St Joseph, painted terracotta, ca. 1475-1500
I detest the phrase toxic masculinity. There is nothing ‘toxic’ about masculinity any more than there is about femininity. True, there are behaviours which are deeply unpleasant, even dangerous, more usually associated with men than women, but masculinity per se is a gift from God, to be celebrated as the grace it is rather than derided and denied. Happily, in St Joseph, we have an icon of masculinity that is positive and encouraging.
I confess it took me a long time to see the greatness of St Joseph. All those saccharine statues of grey-bearded men holding a lily in one hand and a blue-eyed, flaxen-curled Jesus in the other put me off. The medieval tendency to see him as a figure of fun, an unwitting cuckold, was slightly more appealing if only because it treated him as a person rather than an abstraction. Then I read St Teresa of Avila and Bossuet and began to realise that the Jesus-and-Mary narrative had blinded me to the significance of the Jesus-and-Joseph narrative. Fathers are as important as mothers, and the unassuming holiness of Joseph helped make Jesus the man he was.
It was Joseph, surely, who taught Jesus what it meant to be an observant Jew: to read, to pray, to take his place in society, at ease among both men and women, to work and to play. How rarely do we allow ourselves to reflect on those facts! There is much more we should like to know but can only speculate about. Was Joseph young or old when he married Mary? Did marriage and family life fulfil his human hopes or not? We think of his Old Testament namesake, the place of dreams in his life, the flight into Egypt, the place of exile and slavery, the personal renunciations he embraced. Are we to assume Joseph did not question because he obeyed so completely? Did he not feel pain at times, confusion? And what about life at Nazareth? Was he a great Dad, in the way that men are expected to be today? Did he struggle to make ends meet at times, spend sleepless nights worrying about the future? We shall never know exactly, but we see in Jesus the fruit of his masculinity, of his being a man, a real Mensch. When Jesus hung upon the cross in obedience to his heavenly Father, he did so as Joseph’s son, one who had taken on the lineaments of his adoptive father here on earth.
May St Joseph pray for all fathers, living and dead; those from whom the gift of fatherhood has been withheld; and those who have never known a father’s love and care.