The present challenges to fatherhood and masculinity cannot be understood in isolation from the culture in which we live. A recent study has found that over four in 10 babies are born to unwed mothers – a sad new record for our day. How many of these children will grow up without a loving father in their life? If there was ever a time when we needed a strong, saintly, fatherly role model, it is now.
St. Joseph is not the biological father of Jesus, whose Father is God alone, and yet he lives his fatherhood fully and completely. He is often overshadowed by the glory of Christ and the purity of Mary. But he, too, waited for God to speak to him and then responded with obedience. Luke and Matthew both mark Joseph’s descent from David, the greatest king of Israel. Scripture has left us with the most important knowledge about him: he was “a righteous man” a “just man” (Matthew 1:18).
Joseph was a compassionate, caring man. Learning that Mary, to whom he was betrothed, was pregnant, and knowing that the child was not his, he planned to divorce her according to the law. As yet he was unaware that she was carrying the Son of God. Joseph, a man of deep kindness, and concerned for her suffering and safety, wanted to keep the divorce as quiet as possible.
Joseph was also a man of faith, obedient to whatever God asked of him regardless of the outcome. When the angel came to Joseph in a dream and told him the truth about the Child that Mary was carrying, Joseph instantly and without question—and without concern for gossip–took her as his wife. Later, when the angel came again to tell him that his family was in danger, he immediately left everything—family, friends, possessions– and fled to a strange country with his wife and the Child. He waited in Egypt until the angel told him it was safe to go back.
We are told that Joseph was a carpenter, (more likely a builder), a man who worked to provide for his family. Joseph wasn’t a wealthy man, for when he took Jesus to the Temple to be circumcised and Mary to be purified he offered the sacrifice of two turtledoves or a pair of pigeons, allowed only for those who could not afford a lamb.
Joseph revealed in his humanity the unique role of fathers to proclaim God’s truth by word and deed. His paradoxical situation of “foster father to Jesus” draws attention to the truth about fatherhood, which is much more than a mere fact of biological generation. A man is a father most when he invests himself in the spiritual and moral formation of his children. Joseph was keenly aware, as every father should be, that he served as the representative of God the Father.
The Gospel, as we know, has not kept any word from Joseph, who carries out his activity in silence. It is the style that characterizes his whole existence, both before finding himself before the mystery of God’s action in his spouse, as well as when — conscious of this mystery — he is with Mary in the Nativity. On that holy night, in Bethlehem, with Mary and the Child, is Joseph, to whom the Heavenly Father entrusted the daily care of his Son on earth, a care carried out with humility and in silence.
Joseph protected and provided for Jesus and Mary. He named Jesus, taught him how to pray, how to work, how to be a man. While no words or texts are attributed to him, we can be sure that Joseph pronounced two of the most important words that could ever be spoken when he named his son “Jesus” and called him “Emmanuel.” When the child stayed behind in the Temple we are told Joseph (along with Mary) searched frantically with great anxiety for three days for him (Luke 2:48).
As Pope Benedict has taught us:
“What is important is not to be a useless servant, but rather a “faithful and wise servant”. The pairing of the two adjectives is not by chance. It suggests that understanding without fidelity, and fidelity without wisdom, are insufficient. One quality alone, without the other, would not enable us to assume fully the responsibility which God entrusts to us.”
What great words for St. Joseph, because in Joseph, faith is not separated from action. His faith had a decisive effect on his actions. Paradoxically, it was by acting, by carrying out his responsibilities, that he stepped aside and left God free to act, placing no obstacles in his way. Joseph is a “just man” (Mt 1:19) because his existence is “adjusted” to the word of God.
Joseph, the “foster-father” of the Lord reveals that fatherhood is more than a mere fact of biological generation. A man is a father most when he invests himself in the spiritual and moral formation of his children. Real fathers and real men are those who communicate paternal strength and compassion. They are men of reason in the midst of conflicting passions; men of conviction who always remain open to genuine dialogue about differences; men who ask nothing of others that they wouldn’t risk or suffer themselves. Joseph is a chaste, faithful, hardworking, simple and just man. He reminds us that a family, a home, a community, and a parish are not built on power and possessions but goodness; not on riches and wealth, but on faith, fidelity, purity and mutual love.
Blessed John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation of 1989, Redemptoris Custos (Guardian of the Redeemer), teaches us that Joseph’s “fatherhood is expressed concretely in ‘his having made his life a service…a total gift of self.” God entrusted a very precious gift to Joseph when He called him to be the guardian of Jesus.
Let us ask God to give us the same “obedience of faith” that Joseph showed throughout his lifetime. May St. Joseph strengthen us and help us to imitate the humble worker from Nazareth who listened to the Lord, safeguarded the gift that had been entrusted to him, and made a place for the Word of God to grow and live among us.