The Akathist Hymn to St Joseph the Bethroted (1)
Currently, at Sir Anthony Mamo Oncology Centre, we are hosting the Flowering Staff of Joseph. The more I look at this miraculous relic which powerfully reminds me of the holiness of this Custodian of the Redeemer the more I am gently invited to delve deeper into the Eastern Christian liturgies that are associated with the Patriarch of Patriarchs.
A hymn that lovingly comes to me is surely the Akathist Hymn to St Joseph the Bethroted which is sung in the Kyivan, that is Ukranian Catholic Church. In this beautiful hymn St Joseph bears the title of the Betrothed since he was the one who was bethroted to the Virgin Mary. In the Christian Eastern understanding, St Joseph is closely related to the Nativity scene. His feast is always celebrated on the Sunday after Christmas. In the different hymns of the Nativity cycle of services St Joseph is referred with the other ancestors of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Furthermore, St Joseph is mentioned in other hymns such as in the Feast of the Circumcision (1 January), and particularly on the Great Feast of the Meeting or Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple (2 February). In the Eastern lung of Christianity, the importance of St Joseph lies in the fact that he is the betrothed of the Virgin Mary and the human guardian of the Christ Child. Hence, and contrarily to the Catholic West, St Joseph’s occupation as carpenter or St Joeph the Worker, as we normally know it in the West, is given less emphasis in the East. Let us appreciate the magnificent Josephology we find written in the Akathist Hymn to St Joseph the Betrothed.
In the first Kontakion, or a form of a hymn performed in both Eastern Catholic and Orthodox liturgical traditions, which in the Akathist hymn to St Joseph we can call it the narrative part, St Joseph is given the following titles: righteous, chosen protector of the Most-Holy Virgin, instructor and nurturer of the God-Man, ready helper and intercessor for our souls.
In the first ikos, or a short composition that follows the Kontakion, between the Sixth and Seventh Odes of the Canon, St Joseph is described as a lowly carpenter, the protector and witness of the virginity of the all-Holy Mary, chosen initiate of the mysteries of God, honored offshoot of the root of Jesse, adorned within with royal majesty, acquired spiritual wealth when lacking earthly things, Through obscurity he obtained everlasting glory, far more glorious than kings, more righteous than the patriarchs and forefathers, righteous, and ready helper and intercessor for our souls.
In the second Kontakion, St Joseph is the answer to Zachariah the High Priest who prayed to the Lord to show him a man worthy to be betrothed to the Virgin. The sign for Zachariah’s plea was that the rod of Joseph blossomed forth, thus committing the Virgin to him. And to this sign makes the Eastern liturgy sing jubilantly through the mouth of Zachariah: ALLELUIA!
With the second ikos St Joseph is pictured as the one whose righteousness is known to all the ends of the earth, holy and the one who was accorded the incomparable honor of being betrothed to the most blessed Virgin. Interestingly is the fact that the text of the Akathist hym to St Joseph the Bethroted affirms that Joseph was chosen as Mary’s betrothed for his steadfast faith, purity, humility and excellence in all the virtues. Hence, St Joseph is the righteous one; the betrothed of the most-Pure one; man of faith, the one who took under his roof taking under his roof the holy Virgin, Mary, who, through faith was made the throne of God; humble of spirit; simple of heart; exceedingly adorned with virtues; the one who ministered unto the most holy (Jesus); righteous; and ready helper and intercessor for our souls.
In the third Kontakion, we find out that Joseph did not know of this wondrous mystery, namely that the power of the Most High overshadowed her [Mary] who knew not wedlock, so that she might conceive. That is why Joseph was instructed by God Himself, that he might cry out to Him: ALLELUIA.
Hence, in the narrative of the third ikos, Joseph, beholding the Virgin whose womb contained God, was troubled, knowing that she was not wed and suspecting that she had indulged in illicit love. However, being just, he wished to put her away secretly, leaving the judgment unto Him Who knows all things and Who has taught us to cry out to Him. Hence, at this very difficult time in Joseph’s life the author of the Akathist hymn presents St Joseph as zealot of chastity, Israelite in whom there is no guile, good of heart, meek of demeanor, the one who place[s] all [his] trust in God, the one who entrust[s] [himself] and others to His providence, the righteous, ready helper and intercessor for our souls.
In the fourth Kontakion, St Joseph is subduing to the tempest of thoughts of doubt. It is here that the angel disclosed to him the mystery of the birth of the Son of God, the Savior of the world, from the unwed Mary. The angel told Joseph: And you shall call His name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins. With us Joseph cries to Jesus: ALLELUIA!
The fourth ikos St Joseph is the one who hears the Scriptures’ prophecy of the Lord: Behold, a Virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, Emmanuel. Joseph believed what was told to [him] by the angel. Joseph, the righteous, is likened to a sealed book, wherein the Word was inscribed by the finger of the Father. He took Mary into [his] own house, and like a servant [he] waited upon her with fear and zeal.
Joseph has every reason to rejoice in this story because he set [his] heart to understand the law of God, he opened [his] mind to receive the mysteries of God, before all men [he was] vouchsafed to know the great mystery of piety that God has appeared upon earth, [he] perceived His coming to be for the salvation of men from their sins, without doubting [he] believed what was revealed to [him], and [his] faith was accounted onto [him] as righteousness. Joseph, the righteous and ready helper and intercessor for our souls!
With the fifth kontakion, Joseph did not simply take the divinely chosen maiden into [his] home but also loved her as [his] betrothed. He honored her as the most-holy Virgin and Mother of the Savior of the world. He ministered to her with fear and reverence, striving with all [his] soul to keep all that was written in the Law and the Prophets. With Mary he cried out to God: ALLELUIA!
The fifth ikos, Joseph is the one who behold[s] in the manger of Bethlehem the Star that shone forth from Jacob. Joseph was the first [who] worshipped the Newborn. In contrast to the star, the angels hymnody, the shepherds testimony and the Magi worship and gifts, Joseph
Joseph offered your whole self as a gift to the Lord, dedicating [his] life, cares and labors to His service.
For this magnificent gift of Joseph’s self-donation to God we praise to the Lord for Joseph because he is the one who before all others beheld the descent to earth of the unsetting Sun of Righteousness; the first witness and servant on earth of the incarnate Son of God, Who was born of the Father before all ages; the earthly carpenter who was vouchsafed to be called the father of the heavenly Architect; the protector and guardian of the Infant to Whom the ranks of angels minister with fear; the reverent servant of the Mother of God, the Word. Joseph is the righteous and ready helper and intercessor for our souls.
The sixth kontakion presents Joseph as the one who did circumcise on the eighth day … Him Who was foretold by the Law and the Prophets. Joseph gave Him the name Jesus, which was preserved in the Counsel of the Trinity. This was so because Jesus’ Name is like a precious pearl brought forth from the treasuries of Heaven for the revelation of all people. Jesus, whereby having astonished the angels, made us glad, terrified the demons and rendered the whole world fragrant as with sweet-smelling myrrh. In front of Jesus’ name Joseph cried out to God: ALLELUIA!
The sixth ikos starts by recounting that God, in the Infant Jesus shone forth upon [Joseph], as prophesied by Simeon, the light of the gentiles’ revelation and the glory of the people Israel. Immediately, the story is changed upside down. The Infant Jesus, the gentiles’ revelation and the glory of the people Israel, … was straightway covered by a cloud of tribulation since Herod raged seeking the life of the Infant, and it was foretold that a sword would pierce the heart of His Mother, in order that [Joseph’s] faith and patience may be made manifest unto all. Hence, Joseph, as the one steadfast in patience and unshaken in faith is the one who will come to our aid in the hour of need.
Thus, St Joseph is the one is like gold in the furnace [who was] unceasingly purified by trials. He was humble in joy and patient in the midst of sorrows. Joseph was ever faithful to the mysteries entrusted to [him]. Furthermore, he was guided by faith as by a star in the dark ways of life. Joseph had hope in God as an anchor amid the tempest of life’s voyage. For all these reasons, Joseph is righteous and ready helper and intercessor for our souls.
to be continued in part (2)
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap