The Symbols of St. Joseph
by Father Michael Van Sloun
for The Catholic Spirit
Tuesday, 17 March 2009
The Church has assigned two special feast days each year to honor St. Joseph, the stepfather of Jesus: March 19, the solemnity of St. Joseph, the husband of Mary; and May 1, the memorial of St. Joseph the Worker. A number of symbols are associated with this great saint.
A Carpenter’s Square. The gospel indicates that Joseph was a carpenter: “Is he [Jesus] not the carpenter’s son?” (Mt 13:55). A square is an indispensable tool of the trade for carpenters, a two-sided instrument in a 90 degree angle used to form right angles, and it is the tool most frequently used to represent St. Joseph.
Other Carpenter’s Tools. Other tools associated with St. Joseph include a hammer, a saw, an axe, a planer, and a workbench. St. Joseph is the patron saint of carpenters and workers.
A White Lily or One or Three White Flowers. The whiteness of the flower represents Joseph’s virtue, holiness, innocence, and obedience to God: “he did as the angel commanded” (Mt 1:24; see also Mt 2:14,21,22). The white flower also represents his faithfulness to Mary, as well as his chastity and sexual purity because he respected her virginity and remained celibate throughout their marriage: “he had no relations with her” (Mt 1:25a).
A Flowering Staff. There are a number of apocryphal or non-scriptural texts that describe Joseph as the one especially chosen by God to be the husband of Mary. The imagery is drawn from an incident when Aaron’s staff sprouted with almond blossoms as a sign that he was especially chosen by God (Num 17:23).
The Child Jesus. St. Joseph is frequently depicted with the young child Jesus in his arms to represent his role as the father of Jesus (Lk 3:23; 4:22; Jn 1:45; 6:42). Joseph served as Jesus’ guardian and protector, especially during their travels. He also provided for Jesus, cared for him, and instructed him.
A Star of David. Joseph was a good and faithful Jew, a “righteous man” (Mt 1:19), “son of David” (Mt 1:20), who devoutly and obediently observed the commandments and the statutes of the Mosaic Law.
A Pair of Turtle Doves. Joseph and Mary together brought Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (Lk 2:22), and according to tradition, Joseph brought the pair of turtle doves that were to be offered in sacrifice (Lk 2:24). They represent his material poverty.
The Letter “J.” “J” is the first letter of Joseph’s name, and it is sometimes used alone or with other symbols to represent him.