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Monday, January 14, 2013

St. Joseph Was Only Human

During this Christmas season (yes, Christmas isn't over till February 2nd -- keep the party going!) I've spent a lot of time learning Christmas songs I've never sung before and trying to introduce some of my favorites to my new singing-mates. One of these favorites, not surprisingly, was not entirely well-received. The Cherry Tree Carol, due to a somewhat unfavorable representation of St. Joseph, causes an amount of controversy that doesn't usually accompany the majority of traditional Christmas Carols. It's an old song; a number of different versions have been established over the 600 odd years that people have been singing it. Of course, while age and endurance is not necessarily a guarantee of quality, it does help to make one's case. So, why don't people like it?

The carol is a story about Joseph and Mary walking into an orchard, an orchard rich with deep-red cherries and berries. Mary, hungry and presumably moving a little slower than was her wont on account of her expectant condition, asks Joseph to pick her a single cherry. Joseph gets a little snarky, responding that whoever it was that got her with child can go get her a cherry; he'll have none of it. Then, depending on which version of the carol you're listening to, either an angel comes down and moves the cherry branch so that Mary can reach it, or the branch moves seemingly of its own accord when the unborn Infant commands it. Joseph, seeing divine intervention, is immediately ashamed of his unkind words, cheers Mary up, and they go home together.

My sister and I heartily disagree on the worth of this story. Clearly, it is not biblical; rather, it lies in the realm of tradition and legend or perhaps even just plain make-believe. She sees it as disrespectful and an unfair representation. As we don't have any record of St. Joseph being unkind or downright cranky, it seems rather presumptuous to put such words in his mouth. True enough. But let's think about his situation. Unlike Mary, he was not preserved from Original Sin. He knew temptation and knew what it meant to fall to it. He was human; he sinned. Now, let's talk about family dynamics. Guess who's fault it was if something went wrong in that household? Every single time. Poor Joseph. You just can't win when you're living with two entirely absolutely perfect people. Don't get me wrong. Of course part of me would love to live with people who were one hundred percent kind and perfect and humble and beautiful and loving and gentle and sweet and good all the time. But sheesh, I'm certainly not all those things, and I'm sure I couldn't help but get at least a little discouraged at my imperfections constantly seen in sharp contrast to their perfection. Yes, he was a saint. But saints are not born -- they get there through grace and hard work. He was human, and I'm sure he lost his temper at least once. To say that he didn't seems a little piously unrealistic.

Tying all this back into The Cherry Tree Carol, let's think about how the human man Joseph was living in close quarters, as a husband, to the most beautiful woman the world has ever seen. Helen of Troy is small potatoes, people. Not only does he have to stave off all the certain temptations regarding this exquisite creature that surely must have come over him from time to time, but he has to be all right with the fact that she is having someone else's baby, not his. It's easy enough for us to say, hey, it's the Incarnation. Lucky guy! Right? Yeah, not really. We still don't really understand it. Intellectually we might accept it, but that doesn't mean we really get it. Even with Revelation and all the studies and writings of theologians over the last two thousand years, we mere earthly humans are really never going to be able to understand it all the way. It's too big for us. So think of Joseph the handyman from nowhere-ville, without revelation and theologians behind him, trying to understand how his betrothed is pregnant all of a sudden. It's only natural that he'd assume what all the rest of us would in such a situation. Yes, he is kind about it, but don't you think he is a little miffed at least once?

The saints don't help us to be better people unless we remember that before they were canonized and living in the full glory of the beatific vision, they were imperfect, sometimes childish, occasionally deeply flawed ordinary Joe Schmoes like the rest of us. St. Lord-Make-Me-Chaste-But-Not-Yet Augustine, is of course one of my favorites. St. Therese of Lisieux was a spoiled rotten selfish little girl, by the way. St. Joseph was, I am sure, given oodles of grace to handle all the remarkably intense challenges he had to face, but it's far more down to earth, humanizing and realistic to think about the times he might have lost his temper than it is to pedestalize him as an eternally patient super-human demi-god. Sing on, little choir boys!

If you want to read a nice full length version of the story, complete with the verses often omitted when it's sung, Bartleby has a nice version here.


  1. My first thought is that living with perfect people might not be as hard as you've described. I agree that Joseph might have had a hard time in a permanently continent marriage - So would I - but that assumes he was a young healthy man, which the carol specifically denies in its first line.* But other than that I don't think he would have been blamed for everything that went wrong, for a couple of reasons: 1) Baby Jesus probably broke as much stuff and cried and spit up as much as any other baby, while Mary was probably quite capable of occasionally burning the dinner, and; 2) outside of a court of law, blame is virtually useless, and is usually at least a small sin against justice or truthfulness. While neither Mary nor Jesus ever sinned, they probably did mess some things up in the way most people do, and would have been the last people in the world to make Joseph feel it if he himself made a mistake. Living with perfect people would have been pretty doable, not least because it would inspire extreme humilitiy, and as C.S. Lewis said, "humility, after the first shock, is a cheerful virtue." I imagine that apart from the rigors of life (they were poor enough to go with the turtle-dove option rather than the lamb for the purification ritual) and the continence, Joseph's life was probably quite happy and less-than-usually stressful (at least after the death of Herod). I don't think it would have been too different from living with a vivid awareness of Christ in our life.

    One of the problems with this song is that it may be more than simply unbilbical, not support by scripture, but counter-biblical, actually contrary to scripture. The narrative in the carol is certainly and completely erroneous in how Joseph came to understand Jesus' paternity: a miracle involving delicious fruit, rather than an angelic messenger in a dream.

    It's true that Luke's and Matthew's infancy narratives (the only ones) do not tell us what Joseph's private treatment of Mary was when he got the news. Matthew is the only one who tells us anything, and he only deals with Joseph's public action, keeping it quiet. I also agree that I don't like hagiographies which portray saints as naturally and unrealistically holy - like when Athanasius writes that Saint Anthony as a child was sweet and obedient, attentive in church, and always ate his veggies (paraphrase of course, but that's pretty much what he says). Nevertheless, the image of Joseph we have from scripture is divinely inspired, and in the little it says about him, we only hear of good acts: protecting the reputation of a fiancé he thought had cheated on him, following the Mosaic law in spite of the Child's divinity, giving up his business for two years and travelling to Egypt to save his family, and turning Jerusalem upside-down when Jesus was found missing. Either he had no vices, or as I believe, the Holy Spirit had good reason for presenting a picture without any. If the latter, I hardly think we can be careful enough about filling in the blanks.

    We can certainly say that Joseph did in fact initially assume that she was unfaithful, since it's clear from scripture (I assume we're talking about before he had his dream, and ignoring the counter-scriptural part where the mystery is revealed to him through a tree). But the worst thing about Joseph's behavior in this story is that it's just plain petty. Alone in an orchard with a pregnant woman who needs his help, he won't even exert himself to pick a few cherries she badly needs. Many cultures have rituals in which a father formally recognizes his paternity of a child, but none of them involve making a grocery run. The least he could have done was get a woman in distress some food before starting the divorce process. Unchivalrous, unmanly, from a saint who is rightly held up and prayed to as a model for Christian manliness.

  2. *For what it's worth, some of the Fathers believe Mary had already made a vow of perpetual virginity before the Annunciation, and that her marriage to Joseph was arranged on that understanding. Their main support was that her question "how will this be, since I do not know man?" makes little sense if she and Joseph were planning on a normal fruitful marriage. If that were true, it would also explain why "Joseph was an old man," if indeed he was. My own belief is that Joseph was a young man of normal marrying age and they both intended to have a conjugal marriage. The second part of Mary's question is in the present tense (γινώσκω), which suggests to me that her only issue (no pun intended) was not how it will happen, but how will it happen now (i.e. with the consummation still a little ways in the future). If she had been planning on a totally continent marriage, she would have taken Gabriel's message as a command to scrap that plan (until the he told her the manner in which she would conceive). In fact, if she had been planning on lifelong consecration, she could have joined Anna in the temple (Anna, of course, was a widow but 2 Macc 3:19-20 suggests that there was an established order of consecrated virgins in Jerusalem before the time of Christ).

  3. It's possible that neither of us will change our positions in the slightest, but, nevertheless, I’ll do what I can to convince you :)

    First, Joseph’s age. I honestly don’t think that this is such a weighty consideration when thinking on the difficulties of refraining from conjugal union. There are many examples of older men being perfectly capable and willing to have children, and there’s no reason to think that an old St. Joseph would be substantially different from a young St. Joseph in this regard.

    When you say that living with perfect people would be easier than I think, especially if I could picture it as living with an intense sense of the awareness and presence of Christ in my life, I must say I heartily disagree with you. Have you never been angry with God? It’s not a pleasant feeling, and not a state I’d advocate. Just because Someone is perfect doesn’t mean you’ll never get angry with them. Sadly, since I am not perfect (yet), there are times that in injustice and pettiness and selfishness I’ve been horrifically angry with God—obviously, my fault. Any friction causes irritation. Because St. Joseph was not perfect, there must have been some friction, some irritation, even if only occasional and slight.

    This irritation ties into the next issue: blame and fault. While blame oftentimes might be called up in contradiction to justice or truthfulness, as you say it is, it isn’t always that way. I’m certainly not suggesting that Mary or Jesus ever unjustly accused Joseph. But think of the times that he did actually make mistakes. (Just because the Bible doesn’t record a list of his sins, that doesn’t mean we can’t say that he sinned; he was flawed through Original Sin, just like the rest of us.) Say he’s made some stupid mistake, dropped the hammer on the kitchen table and, having smashed the dish and gotten wood shavings in the fig salad, swears in front of toddler Jesus. Do you really think he’ll immediately, cheerfully and whole-heartedly take the blame on himself? Maybe by the time Jesus is 10 years old he’ll get to the point of humility being a cheerful virtue, but this whole perfection thing is still relatively new to him when Jesus is learning to walk. He hasn’t learned yet to take blame and fault on himself with open arms and an eager smile; it still irks at least a little. It does not seem at all outside the realm of reality for Joseph sometimes to have failed to accept with equanimity and humility the multitude of graces offered to him.

  4. As far as The Cherry Tree Carol being counter-scriptural is concerned, my advice is to avoid getting caught up in the details. Cherries don’t actually grow in Galilee, by the way, but that’s not the point. The point of stories and myths and legends is not to be factually 100% historically accurate, but neither does this mean that fiction is opposed to reality. This is an instance that that time-honored phrase, the willing suspension of disbelief, can come into play. Work with it. Go with it. And perhaps you’ll find it isn’t so far removed from scripture as you might think. After all, some versions of the song do have an angel move the branch, thereby communicating the truth to Joseph. An angel tells him in a dream, an angel tells him with a branch—in both the strictly biblical and less exact story, supernatural forces come into play to help him out when he’s confused. Also, both versions end with Mary and Joseph going home together: “When Joseph woke up he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do: he took his wife to his home” (Mt 1:24).

    Your last objections (about the images we are given in scripture of Joseph being good and considerate, while this song presents a man who is uncharacteristically petty and unchivalrous) are quite understandable. All I can say is that even the best of us humans have our bad days. If St. Augustine isn’t a good enough example, look at St. Peter or at Zacharias; both have moments of great failure in scripture. Unless there is some sacrilegious result of meditating on St. Joseph’s human weaknesses, unless there is some disrespect to God himself, well, I suppose I might just have to disagree with you. But if not, there where is the problem? Certainly, of course, we must have respect for our saints. But recognizing their flaws does not stand in contradiction to holding them in a position of honor, or, in St. Joseph’s case, chivalrous manliness. Manly men are made, not born, just as saints are made and not born. It’s a work in progress, and there are some unpleasant moments in every learning curve. If anything, an appreciation of the less perfect moments can give us greater respect, appreciation, admiration and love of the end result.

  5. Ah, the energy and enthusiasm of youth. My first reaction to all of this (and I might add this post has sparked the longest responses to date) with so many beautiful Christmas Carols why spend so much time on this one that is all about Mary and Joseph having a fight? Life is too short. However, having said that I have to say that the question is much more serious than a little spat between husband and wife. In this carol St. Joseph is depicted NOT as “petty and unchivalrous” but as a blasphemer of the order of Andres Serrano.

    It is these lines that bring the whole conversation to an abrupt end for me. "O then bespoke Joseph/ With words so unkind,/‘Let him pluck thee a cherry/ that brought thee with child.’" If, in the song, St. Joseph had said, “Oh, pick your own cherry! You're not the only one tired around here." Or, "Why do I have to always do EVERYTHING! Why don't you pick me a cherry for a change?", then maybe I could grant some of what Ms. Turner is arguing. But he doesn't say those things. Rather, he calls Mary, the Mother of God, a __________. I will not even write the nicer sorts of words that might fit that blank. Such an exchange between St. Joseph and Mary never occurred and I will say with confidence, could never have occurred because (as boring as it might sound) St. Joseph was simply too good, too filled with grace and the love of God, not to mention the love of the Blessed Mother to ever call her a ____________. I don’t see how meditating on this fictional “sign” of St. Joseph’s weakness or humanity for even one second could be at all uplifting or help any one advance along the path of sanctity. For me, even to imagine such a scene is terrible. To sing about it is intolerable.


    1. Matthew 1:18-20 (
      "This is how Jesus Christ came to be born. His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph; but before they came to live together she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being an upright man and wanting to spare her disgrace, decided to divorce her informally. He had made up his mind to do this when suddenly the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit."

      St. Joseph does not use the word which you say he implies, but certainly this passage shows that he had doubts as to her character. Why would the angel have to reassure him that all was well? Because he thought that all was not well. I understand people's reservations about the merit of this song, but to call it blasphemous, terrible and intolerable seems a little intense.

      Why focus on a Christmas Carol where not everything is sweet and rosy? I do find it helpful in trying to understand St. Joseph, and I imagine others (even if not all people) do as well. Is it a hyperbolic depiction of what St. Joseph might have said, what his reaction might have been? Certainly. But hyperbole is an effective teaching tool, if only because it is so memorable. It makes an impression that is less big than it is itself.

    2. Sorry for the long delay in replying to Ms. Turners comments. For better or worse, here they are. This reply will be in two parts because I am so long winded The Man won’t let me publish it in one reply.

      Ms. Turners writes, “St. Joseph does not use the word which you [meaning me] say he implies,” as if the words he addresses to the Blessed Mother could have any other meaning. Of course, he doesn’t literally use the word that I “imply” that he means. If he did, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t be having this discussion in the first place. But he says:
      ‘Let him pluck thee a cherry
      That brought thee with child.’
      Somebody needs to help me out here but what else can these words mean? (Dove’s can’t pick cherries because their wing feathers are too flimsy. But then again, we’re speaking about the Holy Ghost dove so maybe… but I digress. )

      And then, alas, Ms. Turner says, “but certainly this passage shows that he had doubts as to her character.” This passage shows nothing of the kind. It shows that some long dead, anonymous (probably twenty-something (which makes it even worse)) medieval song writer got a kick out of imagining a scene in which St. Joseph verbally attacks the Blessed Mother’s virtue.

      Next we have the quotation from St. Matthew, which is very important. We read, “He had made up his mind to do this [divorce her informally] when suddenly the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit." When I read this, it clears everything up for me.

      Do we suppose that St. Joseph lived for days or months with his dilemma in constant contact with the Blessed Mother trying to understand how it was that this wonderful woman could have become with child? I tend to doubt that. As is so often the case in the bible, the details of a story are left out but it seems reasonable to me to assume that the time St. Joseph spent in anguish over this situation was shorter rather than longer. For one thing, it just doesn’t make sense to me that St. Joseph would have been kept in the dark regarding this very important event (the most important event that has ever or will ever happen in time) for any longer than necessary (which would mean not long at all).

      But more than simply my “supposing” this, what about the word “suddenly” as in “…when suddenly the angel…” Now “suddenly” can mean a lot of things so why can it not now mean “soon thereafter” as in “…soon thereafter St. Joseph learning about Mary, the angel appeared to him…”? And one further point, notice the angel doesn’t just say, “It’s okay, Joseph, you can take her as your wife. Don’t worry about a thing.” But goes on to say, “…she has conceived of the Holy Spirit.” All of this brings me to the conviction that St. Joseph was in on the entire mystery of the Incarnation pretty much from the beginning. Which puts the kybosh on any meditation that has St. Joseph, sometime in the future, still in doubt about the origins of Mary’s baby.

    3. (Continued)

      Rereading these words, I imagine someone thinking, Okay, St. Joseph was in on it pretty much from the beginning. But we know that there was some time when he was in doubt, when he did not know what was up, otherwise why would he have considered an “informal divorce” as a way of dealing with the situation? And here’s where it get’s dicey because I am going to begin with the conclusion and reason to the…the… the things that come before the conclusion.

      St. Joseph was a holy man already by this time in his life. St. Joseph was already we might say, “equal to the task”. No, he wasn’t perfect, he wasn’t even sinless, but his degree of virtue, even at the beginning of all of this prepared him to treat the Blessed Mother with the respect and honor that she deserved. Upon learning that the Blessed Mother was with child, we can easily imagine him puzzled and confused. But must we imagine him puzzled and confused about Mary’s character or virtue? Can we instead imagine St. Joseph thinking, “I have no idea how this happened. I just know that it can’t be because Mary in any way sinned.” So why then the “quiet divorce”?

      Suppose we understand it this way: St. Joseph was educated and knew very well the old testament prophesies regarding the coming of a savior. Perhaps he considered the “quiet divorce” not because he doubted the Blessed Mother but because he doubted himself. St. Joseph’s reluctance to continue his betrothal to the Blessed Mother stemmed not from his prideful conclusion that the Blessed Mother sinned but from his profoundly humble conviction that he, himself, was thoroughly inadequate to the task that he saw before him. In this light, the Angel’s words to Joseph, “…do not be afraid to take Mary as thy wife…” take on a whole new meaning. Whereas before some of us might read them as the Angel “rehabilitating” Mary’s reputation to St. Joseph, now we see them as the angel encouraging St. Joseph that he need not fear his own weakness as he takes on the responsibilities of Our Lord’s foster father. St. Joseph did not doubt the Blessed Mother’s character but in fact doubted his own.

  6. The question about living with perfect people, as originally framed, was that whatever went wrong in the house was Joseph's fault. This seems to imply that Mary's perfection was not only sinlessness, but extended to a protection from all errors, even intellectual or practical errors. I think the problem is that we started out on the wrong foot: the Church has never held that Mary was perfect, only that she was sinless. As for Jesus, the Church in condemning Monophysitism and Monothelitism has affirmed that Jesus had a human will and intellect, in addition to a divine will and intellect. I don't know what that requires us to believe about whether the young Jesus might have broken dishes while playing David-and-Goliath with His own slingshot, but Mary at least was capable of making mistakes - and apologizing. So I think the whole premise - that everything that went wrong was Joseph's fault - is flawed. It's true that Joseph was the only one in the house who ever sinned, but living with people whose forgiveness would most closely resemble the forgiveness of God would mean he was as likely to get angry with them as I am to get angry with a priest in confession.

    It's certainly true that humility and holiness are not inborn, nor learned overnight, but since God chose - in fact, made - a sinless woman to be the vessel of Christ, would it not be appropriate that He choose a man already very humble and holy to be His foster-father? That He did is suggested by the Gospel. Joseph had the humility to accept his task as soon as he was aware of it, so we know he was somewhat humble already, almost certainly humble enough to enjoy it as Lewis' "cheerful virtue." The other evidence is the adjective (or depending how you read it, the noun) given to him, I think the only description applied to him in any Gospel: δίκαιος. It's usually translated as "fair," "upright," or "just," but any of these may miss the point. Its noun form δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosune) is used in the Old Testament to mean "righteousness," and in the Age of Grace it usually refers to the holiness of the saints. It is used also in Luke's infancy narrative to describe Simeon in the temple: "and this man was just and devout." I don't think we're talking about an Average Joe who gradually learned virtue (though of course he had some improvement ahead of him as even the holiest saints do), but of a man already holy enough to deserve that word which in the Bible is not exactly handed out like candy. And his behavior in the carol does not match well with that holiness.

    The last problem is what I said earlier: that we should not attribute sins to Joseph where the Holy Spirit has been silent. Such an action is not covered by the license that we have generally assumed for augmenting Scripture with pious tales. Some claim Mary Magdalene founded a convent, that Pilate converted and died a martyr, that Thomas went to India, or that James died in Spain. These are all good or neutral things, and if we are wrong we at least do no injustice to the persons concerned. But the substance of the carol amounts to an accusation against Joseph which we can in no way substantiate, but only point to a possibility of it having happened. That he was a sinner in some way, that he committed some sin at some point, does not call for us to say that he committed this or that particular sin. We do not make up sins for Augustine or Zachariah, we only take what they or the Gospel have told us. To do more, when the Church has ignored the particulars of Joseph’s sins and only called him “our father and lord,” seems to me a lapse from St. Ignatius of Loyola’s maxim of sentire cum ecclesia.

  7. Lovely conversation! Living with perfect people, and particularly with a perfect son, would probably make me a terrible sinner. I could be a complete drunk without worrying about raising a drunkard, afterall he's perfect and will never imitate any of my vices. I could swear like a sailor and never worry about Jesus repeating my words. The list could go on forever! Who knows what Mary would have to put up with, but no matter what it might be she'd take it like a charm...

    That being said, I have tons of respect for St. Joseph because he's clearly a better man than I.