When our church was built, back around 1911, every detail inside was carefully designed – right down to the lily staffs surrounding the cross on the door of the Saint Joseph altar tabernacle.
What is a lily staff and why is it important?
We don’t know much about St. Joseph from the Bible. Stories of Mary’s betrothal come from the apocrypha (ancient books not considered reliable enough to be included in the Bible). There, the Protoevangelium of James claims that when young Mary wanted to dedicate herself as a perpetual virgin at the Temple, the high priest prayed for direction. An angel then told him to gather all of the unmarried men of the area, and have each one bring his rod (generally thought to be a walking stick or staff) to the temple “and to whomsoever the Lord shall show a sign, his wife shall she be…and Joseph took his rod last; and behold, a dove came out of the rod, and flew upon Joseph’s head. And the priest said to Joseph, ‘You have been chosen by lot to take into your keeping the virgin of the Lord.’” The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew tells a similar story, stating that “the man from the point of whose rod a dove shall come forth, and fly towards heaven, and in whose hand the rod, when given back, shall exhibit this sign, to him let Mary be delivered to be kept.”
A new detail appeared centuries later, when the stories were gathered into the Medieval Wikipedia-like Golden Legend compilation of all knowledge: “And then Joseph by the commandment of the bishop brought forth his rod, and anon it flowered, and a dove descended from heaven thereupon, so that it was clearly the advice of every man that he should have the virgin.” Use of the word “flowered” is unclear – it can mean “come out into full development,” and the earlier stories seem to suggest that the dove “flowered” from the rod, rather than that the rod burst into bloom. In any case, artists were inspired by the botanical idea, and over time, the concept of a flowering rod seems to have further developed into a specific flower. The University of Dayton Archives observes “The lily is associated with St. Joseph, spouse of Mary, through an ancient legend that he was so chosen from among other men by the blossoming of his staff like a lily. Likewise, the biblical passage, ‘The just man shall blossom like the lily’ is applied to St. Joseph in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church for his feastday, March 19.” The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art notes that the lily is “The best known symbolic flower. It is the principal symbol of purity and thus associated with the Virgin Mary, especially in scenes of the Annunciation…Saint Joseph also frequently carries a lily…”
It’s actually more curious and complicated: the particular kind of lily on our tabernacle – often shown with St. Joseph in religious art — is a Calla Lily, native to Africa – an arum genus rather than a lilium – technically not a lily at all. Arums were associated with fertility in ancient cultures. At the same time, the rod of Joseph is not just a walking stick: the word was used in the Old Testament to mean genealogy — part of a family tree – such as the passage in Isaiah, thought to foretell the birth of Jesus: “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots” (ISA 11:1). Mary has also sometimes been described as a rod, with Christ as the flower.
So, the lily staffs shown on our St. Joseph tabernacle, surrounding the symbol of a cross (which also is part of a tree) combine ancient natural symbols for integrity, belonging, and heritage, on a container for the sacred Eucharist. And one tiny artistic detail “blossoms” to connect and ground us through space, time, and history. The essence of our Catholic culture.