At the week-end people in Britain were saddened to hear that two tiny children had been viciously attacked in Finsbury Park and one had subsequently died. A man has been arrested in connection with the attack, and it is thought that he may be the children’s father. If he does turns out to be responsible and is indeed the children’s father, our shock and horror will know no bounds. He must be seriously deranged surely? Fathers just don’t do such things, do they?
Our reaction tells us much about how we understand fatherhood. We expect fathers to be loving, protective and endlessly patient with their offspring. The distant, overbearing father of Victorian fiction (still, alas, the experience of some today) is, for us, a contradiction in terms. In the West fathers are expected to be companionable, play with their children, feed them, wash them, care for them, not just provide financially or deliver the occasional correction as in times past. Fathers are not meant to be aloof, they are meant to be great Dads. Yet what of the absent father, the one who has no interest in his progeny but walks away from mother and child because ‘he is not ready’ for fatherhood or ‘does not want to be tied’ or even, perhaps, does not know he is a father at all? Or the father who has split from the mother and rarely sees his child except on access week-ends; or the would-be father who cannot be a father at all, no matter how much he longs for children? We shake our heads. That is not how it is meant to be. In short, we have an ideal of fatherhood to which we cling, no matter how much the reality may fall short and regardless of the burden of expectation it may place on the individual.
I think St Joseph would have understood these contradictions. His own experience of fatherhood was very different from what he might reasonably have expected as a respectable tradesman married to a girl of good family in Roman Palestine. Right at the beginning, there was the awkward question of the paternity of Mary’s child to be faced, and doubtless some unkind whispering behind backs; then the unexpected exile in Egypt, with all its ugly memories for Jews, and a strange kind of family life in Nazareth with a son who had an unusually vivid sense of his heavenly Father’s claims on him; for the rest, there was the daily grind, the daily being faithful, the life of an observant Jew in a small town in an unfashionable province. Finally, Joseph disappears from the scene as quietly and self-effacingly as he entered it, having proved himself a very good father indeed.
Jesus is the measure of Joseph’s success. If we want to know what Joseph was like, we have only to look at Jesus, but with this difference. What was clear to Jesus was often unclear to Joseph. Joseph’s obedience, like that of his Old Testament namesake, was mediated through dreams and the hesitant, uncertain debates of one who wanted to do the right thing if only he knew what that was. In that especially I think he is an encouragement to all fathers today. There must have been times when he wondered whether he had failed, times when he wondered how Jesus would turn out, times when the expectations others had of him were a little too much, a little too heavy to bear. We hear nothing of this from Joseph himself. His silence is caught up in the mysterious silence of God himself, just as his own fiat is bound up with that of Mary. He stands to one side, that we may see Jesus; but he is by no means a mere cipher. He is a real Mensch.
Fatherhood has probably never been more difficult than it is today, and never more necessary. Being a ‘great Dad’ sounds fine, until anyone actually attempts it and realises there is a lot more to fatherhood than being a good companion. The difficult choices facing every father — sometimes not having any choices at all — can make life complicated, even burdensome. Not all find themselves equal to the task they have undertaken and torture themselves with guilt and self-recrimination. That is so sad. Being a father doesn’t mean being perfect, it simply means trying; so let us give thanks for all who do try, and ask St Joseph’s prayers for all fathers and would-be fathers, knowing that he, of all the saints, is one who would truly understand. Let us pray also for the man held in connection with the Finsbury Park attack, and for the little girl left in a critical condition.