St Joseph: Icon of Masculinity

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.


7 thoughts on “St Joseph: Icon of Masculinity”

  1. What a lovely blog. Anything that will help us to see Joseph as the human being he was, who trained Jesus up in the family business…..”sweep up those shavings, there’s a good lad…” Thank you – and, yes, may he pray for us

    • Thank you. We were delighted when we came to this house and discovered in the porch a small statue of St Jospeh that the original owners had left behind. We had been asking the prayers of St Jospeh to help us find a house to live in, to which we could welcome others.

  2. Josephs example I think, allows us to pray tribute to the many ways men father. They father children who are not biologically theirs, giving guidance, love to the young in their journey to adulthood. When I worked with street homeless young people with sad backgrounds, the men members of staff provided care as well as the women staff. Some worked from a positive paternal approach with the young men and women, just as similar as I worked from my maternal feelings. In my own wider family, I had two very fatherly grandfathers from different backgrounds in one small Welsh town. I still feel their love now, 60 years later. When I converted to Catholicism, calling our priests ‘father’ felt to me entirely right and warm. And the same if they are half my age and more, older, religious or newly ordained. Father meaning God, father, step father, fatherly key worker, priest or St Joseph.

  3. When I read the line, “When Jesus hung upon the cross in obedience to his heavenly father, he did so as Joseph’s son” the tears came, unbidden, to my eyes. I had never thought of this before. Thank you.

  4. Neither, is anything human – anything at all – inherently and incorruptibly good.

    In the same way that love – even despite one’s best motivations (though often due to one’s misunderstandings) – can be done poorly, and cause damage, masculinity may also be taken to extremes and cause damage.

    One might argue that in such a case, it is not masculinity; that a different term is needed – whence “toxic masculinity”. Because the roots of the toxicity, are in a misunderstanding (at best) of what actual masculinity is.

  5. Thank you, Dame Catherine. I have a great devotion for St. Joseph and you helped articulate for me, his virtues and humanity. St. Joseph, pray for us!

  6. Thank you, I thought this so beautiful and thought provoking and sadly rather well timed. Toxic masculinity is a much used and rarely challenged phrase which one can imagine may one day be used to justify gender selective abortion in the way that equally misogynist sentiments do now. While it is sadly true that the majority of women (including myself) have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment, it is by a small minority of men not men full stop. I have encountered plenty of ’toxic’ femininity too that has also been damaging, this however the result of a tiny minority of women. Demonising one sex ( or race for that matter) does not heal the other’s wounds but it seems to be the vogue in divisive times. In St Joseph we have a model of masculine behaviour which I believe values womanhood and honours men, may he pray for us all.

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