THERE IS A TRADITION that St Joseph was older that the Blessed Virgin when they were betrothed. One saint suggests that Jesus’ Foster Father was 91 when he married the Blessed Virgin! Other, more realistic teachers, suggest mid-fifties. The reason for this tradition is generally understood to be the idea that an older Joseph would have been more likely to not be tempted by his beautiful young wife. An older man is seen as better protecting the teaching of Mary’s perpetual virginity. This is a bit of hogwash as anyone who has ever seen a “Trophy Wife” knows. Lechery is not undone by age and, in fact, it is often a product of it. Then there is the logic of the issue. “Old men don’t walk to Egypt!” As Mother Angelica once said. So, at several points in the Church’s history, the idea that Joseph was young arose.
Fulton Sheen has a wonderful meditation on St Joseph’s age in his book, The World’s First Love:
To make Joseph appear pure only because his flesh had aged is like glorifying a mountain stream that has dried. The Church will not a ordain a man to the priesthood who has not his vital powers. She wants men who have something to tame, rather than those who are tame because they have no energy to be wild. It should be no different with God… Joseph was probably a young man, strong, virile, atheletic, handsome, chaste, and disciplined; the kind of man one sees sometimes shepherding sheep, or piloting a plane, or working at a carpenter’s bench. Instead of being a man incapable of love, he must have been on fire with love….Instead, then, of being dried fruit to be served on the table of the king, he was rather a blossom filled with promise and power. He was not in the evening of life, but in its morning, bubbling over with energy, strength, and controlled passion.
That passage was quoted in a book I’m currently reading as I do a devotion call Consecration to St Joseph. And it had me wrestling for a few reasons. Why does Joseph need to be Mary’s age? Why does he need to be 90? Then – in the same book – the author discusses at length how an elderly man cannot raise a child, and how God would have wanted a proper father for the Infant Jesus. This makes sense to me: when I was 39 someone suggested to me that I should adopt a child and I knew that that would be selfish as I would not be able to be a proper parent. By the time the baby was old enough to walk and play I would be too old to play, and by the time the baby was old enough to graduate I would be too old to walk. So the idea that God would have wanted Jesus to have a father open appropriate age make sense. But what is an appropriate age? It used to be common to see Joseph portrayed with grey hair. Right now it’s common to see him portrayed as about Mary’s age.
Some writers have suggested that the Blessed Virgin was around 15 when she was betrothed to Joseph. The idea of a fifteen-year-old Joey being able to navigate the emotional and political turmoil of the nativity seems unlikely to me. I cannot imagine a fifteen-year-old Joey and a fifteen-year-old Mary in a Manger in Bethlehem knowing what to do when labor started I can imagine them going into full-scale panic. I can’t imagine these two 15 year olds being much comfort for each other – even though that’s a good time to get married in this culture. AND a 15 year old Joey would not be on his own yet, the head of the family would still be Joseph’s father. The patriarch of this clan would have led them all to Bethlehem.
This idea that God would have wanted the father of appropriate age is counteracted but other benefits offered by an elderly Joseph: wisdom, experience, strength. At a time when marriages were often contracted in the teenage years an older man would know how to move through the world on his own, he would be running his business and would not be afraid of tax collectors, would not be very stressed out by discovering that there was no room at the inn, and would not be afraid of having to walk to Egypt. This man, Joe, would be much better able to think on his feet with all these strange people and happenings that were about to come into his life. He would not be impulsive: he would plan. Discovering that Mary was pregnant Joe might actually think about it for a while, where the teenaged Joey might just get angry. Joey would not yet have his own house to bring Mary into, but Joe would.
Generally it’s not good to just throw out traditions of the church because we don’t like them or because they don’t feel good: this goes with (T)radition and also with (t)radition. So while I do see the argument for Joseph not being 91 – or even 51 – as completely valid, it seems silly to just toss it out of something the church made up. In fact it seems downright modernist to do so.
There may be an answer in another tradition that hangs on the Nativity. St James, called Jesus’ brother, is often understood to be the Child of St Joseph by an earlier marriage. Traditional icons show James leading the donkey:
Theoretically, if Joe had been married originally had 15, if his oldest son was now 10, and he was 25 – not 91! – he would know what to do. He would have been in at least one most likely more births already, he would be a strong young man like Fulton Sheen imagines, old enough to care for the Blessed Virgin, to calm her down and to take care of her. He would be old enough to walk to Egypt and not so old that that would be impossible.
This idea of a 20-something Joe with a teenaged Mary makes sense. He would still be young enough to still need to train his impulses, and old enough to have done some work on that already. His virtue would still be a struggle for him but his experience and piety would be firmly rooted. This seems to resolve both sides of the age issue while keeping the tradition intact.
The other thing that’s curious about Joey vrs Joe is it Joseph is gone from the story by the time Jesus is a man. It is generally assumed in the Church’s tradition that Joseph died before Jesus began his Teaching Ministry. Is Joseph was 25 when Jesus was born he would have been in his 50s before the Teaching Ministry begin. It’s possible that he would have died by then: a poor man and a laborer, his life would have been hard. I can imagine such a man dying in his 50s and yet being a strong, shining example of a father and a man all though Jesus’ life to adulthood. Yes, the young Joey might also have died young, but I think imagining Joe becoming an elder and dying at an old age (for the time) makes much more sense.
There is no doctrinal requirement one way or the other on the age of St Joseph – this is all (t)radition. But I think there is a way where this tradition can fit with some logic, where Joe can be a man without needing a walker to get to Egypt, and where he can be a young, virile man, without needing to be a kid. Joey and Joseph can give way to Joe.