A quick search in the sidebar of this blog reveals that I have often written about St Joseph on his feastday. In a way, that is odd. For far too long I subscribed to the view that Joseph was an almost disposable element in the Infancy narrative, and his early disappearance from the gospels and the absence of patristic commentary confirmed me in my opinion. It took Bossuet to make me realise what a great man he was, and that his greatness was precisely that of a father.
If, like me, you have happy memories of your own father, it does not require much of an imaginative leap to recognize how important Joseph was in the life of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. But if you don’t, if your father has been absent or in some way inadequate, it must be much harder. So many of the qualities we admire in Jesus must have come from Joseph. In the same way, family members will often remark that we are ‘a chip off the old block’ and recognize in us traits that we had no idea once existed in another. When they are perceived as negative or in some way damaging, there is a double handicap to overcome. It is not just our own flaws but those we have inherited that we must deal with. Yet none of us is defined by our father or limited by his flaws. Fathers give us life, they help to form us, but their role changes over time. The one constant is that they go on loving us, as Joseph went on loving Jesus.
It seems to me that fatherhood is a tough call. To combine both strength and tenderness is not easy. To love one’s family, to be like Joseph a man of integrity and courage, is to give a wonderful example to others. More than that, it is to ensure the flourishing of those we are closest to, to give and sustain life. That is a great vocation. Today, let us pray for all fathers and the families they care for.
Just as the Fourth Sunday of Lent — Laetare or Mothering Sunday — has been assimilated to the more secular celebration of Mother’s Day, so I think we can make a case for considering today’s feast of St Joseph as Father’s Day.
Fatherhood often seems under siege nowadays, with a father’s role reduced to mere biological function which can be exercised impersonally. Those in favour of abortion never consider the rights of a father regarding his child, while the absence of fathers from the lives of their children has become so commonplace that few seem to think it unusual or troubling. St Joseph, the adoptive father of Jesus, is a powerful reminder of what fatherhood really means and the importance of a father’s role. It was he who taught Jesus how to be a man; who defied convention in order to protect Mary; who trusted God and was in turn found infinitely trustworthy. There is something strangely attractive about this quiet, self-effacing man about whom we know so little and yet, paradoxically, so much. What the gospels do not explicitly tell us we learn from Jesus himself, for he cannot have been other than his father had helped him become: hard-working, humorous, tender-hearted. That final act of Jesus’ life, his death on the cross, is shot through with the love and trust he had learned from Joseph. We can safely say Joseph not only taught his son how to live but also how to die.
Today we celebrate St Joseph as a model of purity and loving-kindness, protector of the Church, patron of the dying, of immigrants, workers, pilgrims and travellers but, above all, as a father. Let us ask his prayers for all fathers, living and dead; for those who find fatherhood difficult or have walked away from it; those who have been rejected or excised from the lives of their children; those whose fatherliness is expressed through love and care for others unrelated to them by ties of blood. Let us pray also for those whose experience of fatherhood has been negative. For the fact is, fatherhood, rather than being unimportant or inconsequential as many would like it to be, is of immense significance in the life of every one of us, no matter how young or old we may be.
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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.
Today we celebrate the feast of the carpenter, Joseph; tomorrow we begin tracing the course of events that led the carpenter’s Son to the cross. The smell of wood shavings, usually so sweet and comforting, is suddenly infused with menace and horror. There is a terrible irony in the fact that the boy taught to love and cherish wood is to die on a wooden cross, pierced with nails such as no carpenter would ever use. The boy learned from the man, and I have said before why I think St Joseph’s role in forming Jesus’ charcter was so important (see the blog posthere or do a search of the blog via the sidebar search-box for other posts on St Joseph).
We think of Joseph today as a man of unassuming holiness — obedient, faithful, true; a good father, quietly brave. Perhaps we should also think of him as a migrant, taking his family on the painful journey into Egypt, to live and work among an alien people. What did it cost him to remain a good Jew in such circumstances? How much hostility did he and the Holy Family have to endure? What did Jesus learn from that experience of exile, young as he was?
This week-end we are asked to pray especially for persecuted Christians in the Middle East. That can sometimes seem remote from our own experience in the comfortable West. It is not remote, however, from the experience of St Joseph, nor is it remote from the experience of Christ himself. As our thoughts turn towards Holy Week and we trace, step by step, the road to Calvary, let us not forget those who also travel that way, and more completely than we.
In previous years I have written about St Joseph in very personal terms — see here, for example, here or here, or do a search in the sidebar — but I have never found an image that seemed to reflect his strength and perhaps his weariness. This terracotta image from Tuscany, now in the Walters Art Museum, was probably part of a nativity scene in which Joseph sat a little apart from the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, to emphasize that he was not the biological father. I think it captures the essence of Joseph and his role and hints at what the fulfilment of that role cost him. Let us pray today for all fathers, that they too may be ready to fulfil their demanding role.
Bro Duncan PBGV
He had a relapse yesterday so spent another night in the animal hospital. He was finally allowed home in the evening, looking a little the worse for wear but still very much himself.
Most of us will have heard, at some time or other, uplifting little talks about the importance of dying to self in order to follow Christ. Today the Church celebrates someone who did just that, and so completely that he remains a somewhat shadowy figure: St Joseph, husband of Mary, adoptive father of Jesus, patron of the dying and pattern of unassuming holiness. In the Middle Ages he was often treated as a figure of fun, but from the seventeenth century onwards his greatness has been more generally recognized. Like his Old Testament namesake, Joseph was a man of dreams and singular purity of life whose mission was to hear and obey the word of God and to protect the family entrusted to his care. His kind of holiness is one we can all aspire to. It is the holiness of everyday life, of family and work, and lets us see being a ‘background person’ for what it truly is: a way of allowing Christ to take centre stage so that he may be all in all.
I think there is a close connection between Joseph’s role as a father and his role as patron of the dying. Fatherhood isn’t easy, nor is dying. Joseph had to lay aside all his own dreams of happiness when he accepted the role God had marked out for him. He taught Jesus how to be a man; how to conduct himself in the company of others; how to be tender towards women and children; how to stand up for what was right in the face of opposition; and ultimately, how to die. When Jesus hung upon the Cross and turned to his heavenly Father, it was with the honesty and trust he had learned from Joseph. He did not hide his pain, nor did he seek a way out. He surrendered his life as, many years earlier, Joseph had surrendered his, that the Father’s will might be done. We have much to thank Joseph for, and much to learn from him, too.
Celebrating the Solemnity of St Joseph the day after Mothering Sunday, as we do this year, seems very apt. Like his Old Testament prototype, Joseph is sea-green incorruptible, the wise steward who provides for his family, the father-figure who quietly and effectively ensures that Jesus and Mary are kept safe. He, too, is a man of dreams, but his dreams echo the voice of God and conscience, in obedience to which he is prepared to risk all his own hopes of happiness. There is something very great about this humble Jewish man, as there is something great about fatherhood.
Today, let us pray for all fathers, especially those who feel they don’t know how to be good fathers or who are scared of their responsibility. I suspect there were times when Joseph felt completely unequal to the task he had taken on, yet he was the man, above all others, from whom, consciously or unconsciously, Jesus took his own idea of what a man should be. Joseph’s greatness is the greatness of fatherhood lived generously. There is something we can all ponder in that.