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.