Sunday, March 21, 2021

The "Fatherhood" of Saint Joseph

We have just celebrated Saint Joseph's Solemnity during this special year dedicated to him as "patron of the Universal Church." Christians who honor Joseph and rely on the help of his prayers know what a tremendous "father" he is to everyone (and to each one personally) in that great family which is the communion of the Church - the brothers and sisters of Jesus.

But sometimes we may wonder: "What was Joseph like during his earthly life?" 

We know very little from the New Testament about Saint Joseph’s life before or after the events of Jesus’s birth. The “infancy narratives” do give us impressions of what kind of person he must have been: a just man who loved God with his whole heart; an honorable, prayerful, practical, and persistent man; a man of deliberation and firm action who could nevertheless respond and adjust to changes in circumstances.

That description says quite a bit, yet it might also be classified as a gigantic understatement. We know Joseph's singular role - and the hardships and dangers he faced - in protecting and caring for Jesus and Mary in those first years (recounted in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2). We can be sure that he served them with devotion and sacrifice through all the days of his life (which lasted at least until Jesus's adolescence - as indicated by the temple story in Luke 2:41-52). Indeed, Joseph's life was centered on his unique vocation (and all the responsibilities he freely and lovingly embraced) of exercizing the role of human fatherhood toward God's only-begotten Son. Jesus was entrusted to Joseph in God's plan from the beginning, when He was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, who was already betrothed to Joseph.

It was from Joseph that Jesus was linked to the House of David in accordance with the Lord's promises. This was not simply a formality (much less a deception for the sake of appearances); rather it fulfilled the covenant with David in a super-eminent manner. This becomes clearer if we consider some implicit (but reasonably inferred) features of Joseph's "backstory" which corresponded to his decision to take the Virgin Mary as his wife. It seems clear that beneath the ordinary and unremarkable exterior of this man there was a profound interiority deeply nourished by the Lord. Matthew tells us (1:19) that Joseph was a "just man" by using the special term "saddiq," with is not merely a general uprightness but a holy fidelity on the level of the patriarchs and prophets. Given the unique role he was to carry out, it is not unreasonable to presume that he was remotely prepared by the Lord by many special graces.

In deciding to marry Mary, we have no reason to suppose that Joseph had no idea whatsoever of what he was getting into. In these Messianic times, with the Spirit specially at work in the midst of the people of Israel (see e.g. Luke 2:25-27), Joseph himself - led by the Spirit - may have already decided to share Mary's prophetic status of "lowly servanthood" (see Luke 1:38 and 1:48). The Scriptures do not tell us this, but a careful consideration of circumstances suggests that Joseph had already made the total, radical sacrifice of giving up (and freely offering to God) the earthly way of becoming a father: the means of biological generation by which humans materially and instrumentally "cooperate" with God's mysterious creative action of bringing new human persons into existence in space and time. Earthly fatherhood was a blessing for the people of Israel. Yet Joseph had chosen as his spouse that incomparable young woman who had questioned the angel regarding her future motherhood proclaimed at the Annunciation: "How can this be, since I do not know man?" (See Luke 1:34).

Though there are different ancient traditions about Saint Joseph, it is clear that Mary had given herself in total, radical "openness to God" from the beginning. Mary had chosen virginity, not out of any disdain for human sexuality, but as a more radical and utterly humble way of placing herself entirely at the disposition of God's will (and, of course, as a response to a special vocation of which she was already certain). Joseph's betrothal to her indicated his readiness to join her in this sacrifice and commitment.

This kind of marriage was (and is) entirely extraordinary, as much in the time of the Church as it was in the time of Israel. In the New Covenant, Christ consecrates through the sacrament of marriage the mutually self-giving and fruitful bodily union between spouses. Sexual relations within the lifelong covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, in mutual love and openness to procreation, are a blessed and holy means of living in Christ and participating in God's providence in the unfolding of history. The vocation to virginity is to a different form of sacrificial life "for the Kingdom of God," usually linked to other forms of community that entail the related sacrifices of obedience and poverty.

Under the Old Covenant, such commitments were not regularly taken up. It seems that among certain groups in Israel near the time of Jesus (e.g. the Essenes) some people practiced celibacy in expectation of the coming of the Messiah. If there was a wider scope to such a practice, however, it was known only to the Lord and the hearts of God's poor who drew no attention to themselves. Perhaps some such vocations were quietly undertaken, prompted by the Spirit's special graces.

The Virgin Mary was always determined to follow this unusual path. Otherwise, she would not have asked the angel how she could possibly become a mother. After all, she was in the midst of the ritual process of marrying Joseph, and she knew that ordinarily marriage was ordained to the blessing of children. If by saying "I do not know man" Mary had meant simply, "I haven't had sexual relations with a man yet" (with the presumption, of course, being that she would "know" Joseph very soon), then her question would have been a most strange response to the angelic news that she would bear a son. That was usually the hope of a woman who was getting married.

What we are invited to consider here is that Joseph embraced a similar special vocation to "virginity" (or celibacy) so as to "wait upon the Lord," and already had this in common with Mary. Mary was greater, as her being the "All Holy" (Panagia), the "Immaculate" never touched by any sin (not even original sin) was qualitatively greater than Joseph being the "just one" - saddiq (even though the latter term indicates that Joseph was virtually peerless among men in his devotion and uprightness). Perhaps Joseph had taken Mary as his betrothed so as to help provide for her and protect her commitment to God. Certainly, he loved her deeply and personally. What an immense love it must have been!

I like to think that they knew one another's hearts, and - assuming that Joseph was also young - that they prepared with youthful enthusiasm for the great adventure of following the love of God together as husband and wife, but with the physical sexual aspect of the marriage bond sacrificed and entirely abandoned to God, because they knew that God was calling them to make that vital "space" of their lives into something mysteriously greater and immeasurably more fruitful than anything they could aspire to. Somehow the Lord made it known to them that this was His will, in a way that was entirely convincing and strengthening to them. Perhaps they were the only ones who knew this "secret."

They would have had a hard time explaining it to anyone else. They were simple, humble people. Joseph was a tekton - a "builder," an artisan, perhaps doing more than the woodwork that we associate with a carpenter today. In any case, he had a trade, which brought a modest living in the village of Nazareth in Galilee. This northern region had been resettled by Judaeans from the South after its reconquest by the Maccabean kings of Judah, so there is no surprise in Joseph's having Bethlehem as his ancestral village or in the fact that family members still lived in that area. 

There was certainly plenty of family in Nazareth: we hear about the "brothers" of Jesus, who were children of another "Mary" -- a "sister" who appears to have been "the wife of Cleopas," who may have been Joseph's older brother. If Cleopas had died, Joseph would have taken his widow and children under his care and they would have been part of the household with Jesus and Mary. Then, no doubt, there were other cousins, aunts and uncles, and neighbors in and out of dwellings that were built close together and/or on top of one another. There were joys and tragedies, sicknesses, celebrations, and lots of hard work to be done in Nazareth.

Mary and Joseph could have lived their secret-openness-to-God in the midst of these busy and humble surroundings. The Incarnation was, of course, the real surprise. Joseph's own ensuing struggle (see Matthew 1:18-25) may not have been known to anyone else at the time. As I have written about elsewhere (see HERE), I rather think that Joseph's "doubts" were not about Mary, but about himself. Mary's conception was an exponentially new stage in God's plan, and Joseph no longer saw a role for himself in Mary's vocation. He thought he would "release her" from the betrothal so that God could choose a more "fitting" environment and household for His Son to dwell. But then the angel came to Joseph to remind him that he was "Joseph, son of David." 

Though Mary was indeed the true mother of Jesus in every sense, Joseph's role was not simply abstract or empty of human relational significance. Clearly his "adoption" of Jesus, his "fatherhood" in the Holy Family, was full of immense self-giving, affection, and tender love. It also fulfilled a key role in the history of salvation. Though not His "biological father," Joseph established the place of Jesus in David's heritage, in a way which was consistent with the mysterious and miraculous origin of the Messiah (from a "virgin") that was already expected according to the full sense of the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14. Matthew emphasizes this point in chapter 1 of his Gospel (see especially vv 22-23), and its importance was understood by the first Jewish Christian converts. This is the whole point of Matthew's genealogy from Abraham through David to Joseph "the husband of Mary" (see Matthew 1:1-17). Its entire significance, no doubt, has depths beyond our knowledge. But the angel indicated in his dream-vision (Matthew 1:20-21) that Joseph was the one who was called to give Jesus His "name," welcome Him with a father's love, and establish the legitimacy - publically, historically, "officially" - of Jesus's lineage as heir to God's covenant with David.

The task being made clear, Joseph took it upon himself wholeheartedly. His prompt, direct, and courageous actions during the infancy of Jesus speak for themselves. The rest of his life was no doubt full of similar actions - acts of love - carried out day by day under far more "ordinary circumstances."

It is not surprising that he is such a good father to all of us, and to the whole Church.


* I hope to continue reflecting and writing about Saint Joseph during this special year dedicated to him. *