St. Joseph Died in the Presence of Jesus and Mary — Can Anyone Ask for a Better Death?

Death is life’s defining moment — how we leave this life is essentially who we will be for all of eternity.

Neilson Carlin, “The Death of Saint Joseph, with Mary and Jesus”
Neilson Carlin, “The Death of Saint Joseph, with Mary and Jesus” (photo: Artwork by Neilson Carlin © 2014, Used with permission.)

Once upon a time, St. Joseph could have had a Hollywood career, because the “strong and silent type” in the golden age of film was definitely “in.” On the other hand, St. Joseph likely would not have cared, because he eschewed the limelight though cast for and playing a far more important role.

Yes, Jesus went to Galilee with Mary and St. Joseph “and was obedient unto them” (Luke 2:51). But, as the Polish novelist Roman Brandstaetter observed, the life of that little home in Nazareth almost certainly revolved around its special Child, whom he called St. Joseph’s “son-not-son.” St. Joseph, as an observant Jew, would have been keenly aware of God’s action in his family’s life and thus made himself, like Mary, “the servant of the Lord” (cf. Luke 1:38). 

The Gospels record not a single word of St. Joseph’s. They record his actions, which is to say that actions do speak louder than words. They record his betrothal to Mary and his decision to go forward with it; his obedience that took him with his wife “who was with child” to the town of his ancestors for a census; his presenting his “son-not-son” in the Temple to His true Father; his hearing the prophecy of Simeon and likely seeing the witness of the Magi; his reaction to save his family from a murderous ruler; his sojourn in a foreign land and his bringing them back home to the Promised Land; his search with his wife for a lost boy in Jerusalem; and his raising his “son-not-son” to grow in “wisdom and age and grace” (Luke 2:52).

And there the Gospels end.

There is one other tradition associated with St. Joseph, one not found in Sacred Scripture but a pious, probable and popular one: his death.

St. Joseph is the patron of a happy death. He is typically represented on his death bed, Jesus on one side, Mary on the other.

Can anyone ask for a better death?

The Bible provides almost no details of St. Joseph’s life. He is often represented as older, which is both true and false. In most of human history, husbands were and are older than wives. While women mature earlier, responsibility for care of a wife and family typically presupposed a man who had secured his place in the world at least to some degree. Sometimes St. Joseph is portrayed as markedly older than the Blessed Virgin, perhaps in deference to her perpetual virginity. But, as Brandstaetter suggests, a pious Jew like St. Joseph of any age would have recognized that it was God who loved Mary first and, in respect for the Lord, acknowledged Mary’s virginal sacredness. Others suggested that St. Joseph was an older widower, whose children from a previous marriage might have explained the Gospel’s reference to Jesus’ “brothers” (Mark 3:32-34; Matthew 12:46-50; Luke 8:19-21). That last explanation, of course, appears to lack any biblical mentions elsewhere (e.g., allusions to Jesus’ siblings) and avoids the much simpler explanation that in many languages — including contemporary ones (e.g., many Slavic languages) — first cousins are also called “brothers.”

My purpose of mentioning these traditions here is just that: to mention them, without arguing for them, to explain why St. Joseph is often portrayed as older. 

Death is life’s defining moment: how we leave this life is essentially who we will be for all of eternity. That is why Catholics also traditionally prayed, especially to St. Joseph, for a “happy death,” and why they pleaded in litanies and elsewhere to be spared “a sudden and unprovided for death.” That is why Christ instituted a special sacrament for the sick — the Anointing of the Sick — and why the Church has traditionally spared no effort to bring the “last sacraments” — Penance, Anointing and the Eucharist (as Viaticum, “food for the journey”) — to those leaving this life. (I know that some readers may be scandalized by the praxis that occurred in some places, especially at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, but that is not my subject here).

Today’s painting depicts St. Joseph as the patron of a happy death. It is the work of a contemporary oil painter of sacred art, Neilson Carlin, and used with his permission. Carlin continues and expands the artistic tradition of the Brandywine Valley in Pennsylvania with his religious art. The painting is in Sacred Heart Church in Royersford, Pennsylvania, northwest of Philadelphia.

Two communities of persons intersect in this painting. St. Joseph is leaving one communion of loving persons to encounter the supreme Communio Personarum. Jesus’ human family — Jesus and Mary — are gathered around the dying St. Joseph. St. Joseph both grasps and is grasped by Jesus, since grace involves God’s action and our response. Mary sits on the bed, her hand also on St. Joseph. Her expression is calm. No doubt she grieves, but she is also a devout Jew who accepts whatever God provides in life. 

Jesus’ divine family — the Father and Holy Spirit — also break into the painting. This father-not-father of this son-not-son is going to him from whom “all fatherhood in heaven and on earth takes its name” (Ephesians 3:15). The Father, upon whom none can look and live, is always depicted in the light of his glory, just as he is revealed as he revealed his Son last Sunday in the Transfiguration. The Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of the Father and the Son,” the “giver of life” and grace, hovers over St. Joseph, ready to lead him home.

Jesus looks lovingly at St. Joseph, his right hand extended in blessing. (Traditionally, priests blessed people with the sign of the cross, the thumb, index and middle fingers upright, indicating the Three Persons of the Trinity, the ring finger and pinky folded, two fingers indicating Christ’s two natures, divine and human.)

The entire painting is cast in dark hues, alluding to death (remember the line in “We Three Kings” about breathing “a life of gathering gloom?”), while St. Joseph’s death bed, blanketed in gold, transitions into the gold of heaven. St. Joseph’s eyes are fixed on Jesus, something we should all hope and pray for in our final moments.

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