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.