostly out of the suggestion that his relationship with his wife was anything but fiduciary.

As scripture scholars like to say, some things that are historically awkward are nonetheless theologically necessary. If Mary is to be maintained doctrinally as a perpetual virgin, Joseph must suffer the ignominy of being a hapless guardian for both a woman and her son. And so we find him in a 15th-century painting by Jacques Daret, arriving in the stable with the midwife--but alas, too late, Mary having given birth already without their help.

Or consider the brutal effect of the anonymous work Holy Kinship of the same period. Here we see all the famous women of that family--the matriarch Anne, Mary's mother, and old Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, sitting in a circle along with Mary and her various sisters, the five younger women all dandling small children on their laps in happy maternity. Behind a purposefully waist-high wall stand all of the husbands of this family, banished to the sidelines both visually and literally. The portrait makes clear that God is responsible for these births, and the men played decidedly ancillary roles.

Indeed, the words used to describe Joseph's position in the family--by theologians determined to protect Mary's virginal perfection--have bordered on cruel. …

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