The Traditional Catholic Liturgy

Adapted from The Liturgical Year by Abbot Gueranger and other sources.

Feast of Saint Joseph – March 19

Today St. Joseph, the Spouse of Mary, the Foster-Father of the Son of God, comes to cheer us by his dear presence. In a few days hence, the august Mystery of the Incarnation will demand our fervent adoration; who, after the Angel of Annunciation, could better prepare us for that grand Feast, than he that was both the confidant and faithful guardian of the divine secret?

The Son of God, when about to descend upon this earth to assume our human nature, would have a Mother; this Mother could not be other than the purest of Virgins, and Her Divine Maternity was not to impair Her incomparable Virginity. Until such time as the Son of Mary would be recognized as the Son of God, His Mother's honor had need of a protector: some man, therefore, was to be called to the high honor of being Mary's Spouse. This privileged mortal was St. Joseph, the most chaste of men.

EspousalsHeaven designated him as being the only one worthy of such a treasure: the rod he held in his hand in the temple suddenly produced a flower, as though it were a literal fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaias: There shall come forth a rod from the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root (11: 1). The rich pretenders to a marriage with Mary were set aside; and St. Joseph was espoused to the Virgin of the House of David, by a union which surpassed in love and purity everything the Angels themselves had ever witnessed.

But he was not only chosen to the glory of having to protect the Mother of the Incarnate Word; he was also called to exercise an adopted paternity over the very Son of God. So long as the mysterious cloud was over the Saint of Saints, men called Jesus the Son of Joseph and the Carpenter's Son. When Our Blessed Lady found the Child Jesus in the Temple, in the midst of the doctors, She thus addressed Him: "Thy father and I have sought Thee, sorrowing" (Luke 2: 48); and the holy Evangelist adds that Jesus was subject to them, that is, that He was subject to Joseph as He was to Mary.

Who can imagine or worthily describe the sentiments which filled the heart of this man, whom the Gospel describes to us in one word, when it calls him (justus—the just man Matt. 1: 19). Let us try to picture him to ourselves amidst the principal events of his life—his being chosen as the Spouse of Mary, the most holy and perfect of God's creatures; the Angel's appearing to him, and making him the one single human confidant of the Mystery of the Incarnation, by telling him that his Virgin Spouse bore within Her the fruit of the world's salvation; the joys of Bethlehem when he assisted at the Birth of the Divine Babe, honored the Virgin Mother, and heard the angels singing; his seeing, first the humble and simple shepherds, and then the rich Eastern Magi, coming to the stable to adore the new-born Child; the sudden fears which came on him, when he was told to arise and, midnight though it was, to flee into Egypt with the Child and His Mother; the hardships of that exile, the poverty and privations which were endured by the hidden God, whose foster-father he was, and by the Virgin Spouse, whose sublime dignity was now so evident to him; the return to Nazareth, and the humble and laborious life led in that village, where he so often witnessed the world's Creator sharing in the work of a carpenter; the happiness of such a life, in that cottage where his companions were the Queen of Angels and the Eternal Son of God, both of whom honored and tenderly loved him as the head of the family—yes, St. Joseph was beloved and honored by the uncreated Word, the Wisdom of the Father, and by the Virgin Mary, the masterpiece of God's power and holiness.

We ask, what mortal can justly appreciate the glories of St. Joseph? To do so, he would have to understand the whole of that Mystery, of which God made him the necessary instrument. What wonder then, if this foster-father of the Son of God was prefigured in the Old Testament, and that by one of the most glorious of the Patriarchs? Let us listen to St. Bernard, who thus compares the two Josephs: "The first was sold by his brethren, out of envy, and was led into Egypt, thus prefiguring Our Savior's being sold; the second Joseph, that he might avoid Herod's envy, led Jesus into Egypt. To the first was given the understanding and interpretation of dreams; to the second, the knowledge of, and participation in, the heavenly Mysteries. The first laid up stores of grain, not for himself, but for all the people; the second received the Living Bread that came down from Heaven, and kept It both for himself and for the whole world" (Homily 2, on Missus est).

Such a life could not close save by a death which was worthy of so great a Saint. The time came for Jesus to quit the obscurity of Nazareth, and show Himself to the world. His own works were to bear testimony to His divine origin; the ministry of St. Joseph, therefore, was no longer needed. It was time for him to leave this world, and wait, in Abraham's bosom, the arrival of that day, when Heaven's gates were to be opened to the just (at the Ascension of Our Lord). As Joseph laid on his bed of death, there was watching by his side He that is the Master of life, and Who had often called this His humble creature, Father. His last breath was received by the glorious Virgin Mother, whom he had, by a just right, called Spouse. It was thus, with Jesus and Mary by his side, caring for and caressing him, that St. Joseph sweetly slept in peace. The Spouse of Mary, the Foster-father of Jesus, now reigns in Heaven with a glory which, though inferior to that of Mary, is marked with certain prerogatives which no other inhabitant of Heaven can have.

This Feast appears to have been celebrated first by the Coptic Christians—some historians say as early as the beginning of the fourth century—who fixed it on their calendar on July 20. Some time after the ninth century, the Greeks began to commemorate St. Joseph on the two Sundays—before and after Christmas. According to Pope Benedict XIV, "the general opinion of the learned is that the Fathers of Carmel were the first to import from the East into the West the laudable custom of giving the fullest cultus (liturgical honor) to St. Joseph" (De Servi Dei Beatif. I, iv, n. 11; xx., n. 17). His feast was introduced towards the end of the 13th century into the Dominican calendar. Gerson, the Chancellor of Notre-Dame, composed on Office in honor of the Espousals of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph in 1400, and promoted it at the Council of Constance in 1414. Finally Pope Sixtus IV (1471-84) fixed this Feast in the Roman Calendar on March 19. At first it was only a festum simplex; but the next Pope, Innocent VIII (1484-92) quickly raised it to the rank of duplex. In 1621 Pope Gregory XV declared it a Holyday of Obligation, at the request of the Emperors Ferdinand III and Leopold I, and of King Charles II of Spain. Pope Clement XI (1700-21) raised it to the rank of Double of the Second Class.

Holy FamilyOne Feast was not enough to satisfy the piety of devout Catholics. The Feast of the Espousals of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph, as we have seen, was strenuously advocated by Gerson and first permitted by Pope Paul III to the Franciscans. Later it was extended to other Religious Orders and Dioceses, and in 1725, to all countries that solicited it—the day appointed being January 23. St. Teresa of Avila had very much promoted devotion to St. Joseph, especially amongst the reformed Carmelites. In 1621 the reformed Order chose St. Joseph for its Patron, and in 1683 were allowed to celebrate the Feast of his Patronage on the 3rd Sunday after Easter. This Feast, soon adopted throughout Spain, was later on extended to all states and Dioceses which asked for the privilege. In 1847 Pope Pius IX extended the Feast of the Patronage of St. Joseph to the Universal Church; in 1870—just months after the Vatican Council had adjourned and Rome had fallen to the troops of Victor Emmanuel—the same Pope solemnly declared St. Joseph the Patron of the Universal Church, and enjoined that the Feast of March 19 be raised to the rank of Double of the I Class. Pope Benedict XV confirmed this injunction in 1917. Meanwhile the Feast of the Patronage was transferred by Pope St. Pius X, in 1911, to the Wednesday before the Third Sunday after Easter—as the Solemnity of St. Joseph. This was replaced by Pope Pius XII, in 1955, with the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, May 1.

O sublime minister of the greatest of blessings, intercede for us with God made man. Ask Him to bestow humility upon us, that holy virtue which raised thee to such exalted dignity, and which must be the basis of our conversion. It is pride that led us into sin, and made us prefer our own will to that of God; yet He will pardon us if we offer Him the sacrifice of a contrite and humble heart (Ps. 50: 19). Obtain for us this virtue, without which there can be no true penance. Pray also for us, O St. Joseph, that we may be chaste. Without purity of mind and body we cannot come nigh the God of all sanctity, Who suffers nothing defiled to approach Him. He wills to make our bodies, by His grace, the temples of His Holy Spirit: do thou, great Saint, help us to maintain ourselves in so exalted a dignity, or to recover it if we have lost it.

And lastly, O faithful Spouse of Mary, recommend us to our Mother. If She cast a look of pity upon us during these days of reconciliation (the Holy Season of Lent), we shall be saved: for She is the Queen of Mercy, and Jesus, Her Son, will pardon us and change our hearts, if She intercede for us, O St. Joseph! Remind Her of Bethlehem, Egypt, and Nazareth, in all of which She received from thee such marks of thy devotedness. Tell Her that we, also, love and honor thee; and Mary will reward us for our devotion to him who was given Her by Heaven as Her protector and support.

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