Today marks a gem of a feast, although one that is lesser known - the 'Feast of the Espousal of Mary and Joseph' - also referred to as the 'Feast of the Holy Spouses.'
A feast in honour of the Espousal of Mary and Joseph was first celebrated on August 29, 1517, when Pope Leo X granted the Nuns of the Annunciation permission to do so. In the 19th and 20th century, other permissions were given for the observance of this feast, typically on January 23, but in a few instances it was kept on other days. Although many are unacquainted with this feast, as it is not on the universal liturgical calendar of the Church, it is celebrated at various shrines dedicated to St Joseph, including at the Oratory of St Joseph in Montreal, Canada, in several dioceses around the world, and by certain religious congregations, such as the Oblates of St Joseph and the Congregation of the Sacred Stigmata.
This year, 2020, brings two great anniversaries: the 150th anniversary of St Joseph being declared the Universal Patron and Protector of the Church by Pope Pius IX and the 100th anniversary of the birth of Pope St John Paul II, the great "pope of the family." In his apostolic exhortation, Redeptoris Custos, St John Paul II discusses the importance of St Joseph in the Holy Family. He draws our attention to the marriage of Joseph and Mary as the prototype and model of Christian marriage and as an example, par excellence, of the profound "union of hearts" and "indivisible union of souls" that is meant to be the reality of Christian couples.
This perfect union is one that St Bernadine of Siena describes when he says:
"Mary and Joseph were but one heart and soul; they were two in one same mind, one same affection, and each of them was the other's second half, because Our Lady and he were so to speak, only one person. The heart of Mary with that of Joseph, and the heart of Joseph with that of Mary, who ever could imagine a union so intimate, a grace so great!"
A contemplation of the real union of Joseph and Mary helps us to understand the dignity of the Sacrament of Marriage. In Redemptoris Custos, St John Paul II explains, "at the culmination of the history of salvation, when God reveals his love for humanity through the gift of the Word, it is precisely the marriage of Mary and Joseph that brings to realization in full "freedom" the "spousal gift of self" in receiving and expressing such a love." St John Paul II goes on to recall his predecessor, St Pope Paul VI's, words, "whereas Adam and Eve were the source of evil which was unleashed on the world, Joseph and Mary are the summit from which holiness spreads all over the earth. The Saviour began the work of salvation by this virginal and holy union."
Like Joseph and Mary, all married couples are called to make a complete gift of self to each other. They are called to nurture self-giving love within their marriage and family so that their homes can truly become sanctuaries of love and cradles of life. They are invited to recognize that it is specifically through their vocation as husbands or wives, and in the reality of everyday family life, that holiness can be achieved. Spouses can emulate Mary and Joseph by their total surrender to God's will and by their trust in God's love, mercy, and provision. In the joys and sorrows of life, spouses and families can strive to daily keep their gaze fixed on Jesus and by making him the king and centre of their own families, through the example and help of Joseph and Mary.
At a time when we are witnessing great challenges and attacks on the institution and Sacrament of Matrimony, and on the family, a renewal of marriage and the family could be served by an inclusion of the Feast of the Holy Spouses into the calendars of more dioceses and religious congregations, and by eventual incorporation in the universal calendar of the Church.
Meanwhile, how can married couples benefit from the richness of this feast?
They can turn to Our Lady and St Joseph and ask for their intercession and blessing over their own marriage and family. They can reflect on the fact that Mary and Joseph brought to their espousal "two hearts with greater torrents of love than had ever before coursed through human breasts", as explained by Venerable Fulton J. Sheen.
In this significant Josephine year, we would do well to remember that the name Joseph means "to add" or "to increase", with some biblical commentaries stating that this name, in Hebrew, means, "He (the Lord) will add." Let us beseech St Joseph, then, especially on this feast day, to increase the love and commitment of spouses to each other and to enrich the lives of families through God's abundant grace!
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