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Joseph, Model Father Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Thursday, 27 December 2012

Editor’s Note: The Christmas season reminds us of a group of other figures who surrounded the Savior. Yesterday, it was the first martyr, St. Stephen, an indication of how quickly the Christian movement had to face heavy opposition. In today’s column, Prof. Smith remembers another great man, often overlooked – whose greatness in a way stems from his very willingness to take responsibility for doing what God wants and to be content to be overlooked. It’s a lesson we all need to be reminded of, and not only at Christmas. We’re very near the end of 2012 now and we still have quite a way to go to match a very generous $15,000 matching gift from a new donor. As I mentioned right before Christmas, we really need your help this year in meeting our responsibilities. This is the time of the year when we’re all tired of shopping and celebrations. But there are still a few days during which you can make a quiet but significant contribution to our work. Please click the button below and do your part for The Catholic Thing. – Robert Royal     
 

 

One person we hear a lot about during this season is St. Joseph, husband of Mary. My students are by turns impressed, amazed, and befuddled by this strange and remarkable man: impressed that he refused to “put away” Mary and subject her to shame; amazed that he could live with a woman as his wife and not have sex with her (indeed, for some of them, this seems harder to believe than the Virgin Birth itself); and befuddled at how and in what sense Joseph could be considered Jesus’ “father.”  

The question is not an unimportant one theologically. In fact, because Jesus is called “the son of David,” and according to both Matthew and Luke, it is through Joseph that Jesus’ lineage is traced back to David. “How can that be?” my students want to know, when he wasn’t Jesus’ real father. “Define a real father,” I tell them. And from there the conversation usually gets pretty interesting.

The first thing to understand about Joseph’s fatherhood is that, unlike every other case where a man who has not had sex with his betrothed finds out she is pregnant, in Joseph’s situation, there is no other “biological” father who stands in a separate relationship between him and his son – no human father who has another sort of connection to Jesus that he, Joseph, does not. There is no “other man,” as it were, unless you count God, that is. 

But then again, we must always count God, mustn’t we?  Who really gives life? As St. Augustine says in the Confessions (paraphrasing 1 Cor 3:6):  we plant the seed, but God gives the growth. We do our part. But let’s be very clear: the miracle of life does not occur without God. We are merely “co-creators” with Him, and not merely at the moment of conception, but at every moment thereafter as well. 

Joseph’s story reminds us that human fatherhood is in reality merely a “participation” in the fatherhood of God. We do not create the new life. We are merely stewards – caretakers, as it were – of God’s holy gift of what is, fundamentally his son first and foremost. We are responsible before God for taking care of that precious life, but the child we are given is ultimately meant to serve God’s will, not ours.


       St. Joseph by Guido Remi, c. 1630

And it is in this way especially that Joseph is the “model” father.  He understood, as should we, that his role was not to create a son and make him in his own image.  No, this son (like every son) was God’s gift and God’s son, and Joseph’s job was to care for God’s son selflessly until the time was when that child was to take on the role God intended.

Consider the equanimity with which Joseph hears his son say: “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” And this in a culture where a son would be expected to take up his father’s trade with familial piety and pride. 

Mary was forced to bear this same cross later on, when she requested to see her own son and heard in reply: “Who are my mother, and my brothers, and my sisters?  Those who do the will of my father in heaven.”

In this season, we are often told pious stories about the Holy Family that make them sound a bit like Mormons. Joseph is often portrayed as the perfect father, never raising his voice to his son in anger, never betraying the slightest hint of frustration with his son, hardworking, clean, industrious, scrimping and saving for his son’s education, and so forth.  He’s the ideal father in an ideal 1950s suburban family. 

All of these things may be true. We just don’t know.  Scripture doesn’t tell us any of this.  My worry about such stories is simply that we may be projecting our notions of the “perfect” family on the Holy Family and making it into a false idol.  Must every family look and sound like these depictions of the Holy Family?  That’s not so clear to me. 

Saints were rarely as quiet and self-effacing as Hollywood hagiography portrays them.  Most of the saints had the full range of emotions and interesting character traits.  None of them was made of pure white alabaster or had the airbrushed features of the pictures in the 1950s Revised Standard Version Bible I grew up with.  John the Baptist in particular wasn’t the sort of guy you’d be inclined to invite to tea.

If you want to be a father like Zeus, a hairy thunderer who lords it over his wife, his children, and various mistresses, you’re looking for a different religion.  If you want to be a father in the image of our Father in heaven, then you’re looking for someone like Joseph.

Whatever his personality – stern and tough or soft and endlessly patient – St. Joseph showed himself the model father by accepting God’s son with selfless dedication and by raising him to do the will of His Father in heaven.  Mary said: “Let it be done to me as God wills.”  But Joseph too in his own way says with his actions: “Not my will, O Lord, but your will be done.  Not my son to be made in my image to give me honor.  Rather let me receive your son to help transform him into your image and to do your will so as to give you honor.”

There are a thousand ways of being a father, but all of them come down to this: being a co-creator with God.  St. Joseph didn’t produce a biological clone; he raised God’s son. And that’s why we rightly regard him as a real father – indeed, the model father for all of us to emulate.

 

Randall Smith
is associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston.
 
 
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written by Mack Hall, December 27, 2012
Dear Professor Smith,

Oh, I dunno, maybe the 40% or so of my English genetic coding is kicking in here, but I'd invite St. John the Baptist for tea, though I'd be afraid to offer him anything but a good, honest, workman or soldier's "cuppa." No rose hips. No dandelion leaves. No nonsense about the bouquet.

May St. John and St. Joseph bless us in our work as fathers.

Happy Christmas!
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written by Alfred, December 30, 2012
It is a reflection of the times that youth (and probably most of us) are amazed by Joseph refusing to subject Mary to shame, by his ability to live with a woman as his wife and not have sex with her and how and in what sense could Joseph be considered Jesus’ “father”.
In those days, God was a very real presence, both feared and revered. One lived by the Commandments and Joseph was a deeply God-fearing man. Hence “not shaming Mary” would be a most charitable thing to do, and so Joseph would do it. Indeed in modern life there are many who are equally charitable, but we just don’t hear of them, which in itself is another good on their part. Secondly, in my opinion, in those days, sex was not as important a thing for people as it has been made out to be in our minds today. And possibly the reason is the form of dress that was prevalent in those times as against what it is today. The clothing for both men and women was a flowing gown like attire which effectively concealed the body and its curves and let people view merely the faces of each other. Thus, the base urges were not being constantly stirred up and filling the mind with thoughts of sex (and any deprivation thereof). But that is not so in today’s world… a world which is one where lack of “fashion” invites ridicule and societal pressure to conform. Hence Joseph could live with a woman as his wife and not have sex with her. Besides, when one conforms to the will of God, even the impossible happens as par for the course. Thirdly, even in today’s world, we adopt children and the law considers an adopted father and mother as the true father and mother of the adoptee in every sense of the word.
And that is why I say that it is a sign of the times for questions like these to arise in the minds of youth and even our own minds. Times when any good thing is, at first blush, thought of as impossible or difficult to do. Times when parents don’t guide and persuade and convince their children and Christians don't help each other to stand up against the tide.

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