The Father We Need

Most of us know today’s Gospel scene (Lk 2:22-40) as the Fourth Joyful Mystery: The Presentation in the Temple. But it is also one of the Seven Sorrows and Seven Joys of Saint Joseph. His heart is filled with sorrow at Simeon’s prophecy that the Christ Child “is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed.” At the same time, Joseph rejoices to hear his Son proclaimed as the Lord’s “salvation” and “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to…Israel.”

Now, we should all sorrow and rejoice when meditating on this scene. But Joseph experiences this sorrow and joy in a unique manner: as the father of Jesus. Indeed, his experience of this event flows from and points to the reality of his fatherhood.

We often use various qualifiers for Joseph’s fatherhood. Although accurate to an extent, they can also give the impression that his fatherhood was a fiction or make-believe. The term “Earthly Father” suggests a father/son relationship limited to this world. “Foster Father” or “Adoptive Father” both imply that at some point our Lord became Joseph’s son. In fact, Joseph and Mary were legally married at the time of Christ’s conception. So, at no point in our Lord’s life was He not the Son of Joseph.

The Gospels don’t use any qualifiers. Today’s passage refers to Joseph and Mary straightforwardly as Jesus’ “father and mother.” Later, at the finding in the Temple, our Lady herself says, “Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” (Lk 2:48) Twice John refers to our Lord simply as “the Son of Joseph.” (Jn 1:45; 6:42) The only qualification in the Gospels is parenthetical: Luke’s mention of Jesus as “the son (as was supposed) of Joseph.” (Lk 3:23) Since this comes immediately after our Lord’s Baptism, it is clearly meant to distinguish Christ’s Father revealed at the Jordan from His father known in Nazareth.

It is fatherhood that Pope Francis emphasizes in Patris Corde, his letter announcing the Year of Saint Joseph (December 8, 2020 through December 8, 2021). And with good reason. As many have observed, the crisis of fatherhood is at the source of our Church’s and our nation’s woes. At the core of the Church’s scandals is the betrayal of spiritual fathers. Our nation’s upheaval is the inevitable result of decades of absent fathers. Mary Eberstadt has called it “the fury of the fatherless.”

Joseph’s fatherhood is a necessary medicine for these ills. But first, we have to get it right. Our failure to appreciate Joseph’s fatherhood lies in our misunderstanding of fatherhood itself. We confine fatherhood to its physical, earthly dimensions; it is the biological siring of a child or perhaps the equipping of the child for success in this world. In fact, the greater part of fatherhood is not begetting a child or training him for worldly success. No, it is the imparting of wisdom, patrimony, and identity.

Precisely because he is not Jesus’ biological father, Joseph calls our attention to the deeper, more important dimension of fatherhood. He did not generate our Lord, nor does he have any worldly means to bestow upon Him. But as the husband of Mary, Joseph is in fact Jesus’ legal father – a designation with much greater meaning in ancient Israel than in our culture. It was Joseph’s duty to raise his Son in the traditions and faith of Israel, to pass on to Him the practices and wisdom of God’s people. Insofar as “Jesus advanced [in] wisdom and age and favor before God and man” (Lk 2:52), it fell to Joseph to teach Him how to pray, to bring Him to the synagogue, and to familiarize Him with scripture.

“We have heard with our ears, O God, our fathers have told us, what deeds thou didst perform in their days, in the days of old.” (Ps 44:1) It is wonderful to consider Joseph teaching this verse to our Lord, introducing Him to the patrimony of Israel, to what “our fathers have told us.” Those fathers had bestowed an identity on their children, had brought them to know who they were – and were not – in the world and in history. The fidelity of those fathers meant that the Israelites knew themselves as God’s people.

This is precisely what fathers in our culture have failed to do. They might give their children some material wealth and advice on how to get ahead in the world – or at least how to be comfortable. But for decades fathers have failed to give their children their proper identity. They have failed to pass on the patrimony of the West, of our nation, and most of all of Christianity.

This is in large part because those fathers had themselves impiously rejected what came before them. Impiety is sterile. Since the past meant nothing to them; so now they have nothing for the future. Worse still, being orphaned from the past makes one vulnerable in the present. So, what we see in “wokeism” is an orphaned generation, cut off from its patrimony of wisdom and culture, and thus prey to whatever new theories come along.

We have seen the same phenomenon in the Church. Impious priests, for whom the past was meaningless, failed to hand on to generations of Catholics their rightful inheritance of the Church’s teachings and liturgy. So much of our current sickness comes from this disconnect, this forgetfulness of who we are – and who we are not – in the world and in history.

Time to “go to Joseph.” (Gen 41:55) From him, the father of Jesus, we learn the true meaning of fatherhood and the incomparable worth of a man who faithfully fulfills that mission.


*Image: Christ Crowning St. Joseph by Francisco de Zurbarán, c. 1648 [Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla, Seville, Spain]

Fr. Paul Scalia is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, VA, where he serves as Episcopal Vicar for Clergy and Pastor of Saint James in Falls Church. He is the author of That Nothing May Be Lost: Reflections on Catholic Doctrine and Devotion and the editor of Sermons in Times of Crisis: Twelve Homilies to Stir Your Soul.