Thursday, March 19, 2015

St. Joseph in the East

Today at Wyoming Catholic College there is a general euphoria for the celebration of the Solemnity of St. Joseph. Parties are being given, Italian dinners will be consumed, and in general, the students will be frolicking in the joy of the feast of the Guardian. The feast, however, does not existent on the liturgical calendar for the Ukrainian Greek Catholics. Following the 10th century Typikon of the Monastery of St. Sabas, our only liturgical commemoration for St. Joseph is the Sunday after the Nativity, when we commemorate King David, St. Joseph, and St. James, the brother of Our Lord according to the flesh. The Syriac tradition observes a feast of the Revelation to St. Joseph on the Second Sunday before Christmas, so, while offering a slightly different emphasis it agrees with the the Byzantine tradition in making St Joseph’s feasts part of the Nativity season.  I’ll admit to being slightly confused as to why the Latin Church observes her own feast when she does: it is in some proximity to the Annunciation, although one would tend to think a feast that commemorates Joseph taking Mary into his home would fall on the days following the Annunciation, not before it. (I’m told that current liturgical historians think that the date may arise from the previous observance of Joseph of Antioch’s feast on March 20th, and a linking of the two.) For their part, my Latin students are no less puzzled that any Catholic Church does not observe the feast day of the universal patron of the Church. (Even if Joseph’s title of universal patron is not explicitly linked to the current Roman liturgical commemoration of him, I have found that in the hearts of many the title is still linked with the day.)

The mutual bemusement led me to consider the history of devotion to St. Joseph in the Christian East, which seems to have especially flowered in Egypt. This is probably due to the importance the Egyptian Church placed on the the Infant Christ’s entrance into Egypt, and St. Joseph’s integral role in that regard. Many of the local churches of Egypt that claimed to have been a resting spot or even a residence for the Holy Pilgrims came to observe the feast of the Flight into 
Egypt on various days, and by the early 15th century, as recorded in the Synaxarion of the Coptic Church of Alexandria, each local church was allowed to commemorate the feast in conjunction with the feast of the dedication of the particular church.

A  fifth century (or perhaps earlier) apocryphal text, “The History of Joseph the Carpenter”, gives testimony to the liturgical commemoration of the death of St. Joseph, observed on the 26th of the Egyptian month of Abib (the 2nd of August on the Gregorian Calendar). The text in its present form opens with a doxology that seems designed for liturgical worship, and concludes with a doxology as well. Certainly by the 15th century synaxarion mentioned above, the Alexandrian use had uniformly adopted the feast on August 2 as the feast of the Transition of Joseph into Heaven.

I find the apocryphal text itself to be a beautiful read, admittedly with some occasional eyebrow raising, but on the whole a lovely meditation on Joseph’s relationship to Christ.  The narrative of his life and death is placed on the lips of Christ, as He entrusts this story to His Apostles as part of His own Gospel.  The text adopts the fairly uniform position of the East that St. Joseph was a widower, and an old man by the time he married the Theotokos. In the account, Joseph is held to be the father of six children, with James the Just still being a child when Joseph, at the spry age of 90, took the Virgin into his home. It also stresses that Joseph was a Patriarch in the ancient tradition, remaining spry and active well past 100, until finally be overtaken by death at the age of 111. Regardless of how much credence one gives to the particulars, the story remains the earliest testimony to devotion to St. Joseph.

From here, the Coptic Church would eventually develop an entire liturgical office for St. Joseph. The office, and implicitly the ranking of St. Joseph himself, is placed in the following order: first the office for the Theotokos, then that of the Angels, then that of John the Baptist, then St. Joseph, then the Apostles and subsequent saints. This ranking is testimony to a tradition seemingly referenced even by St. Thomas Aquinas in the West (Super Sent., lib. 2 d. 11 q. 2 a. 4 ad 2) which sees John the Baptist above all other men, but just after the Angels, in accordance with Christ’s words in Matthew 11, 11. Nevertheless, devotion to St. Joseph does not seem especially active in the current Coptic Church.

In the early 1800’s, the Melkite Patriarch Maximos III introduced the observance of the Feast of St. Joseph into his church’s liturgical year on March 19. However, the title of the feast was given as “The Feast of the Transition of St. Joseph the Betrothed into Heaven.” As such, it is the second feast of St. Joseph on the Melkite calendar, and I am struck by the Patriarch’s thoughtfulness in its regard. He was attempting at the time to balance certain pressures from Rome, and especially the Latin missionary movement, and thus introduced the increasingly popular observance of St. Joseph on the 19th of March. But he also tried to in some way connect it to the liturgical tradition of the East. Since a feast of St. Joseph as the foster father of Christ already existed on the Byzantine calendar on the Sunday after Christmas, he instead looked to Egypt’s long tradition of observing the dormition of Joseph.

The Ukrainian Church, on the other hand, has not yet seen fit to introduce the feast into its own Lenten calendar. Since the Council of Trullo forbade any Divine Liturgies on the weekdays of Lent besides the feast of the Annunciation, it would bring a lot of questions in any case. Would it be observed at a Presanctified liturgy with a Gospel, as is done for the few other weekday liturgical commemorations of Lent (The First and Second Findings of the Head of John the Baptist, and the Feast of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste)? Would it be transferred to a given Saturday of Lent, as was done with the feast of St. Theodore the Recruit? Or, (this seems very unlikely), would the UGCC adopt a full observance on the 19th of March, with a Divine Liturgy? The Melkite church had, under the influence of the Latin Church, come to observe daily Divine Liturgies through Lent, so the introduction of the March 19th feast did not immediately raise these questions for them; I don’t have enough experience with the current practice of the Melkites to know what they are doing at present.

What has been adopted, by the UGCC, in good Slavic tradition, is the praying of an Akathist to St. Joseph. The Akathist (literally “not sitting”) is a 6th century Marian hymn that has a pride of place in Bzyantine Marian devotion. In the Slavic Churches, a variety of Akathists, patterned on the 6th century exemplar, were composed and dedicated to various saints, themes, or titles of Our Lady. The Church of Kyiv that is in union with Rome, produced a very lovely Akathist to Joseph the Betrothed. The Marian Akathist is actually prayed liturgically as part of the Matins for the fifth Sunday of Lent, and in some monasteries is part of Friday night Compline throughout Lent. The Akathist of St Joseph, however, has no corresponding liturgical commemoration, and thus remains a private devotion. But the more I pray it, the more I am struck by how the prayer weaves in themes from the liturgy of the Byzantine Church, be they themes from the Royal Hours of Christmas Eve, or appropriations of other liturgical texts not connected to Joseph, which offer an interpretation of them in light of St. Joseph’s role. The whole prayer can be found here; for the moment, I will just highlight one of my favorite aspects of the prayer, Joseph’s role as the secret-keeper of the Incarnation. Since the time of St. Ignatius of Antioch, the Church has spoken about the great secret of Mary’s Virginity, and how the secret was kept from men and demons. The Akathist to Joseph highlights his role as the one who was instrumental in guarding this mystery:
Preserving the mystery of the birth of God the Word by the all-Pure Virgin, which is inaccessible even to the angels, from the slander of people and the craft of the devil, God chose you, O righteous Joseph, a lowly carpenter, to be the protector and witness of the virginity of the all-Holy Mary. 
Even though  my own liturgical tradition has not adopted the feast of March 19, I am sufficiently swayed by the festivities around me, and so in love with this akathist, that I will gladly sing it this evening.  For those of you with actual liturgical commemorations happening today, I hope you will take the time to at least pray part of this lovely collection of verses in honor to Joseph the Betrothed.

Rejoice, o righteous Joseph, ready helper and intercessor for our souls!

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: