I found this icon (see photo at top of post) in a Greek church shop while visiting Thessaloniki more than a decade ago.
Now, St. Joseph is not my patron saint (that would be St. Brendan of Ireland). However, I grew closer to this saint and to this icon in particular when I became a grandfather. Along with millions of other Christians in ancient churches, I ask St. Joseph to join me in my daily prayers for my marriage, my children and, especially, my grandchildren.
Icons containing this specific image are important, in terms of church tradition, because St. Joseph is shown holding the Christ child, an honor customarily reserved for St. Mary the mother of Jesus. Also note that the saint is depicted as an elderly man, as shown by his gray hair and beard.
Believe it or not, details of this kind have become important in a ridiculous story currently making headlines in American politics. I jest not, as shown in this Religion News Service story that ran with the headline: "Conservatives defend Roy Moore -- invoking Joseph, Mary and the Ten Commandments."
(RNS) -- Conservative Christian supporters of Roy Moore are defending the U.S. Senate candidate against allegations of molesting a teenager decades ago -- and one of them used the biblical story of Mary and Joseph to rationalize an adult being sexually attracted to a minor.
OK, for starters, what is the meaning of the word "conservatives" -- plural -- in that headline? In terms of the Joseph and Mary part of this debate, it would appear that it would be more accurate to say "one evangelical Protestant," or something like that. I mean, is the assumption that there are no "conservative" Catholics or "conservative" Orthodox Christians? At this point, does "conservative Christian" automatically mean white evangelical Christians?
This bizarre side trip into church history is, of course, linked to that Washington Post blockbuster the other day that ran with this headline: "Woman says Roy Moore initiated sexual encounter when she was 14, he was 32." (Personally, I think the contents of this story are appalling (no matter what one thinks of the timing) and that Moore should stand down, as the GOP nominee for the U.S. Senate.)
Later on, the RNS story adds:
... Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler used the biblical account of Jesus’ birth in Moore’s defense.
“(T)ake Joseph and Mary,” Zeigler told the Washington Examiner. “Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus. There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual.”
While the Bible does not give the ages of Mary and Joseph, most Christians assume she would have been a teenager and Joseph an adult at the time of their betrothal and Jesus’ birth. The Bible does state that Mary was a virgin, Jesus was conceived when the power of God “overshadowed” her and Joseph did not consummate their marriage until after Jesus’ birth, though beliefs about and interpretations of Mary’s virginity vary.
That sound you hear in the background is Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox readers screaming. That stunned chorus could be joined by many traditional Anglicans, Lutherans and even Calvinists who pay close attention to the views of the founders of their communions (click here for background).
When seeking expert reactions to Zeigler's statement, RNS turned to a highly qualified source -- as in an outraged Christianity Today online piece by Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton. This next quotation is from the CT piece ("No, Christians Don't Use Joseph and Mary to Explain Child Molesting Accusations: Doing so is ridiculous and blasphemous") to provide more context:
... ([T]he primary reason I am writing is that Zeigler appealed to the Bible. I want to be clear: this is neither an evangelical view, nor should the Bible be used in this way. ...
So, let’s be clear. No. Normal. Evangelical. Believes. This. About. The. Bible.
As Christians, this should provoke anger. We should be angered, first that politicians think they can lie to us so easily by appealing to biblical language and characters. Second, that we so easily fall for such tactics.
For the past decade, evangelicals have been easy marks, and I hope that people won’t fall for these things.
Yes, in case you were wondering, there may have been an age difference between Joseph and Mary. And there were customs then that we don’t follow now. But they were married, not molested.
Now, RNS was not alone in covering this. The Associated Press also released a story, complete with a lede that almost certainly caused shocked beverage spitting among clergy, church historians and regular churchgoers in a variety of theological traditions.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- An Alabama state official is citing the Bible to defend the Republican U.S. Senate candidate accused of sexual advances on girls. State auditor Jim Ziegler says "Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter," suggesting that Roy Moore acted in a divine tradition if he in fact made sexual advances toward a 14-year-old girl.
Theologians and pastors, among others, expressed revulsion that Mary and Joseph would be used to counter allegations of sexual misbehavior with a minor. They also said Ziegler got the facts wrong and ignored the cultural context of the time in which Jesus lived.
Once again, Stetzer's online comments provided expert input, joined this time by a tweet from a progressive Catholic, Father James Martin, and content from email exchanges with a University of Chicago Divinity School professor.
That's better. Once again, however, there are no voices explaining the logic for centuries of church traditions surrounding St. Joseph. It's perfectly valid to include material from the liberal side of these debates, of course. It's logical to include an evangelical voice, too. I am, however, curious to know why no Catholic or Orthodox conservatives were offered a chance to speak.
Over at the Washington Post, there was more of the same. The report's shot of church history was provided with zero attribution, in terms of source or authority.
In the Bible, Mary is the mother of Jesus, and Joseph became her husband. Beliefs about the specific story of Joseph and Mary and Jesus’ birth vary widely in Christian history and across traditions. Mary is referred to in scripture as a virgin, but there is disagreement about what that means. Generally, however, Christians believe that Mary was a virgin when he was born. Joseph is usually referred to as Jesus’ “father” or a father figure.
The Bible does not state Mary and Joseph’s specific ages, but she is usually understood to be a teenager, and Joseph was an adult.
In terms of biblical context, the Post did provide Luke (1:26-38):
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.’ ”
That helps, in terms of biblical material on Mary. However, the church traditions about St. Joseph are linked to interpretations of other biblical references.
Are they relevant to the current Moore scandals and the coverage of it? Only to the degree to which these church traditions and biblical references make the newsy exegesis by Zeigler even more offensive -- especially to Catholics, the Orthodox, traditional Lutherans, etc.
For those who are interested in details, here is the top of an Orthodox reference page on this topic. I have added some URLs for those who want to dig deeper.
The holy and righteous Joseph the Betrothed, also referred to as Joseph of Nazareth, was the foster-father of Jesus Christ, according to the New Testament (Matthew 1:16; Luke 3:23). Not much is known of Joseph except that he was "of the House of David" and lived in the town of Nazareth. His date of death is unknown, though he was still living when Jesus was 12 years old.
He was betrothed to the Virgin Mary at the time that Mary conceived Jesus. Luke says that he lived at Nazareth in Galilee (Luke 2:4); however, according to Matthew, it was only after the return from Egypt that he settled in Nazareth (Matthew 2:23). He is called a "just man". He was by trade a carpenter (Matthew 13:55). He is last mentioned in connection with the journey to Jerusalem, when Jesus was twelve years old. It is probable that Joseph died before Jesus entered on his public ministry because only Mary was present at the marriage feast in Cana of Galilee, and he is not described at the crucifixion along with Mary (John 19:25). In addition, St. Joseph of Arimathea asked for the body of Jesus, a duty that would have fallen to St. Joseph had he been alive.
Jesus Christ is described as being the brother of James, Justus, Jude, and Simon, and several sisters (Mark 6:3; Matthew 13:55). A tradition at least as early as the second century, still adopted by the Orthodox Church, explains that these "brothers and sisters" were from Joseph's marriage to Salome who left him a widower before he was betrothed to Mary and so making them step-brothers and step-sisters. ...
That Jesus commended Mary to the care of John the Evangelist while he was hanging on the cross has been interpreted to also suggest that Joseph had died by that time, and that Joseph and Mary did not have any other children who might care for Mary.
So what is the bottom line, for me?
To state this bluntly: When you think of information about the saints, and the Holy Family, do you immediately think of evangelical Protestantism? I realize that, in this Trumpian age, many journalists automatically assume that evangelicals should be at the heart of all stories about politics and religion.
I understand that. I guess, but I don't have to agree with it. I also wonder if any icons of St. Joseph have, in the past few days, shed tears.