Brother Claude Lane, O.S.B., the iconographer who painted this singularly expressive image of Saint Joseph, is a monk of Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon. Brother Claude’s image is, in its own way, a homily on today’s Gospel.
On the Road
Saint Joseph is shown on the road with the Virgin Mary. There is tenderness and strength in his face. He is looking forward, facing the unknown with faith, looking ahead without seeing. As I wrote in one of my prayers to him, Saint Joseph is “a model of faith in the night, obedience in adversity, chastity in tenderness, and hope in uncertainty.”
A Young Joseph
Brother Claude portrays him as a young man. Most traditional images depict an older Joseph, but Scripture says nothing about the age of Saint Joseph at the time of Jesus’ birth. We know that at the time of the Crucifixion (cf. Jn 19:27), the Virgin Mary was a widow. Saint Joseph is not mentioned in any Gospel accounts of Jesus’ public ministry; he is presumed to have died during the years of Jesus’ hidden life. During the first century, life expectancy was short. Joseph could have been an “old man” of twenty-one when he married his new bride of fourteen.
The Virgin Bride and the Child in Her Womb
The Blessed Virgin Mary is shown with child; she is wearing a lovely rose-coloured maternity dress. You recognize that Brother Claude has used the imagery of the Virgin of Guadalupe here, precisely because the miraculous image of Guadalupe depicts a pregnant Virgin. Saint Joseph is shown, putting fear aside to take his Virgin Bride into his home. In welcoming Mary, Saint Joseph welcomes the Infant Christ whose Sacred Heart already beats in Mary’s womb. In welcoming the Infant Christ, Saint Joseph welcomes each of us in our vulnerability, in our littleness, in our need for protection, and comfort, and warmth, and care.
The angel is not named for us in the Gospel account, but tradition suggests that he is the Archangel Gabriel, the same heavenly messenger who brought the news to Mary at her Annunciation. Brother Claude shows the Angel gazing with admiration, with wonder, on both Mary and Joseph. The Angel sees in this couple the man and women chosen by God to protect and nurture the Word made flesh, the King of the Angels. The Angel’;s finger points forward. “Let us go,” he seems to be saying, “more deeply into the Mystery.”
The donkey bearing the Virgin Mary represents that other donkey who will bear Jesus into the holy city of Jerusalem amidst cries of jubilation and the waving of palm branches. The donkey is important to this icon: a sign of the unfolding of the Paschal Mystery of Christ the King.
Toward the Altar
In the beginnings of the mysteries of Christ, Saint Joseph is present humbly, tenderly, and decisively. The Angel’s hand, pointing forward, indicates that there is more to come. That “more to come” is given us in the Most Holy Eucharist. There, Saint Joseph is present to us and with us in the mystery of Christ. Pray to him. Go to Joseph, Guardian of the Living Bread come down from heaven.