For a number of reasons, Joseph has presented something of a problem for the Catholic Church over the past two millennia. The miracle of Christmas was not only that God became human but also that this was accomplished through a virgin. Naturally, Mary is one of the stars of the story. But the emphasis on her virginity may have meant that her marriage to Joseph may have been an uncomfortable reality—after all, if they were married, didn’t they, well, have sex? That flew in the face of what became an early tradition in the Catholic Church—Mary’s “perpetual virginity.”
Better, then, to have Joseph in the background. Some scholars have posited that this is also the reason that he is portrayed as elderly in all those paintings, even though some experts estimate he was around 30 years old at the time of Jesus’ birth. Lawrence Cunningham, a professor of theology at Notre Dame and author of A Brief History of the Saints, told me, “Nine times out of 10 in Christian art, Joseph takes on more of father-protector role rather than a husband. That was a way of solving the sexuality problem.” Cunningham points out that in some paintings, Joseph is shown dozing off in the corner of the stable or even leaving the scene of the Nativity entirely, “out of modesty.”
But don’t blame Western artists for giving Joseph short shrift. They didn’t have much material to go on. Joseph is given no lines to speak in any of the Gospels, and he disappears entirely after Jesus’ childhood. Significantly, he is absent during Jesus’ public ministry and even at the Crucifixion, where Mary is featured prominently. This has led some scholars to believe that he must have died before the end of Jesus’ earthly life.
SLATE: The Hidden Man of Christmas
Putting St. Joseph back in the picture.
by James Martin
Twelve Days of Christmas Day 3