Saint of the Week: St. Joseph the Carpenter

Given that it is Christmastide, I felt that looking at a member of the Holy Family was only appropriate.

According to tradition, Joseph was a widower with children from his first marriage at the time of his betrothal to Mary.  This handy detail allows Jesus to have brothers and sisters and for his mother to remain a perpetual virgin.*  Whether we believe this tradition or not, it is most likely that St. Joseph was older than the BVM.  That’s how things were — girls got married as soon as possible and were pretty much pregnant as earlier as biologically able.  Unfortunately.

Joseph lived in Nazareth at the time of his betrothal to the BVM, and nearby was another village (the name of which escapes me) that had been trashed in a riot.  This provided steady work for people in the carpentry business.  Stuff needed to get built.  It is entirely likely that he was doing work there; at this stage in history, most people who laboured with their hands were essentially day-labourers.  Show up at the site or the market and get hired, then paid at the end of the day (like that parable Jesus tells about the guys who work in the vineyards).  I imagine St. Joseph to have been one of these.

So here’s Joseph, our hard-working contractor, putting in many hours a day, preparing his household for the arrival of his wife.

Who, it turns out, is already pregnant.  Joseph, being a righteous man, decided to put her away quietly.  It is the ‘quietly’ part that is due to his righteousness, not the putting away.  By doing things quietly, he could reduce shame (a big deal in societies more ‘Eastern’ than ours) and possibly even save her life.

St. Joseph’s reaction to the pregnancy of the BVM was probably like this hymn from Christmas Eve sung by the Orthodox:

Joseph said to the virgin:
What has happened to you, O Mary?
I am troubled; what can I say to you?
Doubt clouds my mind; depart from me!
What has happened to you, O Mary?
Instead of honour, you bring me shame.
Instead of joy, you fill me with grief.
Men who praised me will blame me.
I cannot bear condemnation from every side.
I received you, a pure virgin in the sight of the Lord.
What is this that I now see?

Joseph received his response from an angel in a dream who told him that the child from from the Most High.

What follows is what makes St. Joseph of Nazareth really stand out for me.

He decided to face the shame and not divorce Mary and raise this child on his own.

Now, much is made of the BVM given that she is one of the few (if not the only) biblical persons who receives a message from on high and says, “Let it be unto me according to your will.”  However, to believe that Jesus is something special takes a lot less faith when you are the person who conceives virginally.  But when you are the dude betrothed to the woman, to accept in faith the words of the angels requires larger faith.

I’m not saying Joseph had larger faith than the Theotokos.  I’m just saying it takes a lot more trust to accept that the child is from God if you aren’t the person carrying the child in your womb.  That’s all.

St. Joseph’s faith was not blind faith; he had a dream to go on.  Dreams are kind of a big deal in the ancient world, and I think there’s more to them than Freud has led us to believe.  But that’s a discussion for another time.  Nevertheless, I think this saint is an example of how great our faith can be.  We need to trust God and act accordingly.  This is the great example of Joseph of Nazareth.

The next and last we hear of Joseph in the biblical record is when Jesus is “lost” at the Temple.  Tradition tells us that he died during our Saviour’s youth.  I see no reason to question, given that he is never again mentioned in the Gospels.

Let us pray to the Lord of Hosts for faith like that of Joseph the Carpenter of Nazareth.  May we know Him well enough to trust Him so deeply.

*The needlessness of this doctrine and the fact that it makes Joseph into some sort of strange creature the like of which I know not are an obstacle for me swallowing the bitter pill of Orthodoxy, one reason why I have yet to sail up the Aegean to Byzantium.

Why “Theotokos (Mother of God)” Is Important

Pictured to the left is a giant icon of St. Mary “the Virgin” placed at the entrance to the Old City in Nicosia, Cyprus.  Framing this image of the Mother of Our Lord are the words, “Iperayia Theotoke, soson imas“, which I like to translate as, “Supersaint Mother of God, save us.”  This sort of behaviour on the part of the Church of Cyprus is the sort of thing that led one young Chinese man with whom I led Bible studies to say that the major religions of the world were Buddhism, people who believe the Bible, Islamists (his word, not mine), and people who worship Mary.  It is also the sort of thing that makes me more, not less, comfortable with my Protestantism.

What bothers me with that icon is not that it exists at all — I see no reason why one ought not to put up a giant icon of St. Mary if one so wishes.  I would rather it be one of the glorious icons of the crucifixion or resurrection, but, hey, that’s why I’m a Prot.  Nor am I bothered by the word Theotokos, literally “God-bearer”, usually translated as “Mother of God.”  I think that word is very important in our understanding of Who Jesus Is.  I am bothered by the words “soson imas” — save us.  Now, the devout, informed Orthodox will tell that it doesn’t mean the same thing as when they say “Kyrie Khriste, soson imas“, but the words are still the same.

Most Protestants, however, would have been stopped short at the word Theotokos, if not by Iperayia.  It is impious, they will fervently tell you, to call Mary the “Mother of God.”  Did the creator of the starry height have a mother?  Was the originator of all that is, all that was, all that ever shall be begotten of a woman?  Dare we to say that God, whom we all know to be the uncaused cause thanks to St. Thomas Aquinas, was begotten of a human being within time?  Would it not be better to say that Mary was “Christotokos”?

Thank you for showing up, Nestorius.  Of course, in real life, if you were named Nestorius and were saying those same things in the late 420’s in Constantinople, your sermon would have been shouted down somewhere around the word “impious”, and an angry mob would cry out for your deposition (in a mere twenty years, such angry mobs are calling out for blood, so Nestorius got it easy).

Question:  Is Jesus Christ fully God?

Answer:  Yes.

Question:  Seeing as how He is fully God, is He therefore creator of the starry height, the originator of all that is, all that was, all that ever shall be, the uncaused cause?

Answer:  Yes.

Question:  Does Jesus Christ have a mother?

Answer:  Yes.

And you will say, “I know all this.  But Christ Our Lord was born of Mary only of His human nature, not of His divine nature.  As God, He was/is/is being/will be eternally begotten of the Father before all worlds.”

Indeed, God the Son only partook of the Blessed Virgin for His human nature.  To say that she in any way imparted divinity unto Him is blasphemy.  However, was the child born to her God?  Yes, yes He was.  And this is the scandal of the Incarnation.

You see, by limiting the role of Mary as Jesus’ mother to Christotokos, we limit His Incarnation.  We confuse the question.  There are and have been many heretics running about, some of whom imagine that divinity only came upon Jesus at His baptism in the Jordan or in the Transfiguration.  There were and are others who believe that He grew into being God’s son and that he was just a dude upon whom the Logos of God descended.  Others seem to think that He was/is St. Michael the Archangel.  Others think He was just another one of God’s spirit babies up in heaven and that He lived a pure, spotless life but is not identical in substance with God.

Yet St. John of Damascus teaches us that Jesus is of the same essence as God the Father as well as of God the Holy Spirit.  When Jesus was born, God was a man.

The fullness of the Godhead dwelt in Jesus.  He was, by nature, God.  He is, by nature, God.  The child whom St. Mary carried in her womb was God.  He took from her His humanity and became consubstantial with us thereby.  He already had His divinity, already was consubstantial with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Since God the Creator of the Universe was born as a child, she who bore Him in her womb is rightly called Theotokos, God-bearer, the Mother of God.  It is a safeguard for the full divinity of Christ, a safeguard for the Incarnation.  It is not a point of Mariology but a point of Christology.