Saint Joseph and the Measure of Fatherhood
This year, the Church celebrates the 3rd Sunday of Lent on March 19th, the day normally designated for the celebration of St. Joseph. As a result, St. Joseph’s feast day is moved to Monday the 20th. I’ll break with tradition myself a bit and use the readings for St. Joseph’s Day (rather than Sunday) to guide our reflection.
We traditionally call Joseph the foster father, or adoptive father, of Jesus. His role in Jesus’ young life is not detailed in Scripture. We get a glimpse of him protecting Mary and the young Jesus from King Herod’s jealous and murderous wrath (Matt. 2:13-15). We see him with Mary and the 12-year-old Jesus observing the traditions of their Jewish faith at the Temple. We learn about his anxiety and then relief and confusion when Jesus went missing there:
“After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.’ And he said to them, ‘Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he said to them. He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.”
We know Joseph was a carpenter, and we imagine him teaching the trade to Jesus. Then, we assume, he died before the events of the Passion, since from the Cross Jesus entrusted Mary to John’s care (John 19:26). What remains mostly hidden, though, is essential: the important role of fathers in the everyday life of their children.
What kind of father do you have or did you have? Maybe your father was absent: was there another person who filled that role? Have you filled that role for someone else? What kind of father have you tried to be? What kind of father are you married to? Reflecting on Joseph today gives us an opportunity to think about the important role of fathers in our lives. I remember leading a retreat for imprisoned young men in New York. At one point, we had them draw their image of God. We pray “Our Father,” but for these teenagers, their image of God was, overwhelmingly, their mother. Their own fathers had hurt them deeply in various ways, including simply being absent; but their mothers had never given up on them. Their mothers represented unconditional love and forgiveness without measure. In one sense, it is beautiful that they were able to see a feminine image of God. On the other hand, it is tragic that they had no male figure like St. Joseph to represent God the Father to them.
Fathers matter. Their attention, interest, and care; their affection, encouragement, and role modeling; their unselfish sacrifices for their children’s well-being—these are of immense value in shaping a young life into a healthy, happy, responsible, and moral adulthood. In my work with youth and families, one of the most common wounds that people have shared with me regards being abandoned, neglected, belittled, abused, or otherwise unloved by one’s father. One teen told me years ago that his dad had a nickname for him: BFM. It stood for Big Fu#&n Mistake. Imagine the wound that caused! Terrible! A good friend once told me that every child needs to hear what Jesus heard from his Father in heaven: “This is my beloved son (or daughter) in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17).
“Joseph… was a righteous man.” He was a faithful spouse to Mary and a good father on earth to Jesus. Though he was the only sinner in the Holy Family, he was the head of the household, and even Jesus was obedient to him and learned from him. This is the miracle of the Incarnation! In assuming human flesh, the Second Person of the Trinity entered a human family and was dependent upon His mother and father. I spoke in this blog of the importance of mothers before, but today, I ask us all to reflect on the importance of good fathers of all sorts. Are there ways we can help support fathers in their hard work, and pray for and assist those in tough situations? Can we make room in our prayer for those hurt by their fathers, for healing and the grace to not allow the violence to cycle into another generation? And maybe we could be alert to times when God may be asking us, like he did to Joseph, to be a father to someone else’s child.
Thank you to all the fathers out there, including my own, who have placed their families first and have played a caring role in the raising of their kids, especially in the handing on of the faith. It is always so good to see fathers involved in the religious education of their kids. Like Saint Joseph, you really make a big difference!
Editorial credit: Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock.com for the St. Joseph painting.