Being a dad is heroic stuff. It demands strength, hard work, a quick wit, a compassionate heart, and an unwavering commitment to the health and well-being of this cute little stranger that has captured your heart. Being a dad is usually intentional. Being an adoptive dad is intentionality on steroids. If all men look to St. Joseph as a guide, companion, and mentor, we will have a more just, prosperous, and peaceful world.
While I am writing this reflection for all dads, I want to address young dads or men who are thinking about being dads. My hope is that St. Joseph will awaken in you a clear-eyed grasp of the “fiat” or “yes” of fatherhood.
Let me share where I am coming from. I am an adoptive dad with three sons; the oldest is married with three kids of his own, the middle son is headed to college, and the youngest will be a high school junior in the fall. A life-long Catholic, my professional life is in the Church: campus ministry, priestly formation, and mission. Barb and I, married 23 years, wrote a book a few years ago – Rise, Take the Child – Reflections on the Vocation of Adoption.
Joseph was an “in the background” saint to me until I became an adoptive dad. In my office, I have an icon of the Holy Family. Our oldest was baptized on the Feast of the Holy Family. In that icon, Joseph is holding Mary (on his right) and Jesus (on his left). He is holding Mary, who is holding Jesus, and he completes the “embrace” of Jesus. Who is this “third person” in the Holy Family?
I wanted to encounter Joseph the man. I examined my assumptions. I thought of Joseph as an old man even though biblical evidence suggests he was a strong man, capable of protecting his family, leading them into exile in Egypt and back home, and establishing himself as a successful carpenter.
There is nothing “romantic” about Joseph if Shakespeare’s Romeo is our model of a man in love. I find Joseph, in Franco Zeffirelli’s film Jesus of Nazareth, is authentically conflicted; balancing the longing for the completion of marriage, his desire for Mary, the promise of family, the hurt and anger he feels when he learns Mary is pregnant, and his deep desire to do good and avoid evil.
Finally, contrary to Joseph’s Song, which I like in many ways, Joseph was not a “simple” carpenter. In the time of Jesus, and even in our time, a carpenter is much more than a laborer. Carpenters were craftsmen – highly skilled and “essential” for society. Some, perhaps even Joseph, were artists.
When we pray with Saint Joseph, we need to see him first as a man with his own story, network of relationships, aspirations, work, skill, and deep, abiding faith. This is Joseph, Mary’s tender and loving betrothed, a fierce and decisive protector, a skilled and dedicated provider, and a humble and faithful father who raises Jesus, with Mary, into manhood in first century Galilee.
We know the most about Joseph from the Gospel of St. Matthew, which records his four dreams. In his first dream, Joseph “wrestles” with what the law of his faith teaches and what his heart says. Fatherhood is born out of love of a woman. Heterosexual men “long for” the completion a woman provides. This sexual longing (eros) finds its perfection in self-sacrificing love (agape). Joseph does not ignore Mary’s pregnancy – he embraces it as an act of faith and love. He sets aside his fears, welcomes her into his home as his wife, and witnesses God’s saving act unfolding in and through her.
His second dream compels Joseph to protect the Mary and the infant Jesus from Herod. Mary, in Luke’s Gospel, “makes haste” to visit her cousin, Elizabeth. Joseph, in St. Matthew’s Gospel, “makes haste” at night into an unknown exile to Egypt, away from the threat of Herod. I am sure there were other dangers on the way to Egypt and challenges in finding work and establishing a home there.
There is far less drama in the third dream. Joseph was able to hire himself out as a skilled craftsman and establish a home in Egypt. And yet, he is called by God to help write the great “theo-drama” of salvation so that Jesus, his adoptive son, can fulfill his destiny as God’s “only begotten Son” who is “called out of Egypt.” In some ways, this is Joseph’s “fiat,” his “yes” to God. Through his actions, Joseph accepts the responsibility of raising Jesus as a Jewish man among his people.
The fourth dream, on the road home, points to Joseph as provider – choosing a place where Mary and Jesus would be safe, where Jesus could grow “in wisdom and age,” and he could provide for them through the work of his hands. St. Luke’s Gospel points to the peace and tranquility of this domestic time (sometimes referred to as the “hidden life”) for Joseph when he tells the story of Mary and Joseph finding Jesus in the Temple. Imagine the frantic search for Jesus followed by Joseph seeing and hearing his son teaching the elders of Israel in the Temple, the most sacred place on earth. Imagine the rush of emotions – the relief, the wonder, the astonishment.
As I prayed with this passage, I was reminded of my experience of my own son playing basketball. He was about ten or eleven years old, he was fouled, and he cautiously approached the free-throw line. He took command of the ball, set his body, and did a perfect shot. Nothing but net. It took my breath away. Others too. We just did not expect “perfection” from someone so young. Was that what Joseph felt when he heard Jesus teaching the elders of Israel in the Temple?
In many ways, every father is called to be an “adoptive” father in the sense that they, too, must be intentional, like Joseph, in how they love their children. First, love your wife and partner with her to be a family. Protect her and your children from all that is evil with your strength, perseverance, and decisiveness. Provide for your family through your labor, your craftsmanship, your artistry. And raise your children to adulthood through the witness of your life, integrity, and faith.
Pope Francis declared 2021 the Year of St. Joseph, and he wrote a wonderful apostolic letter, Patris Corde (With a Father’s Heart), that provides further insights into this ordinary hero, this extraordinary “every man,” who raised to manhood the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
Click here to read more about St. Joseph in this post written by Barbara and Don McCrabb.
Adoption RevisitedRead Now
When was the last time you thought about St. Joseph? For many, he is a shadowy figure. And yet, he is recognized as the "protector" of the Church. His feast day is March 19th.
What's your image of Joseph? Is he young or old? Is he working or sleeping? Is he rich or poor? Is he strong or weak? We invite you to clear away all those images in order to see him for the first time. Let's meet Joseph as he is presented to us in the Gospel of Matthew at the birth of Jesus.
Of course, the best thing to do is to pray with Matthew 1:18-25. Here’s the abbreviated version: Mary and Joseph are engaged. She is expecting. He intends to divorce her quietly but learns, in a dream, that she is carrying a son who will "save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). Joseph is told to accept Mary as his wife and name the child Jesus.
In this passage, we see four qualities in Joseph—compassion, righteousness, fidelity, and decisiveness—that make him a saintly man and a role model for us today.
Imagine how Joseph felt about Mary's pregnancy. The marriage customs of his day were much different than ours. Were they "in love" or was the engagement arranged? Perhaps Joseph felt more hurt than angry—or perhaps disappointed, given Mary's natural innocence. In any case, he responded with compassion;
He did, however, want to do what is right. While he never says a word in the Gospel narrative, Joseph's actions continually say "yes" to God's will. He takes Mary into his home as his wife. He honors Mary's special relationship with God by not having "relations with her until she bore a son" (Matthew 1:25). He claims Jesus as his son by naming him.
Joseph lived a quiet fidelity expressed in action rather than words. A kind-hearted man who accepted the mystery of salvation entrusted to him, Joseph adopted Jesus and raised him as his own. He protected him, taught him, and loved him. In the Gospels, Jesus is known as "the carpenter's son."
Joseph's love for Mary and Jesus sharpened his awareness of the forces around them. When Herod threatened the life of Jesus, Joseph leapt into action, leaving that night for Egypt. When the threat was gone, he brings Jesus back to his people. When he realized some threat remained, he settled in Nazareth, thus fulfilling a prophecy. His actions were always for the good of Jesus and Mary, and ultimately a part of God's plan for salvation.
As we get closer to Joseph, we meet a kind-hearted man, walking humbly with his God, as he accepts, protects, and raises Jesus so that Jesus can "save his people from their sins." St. Joseph can shed considerable light on what it means to be a missionary disciple in an increasingly secular age—with implications for the economy, family, and mission. He plays a quiet, but essential, role in salvation history.
Perhaps we, too, have a quiet role to play in salvation history. Perhaps Jesus is relying on us just as he relied on Joseph. Compassion, righteousness, fidelity, and decisiveness can help us live out our role just as they served Joseph.
What does the word adoption mean to you?
Joseph's vocation began with a dream—a message from God. He is commanded to "rise, take the child" as his own. When we engage the world, do we possess it or does the world possess us? Do we adopt friends, jobs, things—even children, seeing them through the eyes of God?
Adoption is a way of being in the world. We are adopted children of the Father in Christ Jesus. We are claimed by God and so we, too, can claim others and make them our own - being possessed in the best sense of the word.
Joseph adopted—Jesus, Mary, and his life as a carpenter in fidelity to God who, with and through Jesus, was saving the world.
St. Joseph, pray for us.