Many years ago, my husband and I were very lucky to find ourselves in Rome, Italy, one evening as we had stopped there during our honeymoon trip overseas. I still vividly recall walking around the ancient city at nighttime, overwhelmed by all the sights and sounds, beauty and history. As we were out walking one evening near Vatican City, we stopped at an outdoor market where we purchased an art print for our new home. The print was of the famous painting from Raphael called “Sposalizio,” otherwise known as the “Betrothal of the Virgin.” This painting hangs in my office today, which seems fitting as it depicts Mary and Joseph starting their journey together in marriage.
What intrigued me about this painting is the image of St. Joseph, whose feast day is coming up on March 19. He is holding what seems to be a stick/staff with lilies coming out of the end. Directly next to him is a young man who is breaking his stick over his knee, clearly in frustration. In fact, if you look at many pictures or statues of St. Joseph, you will see him sometimes holding a staff with lilies on the end.
I found an article describing the reason for this depiction from author Joe Paprocki, who describes the legend surrounding St. Josephs’ blooming staff. Paprocki explains that during medieval times, there was a compilation of spiritual writings that was not “official,” but very popular. This book describes the story of the Betrothal of Joseph and Mary as starting with the parents of Mary who sent her to the temple when she was three.
Mary’s parents had dedicated her to service of the Lord and as she grew, she herself made a vow of virginity. When she reached the age of womanhood, the high priest sought guidance from God as to whether a marriage should be arranged. The voice of God then called forth all men from the House of David who had not taken a wife to the Temple and asked them to lay a branch on the altar. Joseph came and laid his branch down and from it bloomed lilies and a dove descended, indicating he was to take Mary as his spouse. (See bustedhalo.com.)
Paprocki explains that while this story is intriguing and beautiful, we are not bound to accept it as revealed truth, thus why it is called a legend. The popularity of this story, however, did encourage many artists throughout the centuries to depict this in their images of St. Joseph, which is why you often see him with a blooming staff.
The lily in sacred art is attributed to purity and innocence or chastity. This is indicative of the marriage he had with the Blessed Virgin. In a fantastic blog post from Leonard Wathen: “The Heroic Chastity of St. Joseph,” the author describes how much we need St. Joseph’s example of this virtue in our lives right now.
“Chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom. The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy.” (Catechism 2339).
This call to resist temptations and govern passion was truly heroic for St. Joseph, as in his household he would have been the only one subject to original sin and its effects. Living with literally the world’s most beautiful woman, our Blessed Mother, must have required an extraordinary grace on his part, which he cooperated with, so that they both can grow closer to their son, Jesus Christ.
In a world that overemphasizes sexuality nowadays, we need St. Joseph more than ever to be our example, intercessor and guide so that we may truly learn to love one another as God intended and to better overcome temptations.
I would highly encourage everyone to pray the Litany of St. Joseph and take some time to meditate on his other titles and how he can intercede for us. For instance, St. Joseph, Diligent Protector of Christ, who had to lead his family through numerous trials from the moment of Christ’s birth, help us with our daily trials. St. Joseph Most Obedient, whose heart was open to following God’s will revealed in a dream, please help all of us be open to the call of God and have the heart to act on it. St. Joseph the Worker, the husband and father who was tasked with providing for his family and their physical needs, help everyone in their trials of work. St. Joseph, Mirror of Patience, who shows us that even in times of uncertainty, such as living in Egypt for an indefinite period, God’s love and protection is still with us. St. Joseph, Pillar of Families, who was entrusted with the holiest of families, guide us all to be holy and closer to your son Jesus and your spouse Mary.
After learning more about this incredible man, you will never look upon a statue or picture of him the same. St. Joseph, pray for us.