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Surprising Science

For St. Patrick’s Day, Resurrecting St. Joseph

While nearly everyone knows that March 17 is St. Patrick’s Day, nobody seems to know that March 19 is St. Joseph’s Day. While there have been some traditional Italian celebrations in honor of the father figure of the Holy Family, Joseph remains a puzzlingly minor figure in the U.S.

While there are plenty of universities and colleges named after Joseph, the man has not left much of a mark in American popular or religious culture. Part of the reason stems comes from the evangelical tradition in America and its strict adherence to the Bible since Joseph barely pops up in it. While the Gospels of Matthew and Luke share the familiar events of the Nativity and the Flight into Egypt, Joseph is not mentioned in either of those two books after Jesus is twelve. In the Gospels of Mark and John, which start with Jesus’ public ministry, Joseph does not even appear.

Instead of embracing the various apocryphal accounts of Joseph’s life or the traditional Catholic view of Joseph as a much older man, America seems to be turning Joseph into a soap opera hero. Marjorie Holmes portrayed Joseph as the all American boy next door in her horrid bestseller “Two from Galilee: a Love Story. Perhaps to ward off the ghosts of Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw, the book is also subtitled “The Story of Mary and Joseph.”

The Holmes inspired idea of Joseph as rugged matinee idol continues to plague our culture to this day. Oscar Isaac, the poor man’s Antonio Banderas, played Joseph as a compassionate and kind man who is manly enough to save Mary from drowning, threaten thieves and stoically starve so his wife and donkey can eat in the 2006 release “The Nativity Story.”

While that film’s director, Catherine Hardwicke went on to direct “Twilight,” there is a more prominent figure linking rugged Joseph to angst ridden vampires. In the first volume of her “Christ the Lord” series,  horror and erotica turned Christian writer Anne Rice portrays Joseph as the leader of a motley band of refuges who travel back from Egypt to Nazareth despite the obstacles posed by various Roman armies, angry mobs, burning cities, sweeping illnesses, Jewish revolutionaries, bandits and annoying children. In the second volume, Rice even has Joseph witnessing John the Baptist’s appointing of Jesus and then conveniently heading to his deathbed where the old man tells Matthew all about the history of the Holy Family.

It’s hard to know what to make of this. With the collapse of a distinctly American Catholic culture, portraying Joseph seems to be up for grabs. Certainly the Vatican’s attempt to counter the communist and pro-labor festivities of May Day with the feast of Joseph the Worker never took off in the United States.

The young and virile Joseph, a leader of men and excellent husband and father figure, stands in sharp contrast against a number of the leaders of American evangelism today. This Joseph would not claim to leg press 2,000 pounds after drinking a power shake or do drugs and have homosexual flings or stage awful would-be gangster rap videos about the death and Resurrection of Christ. It is as if the manly Joseph is representing everything Christian men are supposed to be and aren’t.


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