Elizabeth vs. Joseph

On the last day of a full (in some ways endless?) week, the Saintly Sixteen heads back to the Biblical quadrant for a showdown between Elizabeth and Joseph. To get here, Elizabeth got past Andrew while Joseph bested Joshua. Reminder before you start complaining: No one said any of this was fair. It's called Lent MADNESS, after all!

Yesterday, Herman of Alaska became the first saint to make the Elate Eight, easily defeating Thomas More 68% to 32%

We'll see everybody first thing Monday morning as the Saintly Sixteen continues with a matchup between Brother Lawrence and Margery Kempe. Have a great weekend, everyone, and stay safe out there!

Elizabeth (biblical figure, mother of John the Baptist, wife of Zechariah) doesn’t have a treasure trove of legendary stories about her.

There are a few in the non-canonical infancy gospels. In one story, she has to escape Herod’s marauding soldiers with the baby John, and so she begs the mountains above to come to her aid. Miraculously they split open, revealing a cave, and provide shelter for her and the infant for years. An angel of the Lord stands guard over them until the danger has passed.

If you’re reading the above and wondering where Zechariah is, he was murdered in that story. (The Infancy Gospels are DARK, man.) In the Infancy Gospel of James, Zechariah is martyred in the Temple by some furious soldiers when he refuses to tell them where his wife and child are. The other priests arrive in the morning to find his blood turned to stone, and the walls of the Temple crying out news of what has occurred. They then cast lots, and appoint Simeon to take his place--who acclaims the Baby Jesus the salvation of Israel in Luke. (The Infancy Gospels also like to tie up loose ends.)

St. Hippolytus suggests that she and Mary, mother of Jesus were sisters, in an echo of the relationship that Jacob had with Leah and Rachel.

Now, it should be said that others besides orthodox Christians also honor Elizabeth. The Mandeans, who hail John the Baptist as the true Messiah, and still exist in tiny minorities in Iraq, Syria and New Jersey (look, all religious minorities end up in New Jersey), are big fans. According to their Gospel of John the Baptizer, Elizabeth was 88 when she conceived John, and found him in the basin of the River Jordan. We also are told that she and Zachariah survive into the public years of John’s ministry. At one point, John returns home after a long absence, and Elizabeth is so thrilled to meet him, she rushes outside without her veil. Because of this lapse, Zachariah wants to divorce her, but John talks him out of it.

Again, in these legends we see a picture of a woman who is brave, compassionate, and so caring that she is honored among many religious traditions, not just one.

--Megan Castellan


Despite the current pandemic, the feast of St. Joseph was heralded and celebrated yesterday (March 19), with pastries and special foods (as much as was available).

In many ways and to many people, Joseph is considered a man for all ages. While his words were never recorded, his actions speak volumes.

What is known about the life of Joseph is limited. The Gospels tell of a man dedicated to caring for his wife Mary and her son Jesus, and dedicated to upholding and teaching the traditions of his faith. A deeply observant Jew, he silently witnessed the religious and societal milestones of Jesus’ life.

What is known about the impact of Joseph is not silent. Images and representations of his life surround us. He made an indelible mark on the world culture and society in such facets as religion and educational institutions. Prayers are often offered to Joseph for a holy death. His influence is indisputable and undeniable, as evident through the heralding of his life by important religious and spiritual leaders.

Pope Francis considers Joseph a solid model, “a man of dreams, but not a dreamer. He wasn’t abstract. A dreamer is something different. It’s someone who believes… goes off… has his head in the clouds, and doesn’t have his feet on the ground. Joseph had his feet on the ground. But he was open-minded.”

Early church leader St. Gregory of Nazianzus in the 300s likened Joseph to the sun. “The Lord has arrayed Joseph, like with a sun, in all which the saints possess together in regard to light and splendor.”

In the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas addressed Joseph as the patron for everyone: “Some Saints are privileged to extend to us their patronage with particular efficacy in certain needs, but not in others; but our holy patron St. Joseph has the power to assist us in all cases, in every necessity, in every undertaking.”

St. Teresa of Avila in the 1500s spoke to Joseph’s connection with God: “Though thou hast recourse to many saints as thine intercessors, go specially to St. Joseph, for he has great power with God. Those who give themselves to prayer should in a special manner have always a devotion to St. Joseph; for I know not how any man can think of the Queen of the angels, during the time that she suffered so much with the Infant Jesus, without giving thanks to St. Joseph for the services he rendered them then.”

At the end of the 1800s, Pope Leo XIII spoke of Joseph’s character: “He was both the true and chaste spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the foster-father of the Word Incarnate. For these two reasons, St. Joseph shines among all mankind and approaches nearer than any other saint to the holiness of the Mother of God.”

Framing him as a man for all times, Pope John Paul II said: “Saint Joseph was a just man, a tireless worker, the upright guardian of those entrusted to his care. May he always guard, protect and enlighten families.”

Although words uttered by Joseph have not survived the centuries, his influence is timeless.

--Neva Rae Fox


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Joseph: Giovanni Battisti Gaulli, called Baciccio “St. Joseph and the Infant Christ” c. 1670-1685. Oil on canvas.
Elizabeth: Orthodox icon of Saint Elizabeth, Mother of Saint John the Baptist.


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118 comments on “Elizabeth vs. Joseph”

  1. This is a great match-up. I have to go with Joseph. Mercy Me has a great song, Joseph's lullaby, that makes me cry and wonder at the love he had. It had to be extremely difficult to be Joseph having a wife that was pregnant. He and Mary had to deal with a great deal of social stigmatism and ostracism. Their faith and obedience is inspiring

  2. Pope Leo XIII considered Joseph to be our Savior's "foster father." I prefer to view him as his "adoptive father" since I are (sic) one. In fact, there are a number of adoptive parents in the family. In our collective experience, the relationship carries unique blessings; yet almost none of them have been easy. No regrets. Much love. I am certain the sainted Joseph uniquely gets it.

  3. While my heart was with St. Joseph, with my 102 year old mother named Elizabeth and Beth my middle name..... Elizabeth got my vote!

  4. Go Joe, and hooray for all the stay-at-home-go-work-whatever-it-takes guys raising kids with or without matching DNA and saving the world one day at a time!

  5. Joseph's list of endorsements is daunting. So many popes can't be wrong . . . oh, wait. But I voted for Elizabeth today. I have to say, that icon is rather grim. That must be the moment after she put her veil back on and is now facing Zechariah. Her hand says, You man, are in serious trouble. I also have to quibble with the wording in Joseph's write-up, that he cared for "his wife Mary and her son Jesus." Even if you buy the account that Joseph was not Jesus's biological father, if you accept that Joseph was a true and faithful stepfather, how exactly is Jesus not "his son" as well? Given the logical and linguistic hairsplitting that the question of Jesus' divinity forces on us (I too am going to go try that "Homoousion" once I can find the ingredients!), I can really understand why there would be Mandeans in the world. I had never heard of them; thank you, Megan. John is so much simpler and more graspable as the Messiah! All these early accounts are filled with pitfalls and hairpin turns. How do you conceive a baby and then find him in a river? Is John now twinned with Moses? When I encounter texts like this, with the mythical and the realistic strongly intertwined, I am reminded of D.W. Winnicott's analysis of infants discovering the world: they think the breast is part of them and they command it at will. Winnicott lays down an ethical injunction for us: we must not ask baby, "Did you find it or did you create it?" The answer for the baby, same as Clare's answer to Francis, is "Yes." It's always a paradox. More and more I am struck by the twinning in the Elizabeth/Mary, John/Jesus story. Is Jesus or John the Messiah? Is Elizabeth or Mary the mother of the savior? Yes.

    1. I wish I had a better understanding of Orthodox artistic sensibility. So many icons of very sympathetic characters seem forbidding and remote to me, and I don’t think that “you are in serious trouble” can have been the message the artists intended to convey. For another, more personal depiction of Elizabeth I recommend the Pontormo painting referred to in my comment at 11:04 am below.

  6. very difficult decision for me today first round I went with Elizabeth but have to go with Joseph today

  7. I like Elizabeth who, in spite of lacking Biblical citations, was able to inspire astounding stories.

  8. Another match-up between two for whom I voted earlier. I was leaning toward Joseph--marrying an already- pregnant woman, Jesus in the Temple ("I thought he was with YOU!")--but since he's leading in the polls right now, I'm going with Elizabeth, who not only bore a child later in life but probably also saw that child grow up into a rather odd character. What strength she must have had!

  9. The parish church in the modest Tuscan village of Carmignano is home to the painter Pontormo’s beautiful, moving depiction of the Visitation. In 2018 it was restored to its original brilliance and exhibited in New York where the New Yorker somewhat oddly called it “one of the damndest great paintings of all time,” and Los Angeles. It has uniquely haunted me ever since I saw it some years ago, and in its honor I’m going to vote for Elizabeth this morning.

    You can visit it at https://www.themorgan.org/sites/default/files/images/exhibitions/PontormoVisitation.jpg

    1. Lee, aren’t you thinking of Sarah?

      Some manuscripts say it was actually Elizabeth who sang the Magnificat, not Mary. And she recognized “the mother of my Lord” with John’s leap inside her own body.

    2. Davis, that is amazing. The enormous colour bloques, I suppose to indicate pregnant women, are dazzling. I love the double perspective. Mary and Elizabeth are Aphrodite and Demeter. Their cosmic status coupled with their emotional connection, makes this painting nearly explode. It reminds me of a much later, and also powerful, cosmic work: Matisse's "Bathers with a Turtle."

      1. Yes, and, like the Matisse (new to me — thank you!) it bestrides a stylistic cusp: Pontormo is variously considered to be the last Renaissance painter and the first of the Mannerists.

    3. We used that Pontormo painting in a Visio Divina as part of the Contemplative Formation program I took, but I don't remember them giving ua the source, so thanks! Now I know and can find it if needed.

    4. I saw this in the New York Times Arts section several years ago and cut it out. I consider it one of the best pieces of religious art I have ever seen because of the expressions on the faces of Mary and Elizabeth, which convey so much feeling, but also on the faces of their two female companions, who would be just generic women in many paintings.

      1. And I see the "two female companions" as Mary and Elizabeth themselves "doubled," shown again from a new perspective. We get a profile and a full-face version of each. That is what fascinates me about this painting. It seems very modern.

  10. Since all the stories are made up out of whole cloth anyway, (sorry, I meant “legends”) I have to go with Elizabeth since her stories are the most fantastical.

  11. Though I love the “all-purpose saint” Joseph and agree with all the laudatory things said about him above, the Pontormo Visitation pulled me back to my tender snd abiding affection for that incident in Elizabeth’s story. Thanks, Megan, for your great storytelling—I had never heard of the Mandeans, either. And for those who want a picture of Joseph as a father to a divine brat, do check out the Infancy Gospels. My vote, hopeless as it appears to be, is for Elizabeth.

  12. I admit I have not been very engaged this year with everything else going on but Elizabeth, mother of John, has always been a favorite of mine. Can you imagine being John's mother? Oh My! and we think our kids are a trial at times! My Godmother was named for Elizabeth and was an important influence in my life so...Vote for Elizabeth!

  13. Joseph was a ferocious protector of Mary and Jesus. “Get up, let’s go, we’re leaving NOW!” he told Mary when Herod’s troops were coming. Joseph all the way.

  14. I think I already left a message. Cannot at , 77 Easter Sunday, get used to this two finger typing ! I still stay with Elizabeth, sorry Joseph, I also had an uncle Joseph as so many good Catholics had back in the day! Checking with the Foster family bible, if an infant child named Joseph died , the next male child was aka Joseph! And so on until one actually made it into adult life! Oh how we have matured and grown as Christians! I remember -a son is a son till he takes a wife, BUT, a daughter is a daughter all of her LIFE, AMEN

  15. Joseph reminds me of my grandfather and I was expecting Elizabeth to be winning, so I voted for him. I was surprised to see he is actually the current run away winner

  16. Many votes during lent Madness offer difficult choices, but this may be the hardest yet. I honor Joseph, but I think I need to vote for Elizabeth. This woman held her head high despite her shame of being barren. Also, I have long wanted to write an historical novel about John the Baptist and Zechariah. I imagine John and Zechariah both were strong personalities and Elizabeth was the peacemaker in that household!

  17. As a Jerseyean, (or is that Jerseyite?), I must go with Elizabeth. Never seen the Jersey Devil or a Mandean (to the best of my knowledge) but many other strange and wondrous inhabitants, religious or otherwise.

  18. I don't believe for a second that Joseph never had sexual intercourse with his wife, Mary. Nor do I believe that having a genuine, consummated marriage is an impediment to sainthood, for either of theem. So some of the language in the quotes about him (eg, "chaste spouse) turn me off. Moreover, I did not get any "pastries and special foods" on the feast of St Joseph yesterday. Nonetheless, my vote today goes to Joseph. He must have been a special man, for God to have chosen him to be the earthly father of Jesus, and he showed great faith when he chose to marry Mary after she became pregnant with a child he knew he had not fathered.

    1. The pastries (cream puffs in particular) are a Sicilian tradition. There are some amazing altars on google images! Hopefully they’ll come next in the round of kitsch!

  19. Having voted for both saints in the last round, I am voting for Joseph today. So much was asked of him, and so much given in the face of very great danger. He had the courage to say yes to God, and to Mary. I also love U.A. Fanthorpe's poem 'I am Joseph', with its lovely conclusion.
    'My lesson for my foster son,
    endure, love, give.'
    The poem can be found here: http://christmas-time.com/ct-joseph.htm

  20. Don't forget Joseph's ongoing ministry: if you want your house to sell you bury an image of him upside down in your yard. I keep a plastic version on hand just in case.

  21. What, no Collects for Elizabeth and Joseph? Pray, always! I pray we all were able to vote responsibly in spite of them,

  22. I love St. Elizabeth, but have been feeling recently that Joseph gets so left out!!

  23. I simply must vote for the woman who (willingly, it seems) bore a child when she was some fifteen years older than I am. Just think - when John graduated from high school, she would be +/- 105! Now that's a brave woman.

  24. I happily voted for Joseph, since we know a bit more about him than we do about Elizabeth. And what we do know reveals Joseph to be a model husband, father and worker, as well as devout and open to paying attention to God's motions in his life. I find allusions to Joseph's virginity misleading and baseless. The Gospel record implies that he (and Mary) were the parents of a large family--at least 5 boys and 2 or probably more girls ("are not his sisters ALL with us?," say the townspeople of Nazareth according to Matthew). I like the idea that Jesus came from a large family, probably boisterous and crowded into a modest little house, playing and joking and smiling and laughing and crying together. If such was the family that Mary and Joseph took up to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover when Jesus was 12, no wonder they didn't at first notice that Jesus wasn't with them on their return! Such a Holy Family, big and lively, makes Jesus seem so much more human and his family so much more normal and real--especially in that time of large families [even my own father came from a family of 8 children plus an adopted cousin--so 11 altogether]. The pallid image of an ever-virginal Joseph, Mary and Jesus is depressing and inhuman, an attempt by monastics battling their own sexual demons to create an imaginary sexless little "monastic" family in their own image. Me genoito!

    1. Thank you Fiona!

      I’m pleased at all of this appreciation of Joseph - it helps counter the highly unjust Cherry Tree Carol.

  25. Wow! What a challenging bracket. Without Elizabeth, John's fate may have been much different; possibly affecting the baptism of Jesus where he was able to see the true light. Then, there is Joseph, who is the unquestioning protector of Jesus and Mary. Both are important, but I have to go with Joseph as he showed love throughout the earthly life of Christ.