Question: Where does the church get some of the legendary stories of St. Joseph such as the wooden stick that blooms for Joseph but not others?
Many Catholic churches have altars (or at least statues) on either side of the main altar, dedicated to St. Joseph and to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Take a close look at the St. Joseph statue the next time you’re in church and chances are, you’ll notice him holding a wooden stick out of which flowers are blooming. A quick look through the Gospels reveals no reference to any kind of an incident involving St. Joseph and a wooden stick blooming flowers! So where does this image come from? First of all, the story of the wooden stick and the blooming flowers goes like this:
After Joachim and Anna, Mary’s parents, presented Mary in the Temple when she was 3 years of age, they allowed her to remain there as a temple virgin dedicated to God’s service. When Mary was on the verge of womanhood, the high priest announced that it was time for all of the temple virgins of that age to return home so that marriages could be arranged for them. Mary, however, said that she could not do this since her parents had dedicated her to the service of the Lord and that she herself had made a vow of virginity to God. When the high priest sought guidance from God, a loud voice called forth all of the men of the House of David who had not taken a wife, instructing them to come to the Temple and to bring a branch to lay on the altar. The voice said that one of the branches would bloom forth with flowers and that the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, would land upon the branch. Joseph was one of the men who came and when he placed his branch on the altar, it immediately bloomed into flowers and a dove descended from heaven and landed on it, thus revealing that Joseph was to take the virgin Mary as his spouse.
Nice story, but, if it’s not in Scripture, then where does it come from?
It turns out that this story can be traced to several apocryphal (non-canonical) gospels: the Protoevangelium of James and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. In both of these accounts, a dove flies forth from the rod (stick) belonging to Joseph, indicating that he is to be the spouse of Mary. A medieval (13th or 14th century) compilation of stories of the saints, The Golden Legend, tells the tale of the marriage of the Virgin, drawing from these apocryphal gospels and providing us with the version that describes flowers blooming forth from the stick rather than a dove. Over the centuries, this scene has been depicted in sacred art, both paintings and sculptures, showing St. Joseph holding a staff, stick, or rod, from which flowers are blooming.
Catholics are not bound to accept this story as revealed truth, however, the legend captures our imaginations and expresses our belief that Mary and Joseph were indeed chosen by God for their special roles as the mother and foster-father of Jesus.