Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Josephology Part 5: Patron of Holy Deaths (or, Joseph Gets a Feast Day)

I first came across the History of Joseph the Carpenter narrative through a post on Taylor Marshall’s blog. (For those who don’t already know, Dr. Marshall is a frequent apologist for the “young-and-pure” version of St. Joseph, and he has written rather voluminously on the point.) The text of the History is interesting not only as an early testimony to the saint’s old age and peccability, but also to a developing Josephite devotion.

The History is dated anywhere from the 4th to the 7th century, depending on the scholar. It appears to be largely an Egyptian/Coptic work. Indeed, we seem to find the earliest evidence of Josephite devotion among the Egyptian Christians, perhaps even as far back as the 4th century. Most likely it flourished there because of the stories about the Flight into Egypt, and the recognition of many locations along the Flight’s route as pilgrimage sites.

The Narrative of the History

The bulk of the text purports to be a first-hand account of the life and death of Joseph as told by Jesus himself to his disciples on the Mount of Olives before the Crucifixion (1). The early life of Joseph and his betrothal to Mary is a much shorter version of the Proto-Gospel story (2-9). Then begins a longer account of his illness, death, judgment, and burial (10-29). What we find here is not so much a collection of possibly apocryphal fantasies, but a fully-developed theology of preparation for a holy death.

As with other important events in his life, Joseph is visited by an angel to inform him of his impending death at the age of one-hundred and eleven (12). He is described as working in his carpentry shop with “youthful vigor” (10) even in his extreme old age, so this death would otherwise have been unforeseen. Fearing judgment, he goes to the Temple and pours out his soul to God in a kind of proto-Dies Irae:
If now my days are ended, and the time draws near when I must leave this world, send me, I beseech You, the great Michael, the prince of Your holy angels: let him remain with me, that my wretched soul may depart from this afflicted body without trouble, without terror and impatience. For great fear and intense sadness take hold of all bodies on the day of their death, whether it be man or woman, beast wild or tame, or whatever creeps on the ground or flies in the air.... Now therefore, O Lord and my God, let Your holy angel be present with his help to my soul and body, until they shall be dissevered from each other. And let not the face of the angel, appointed my guardian from the day of my birth, be turned away from me; but may he be the companion of my journey even until he bring me to You.... And let not demons of frightful aspect come near me in the way in which I am to go, until I come to You in bliss. And let not the doorkeepers hinder my soul from entering paradise. And do not uncover my sins, and expose me to condemnation before Your terrible tribunal. Let not the lions rush in upon me; nor let the waves of the sea of fire overwhelm my soul—for this must every soul pass through—before I have seen the glory of Your Godhead. O God, most righteous Judge, who in justice and equity wilt judge mankind, and wilt render unto each one according to his works, O Lord and my God, I beseech You, be present to me in Your compassion, and enlighten my path that I may come to You; for You are a fountain overflowing with all good things, and with glory for evermore. (13)
One is inevitably reminded of the medieval Ars Moriendi devotionals and more recent popular moral guides concerning preparation for death. The invocation of St. Michael and one’s guardian angel are very important in this preparation, as is the renunciation of the devils who hope to pull the dying soul into Hell.

Joseph returns to Nazareth and immediately falls ill. He continues his prayers with a general confession of sins:
Woe to the day on which I was born into the world! Woe to the womb which bare me! Woe to the bowels which admitted me! Woe to the breasts which suckled me! Woe to the feet upon which I sat and rested! Woe to the hands which carried me and reared me until I grew up! For I was conceived in iniquity, and in sins did my mother desire me. Woe to my tongue and my lips, which have brought forth and spoken vanity, detraction, falsehood, ignorance, derision, idle tales, craft, and hypocrisy! Woe to my eyes, which have looked upon scandalous things! Woe to mine ears, which have delighted in the words of slanderers! Woe to my hands, which have seized what did not of right belong to them! Woe to my belly and my bowels, which have lusted after food unlawful to be eaten! Woe to my throat, which like a fire has consumed all that it found! Woe to my feet, which have too often walked in ways displeasing to God! Woe to my body; and woe to my miserable soul, which has already turned aside from God its Maker! What shall I do when I arrive at that place where I must stand before the most righteous Judge, and when He shall call me to account for the works which I have heaped up in my youth? Woe to every man dying in his sins! Assuredly that same dreadful hour, which came upon my father Jacob, when his soul was flying forth from his body, is now, behold, near at hand for me. Oh! How wretched I am this day, and worthy of lamentation! But God alone is the disposer of my soul and body; He also will deal with them after His own good pleasure. (16)
Thus the writer of the History insists upon the necessity of making a good confession when death is approaching. Soon after this prayer, Jesus arrives at the deathbed, and Joseph confesses to him his original suspicion of Mary’s virtue:
You are altogether my God; You are my Lord, as the angel has told me times without number, and especially on that day when my soul was driven about with perverse thoughts about the pure and blessed Mary, who was carrying You in her womb, and whom I was thinking of secretly sending away.... Do not for this cause wish me evil, O Lord! For I was ignorant of the mystery of Your birth. (17)
Mary joins Jesus at Joseph’s side (19), holding Joseph’s hands as he passes out of this life. Death arrives with the armies of Hell behind him, but Christ holds them back until Michael and Gabriel can safely carry his soul “into the dwelling-place of the pious” (23).

(Paolo de Matteis)
At the burial Christ promises that Joseph’s body will remain incorrupt until the Final Judgment, and describes all the blessings that will be given to those who keep a hearty devotion to his earthly father:
And whosoever shall make an offering on the day of your remembrance [the 26th day of the month of Abîb, according to the text], him will I bless and recompense in the congregation of the virgins; and whosoever shall give food to the wretched, the poor, the widows, and orphans from the work of his hands, on the day on which your memory shall be celebrated, and in your name, shall not be in want of good things all the days of his life. And whosoever shall have given a cup of water, or of wine, to drink to the widow or orphan in your name, I will give him to you, that you may go in with him to the banquet of the thousand years. And every man who shall present an offering on the day of your commemoration will I bless and recompense in the church of the virgins: for one I will render unto him thirty, sixty, and a hundred. And whosoever shall write the history of your life, of your labour, and your departure from this world, and this narrative that has issued from my mouth, him shall I commit to your keeping as long as he shall have to do with this life. And when his soul departs from the body, and when he must leave this world, I will burn the book of his sins, nor will I torment him with any punishment in the day of judgment; but he shall cross the sea of flames, and shall go through it without trouble or pain. And upon every poor man who can give none of those things which I have mentioned this is incumbent: viz., if a son is born to him, he shall call his name Joseph. So there shall not take place in that house either poverty or any sudden death for ever. (26)
It’s a list reminiscent of the promises attached to certain later devotions to Mary and to the Sacred Heart. I don’t know enough about early Catholic devotions to say if lists of promises (especially concerning a holy death) were common, or if this is one of the earliest examples.

The story closes with one final compliment to Joseph’s physical stamina, even at the end of his life: “Never did a tooth in his mouth hurt him, nor was his eyesight rendered less sharp, nor his body bent, nor his strength impaired; but he worked at his trade of a carpenter to the very last day of his life” (29). The text then recounts some peculiar but unrelated speculations about the details of the eschaton, and that’s the end.

The Influence of the History

The most obvious influence of the History of Joseph the Carpenter is in his place as patron of the dying. It is a reasonable assumption that Joseph died in the presence of Christ and Mary, even without a clear tradition to that effect. In his preparation for death, the Joseph of the History admits his sinfulness and begs for the mercy of God, then places himself in the care of Jesus and the holy angels to carry his soul to Paradise. What better way to learn the art of dying than by this example?

A more indirect influence is the clear celebration of an annual feast for St. Joseph on Abîb 26 (July 20 on the old Julian calendar, or August 2 on the 1582-revised Gregorian calendar), and this feast seems to have continued uninterrupted into modern times with the Coptics. The various minor feasts of St. Joseph in the West fell on different days than this, and would not develop until much later. The earliest western Josephite feast I can find is a March 20 commemoration for a Benedictine abbey in the eighth century.

Still, this document falls neatly into the Patristic era, and it should be weighed accordingly. Recognition of St. Joseph as the patron of holy deaths is early enough to avoid any potential scruples concerning it, and it is fully in line with the older tradition that Joseph was elderly and subject to concupiscence.

Next time, I will move away from the legends and stories to look at what the Church Fathers wrote about St. Joseph.

St. Joseph, protector of the Blessed Virgin, pray for us!


  1. The Little Office of St. Joseph ends every hour with the prayer for the faithful departed. "Et fidelium animae per misericordiam Dei requiescant in pace. Amen." The Little Office is a beautiful devotion. Perhaps the history of this and other devotions will figure into this excellent treatment of Josephology.

    1. I've heard of this Little Office, but have not read or researched it. I will have to look into it.