Many images of Saint Joseph show him carrying a white lily. For someone who was a manual laborer, a delicate flower seems like an odd choice of imagery, but there are some somewhat understandable reasons why Joseph is often associated with a lily.
The first is that lilies represent femininity, purity, and integrity, among other things. By having Joseph carry a lily, the artist indicates that Joseph protected Mary’s virginity. She is seen as a chaste, white lily. In this interpretation, the lily is an emblem of Joseph’s integrity and honor throughout Mary’s life. It identifies Joseph as the protector of Mary. (Just as an aside, often the lily stalk has three flowers that represent the Trinity as well.)
A second reason also deals with purity. In this imagery, the lily is said to indicate that Joseph, like Mary, was a virgin his entire life. This becomes somewhat problematic if the idea that Joseph was a widower before he married Mary is accepted, but it is one reason Medieval artists, in particular, have had him carry the flower.
A third reason stems from an ancient legend. Several versions of the myth exist, but the main gist of the tale is that when it came time for Mary to be married, she had several suitors seeking her hand. Each was given a bare stick (or asked to hold out a bare staff). Joseph’s stick/staff immediately burst into bloom with fragrant white lilies, indicating that he was the one chosen by God. The lily in this case is indicative of the miracles surrounding the birth of Jesus.
Often any stalk of white flowers is called a St. Joseph’s Lily, but there is an actual plant with that name. Hippeastrum johnsonii is a hybrid amaryllis that, instead of being white, is dark red with white stripes on the petals. It is called St. Joseph’s Lily because it often blooms on or near his feast day of March 19. This plant might be an even better choice to link to Joseph than the traditional lily because it blends into the background of a garden, playing a supporting role to other more dramatic flowers. It is a tough, hardy plant that thrives without much attention, providing a foundation to the entire garden, much like the man himself who is in the background of salvation, but without whom the story would never have happened.
“The just man shall blossom like the lily. He shall flourish forever in the courts of our God like the lily.” –Evening Prayer for March 19
Blessed Saint Joseph, may I live with purity and integrity as you did. Amen.
Image credit: PT Hamilton/Shutterstock.com