Surprising, perhaps even to Catholics, was an eight-page feature article, in TIME magazine’s 19 December 2005 issue, on “Joseph, the husband of Mary and the ‘adoptive’ father of Jesus.” It was richly illustrated (again to our surprise) with some of the many paintings where St Joseph appears, artwork from the history of western art. The article refers to a book on the saint, published by a Presbyterian minister, Howard Edington, after the tragic death of his young – 22 year-old, greatly-beloved — son. The book bore the title, “The Forgotten Man of Christmas: Joseph’s Story”, and carried the theme “Father and child,” – a father’s love for his son: Joseph as the loving foster-father of Jesus.
TIME-writer David van Biema’s article ends with this paragraph: “Edington’s book ends with a meditation on the power of love to ennoble the lover, especially if the beloved is God – a model of Joseph as believer that would surely pass muster in almost any Christian church. ‘Joseph took God’s son into his home in Nazareth, thus providing Jesus with a normal, loving family environment in which to grow,’ Edington writes. ‘Joseph took God’s son into his heart, thus discovering a purpose for his own life within the greater purposes of God’. Then he addresses his readers: ‘My prayer is that you will do the same’.”(1)
So St Joseph had surprisingly come into contemporary USA- American life and culture as an icon of ‘father-love’.He has become part [TIME puts it this way:]of the ‘bond of faith – and other things – between a father and son not related by blood’. [If I may, I recall here a line from another book, “As a father, Joseph loved the Son who did not have his eyes – the Son of a Stranger.”Again, the same theme.]
But we can and should take St Joseph and the Joseph-icon into a more total framework: the often unremarked, uncelebrated bond between fathers and sons.
The gospel narratives tell us very little about the “subjective side, the emotional impacts or responses,” of the people involved in them. About Mary, who occupies much fuller narrative space in (e.g., Luke), we are told little more than that often enough “she did not understand, that she kept these things and pondered over them in her heart.” About Joseph, who in the gospels is seen much less and heard from not at all, we must guess, we must infer what went through his mind and heart, what his feelings were.
There is a passage in one of Fr. Joseph Kavanaugh’s homilies in Advent which says: ”I’ve wondered now and then whether Joseph ever had negative thoughts [when the angel appeared and told him about Isaiah’s ‘virgin with child.] Is it possible that he experienced a tiny twinge of jealousy about the Holy Spirit? This may seem preposterous to say, but at times Joseph may have wondered whether it was a dream he had or a nightmare. . . . I wonder if Joseph ever felt that he was in some way robbed.”
No, we can only guess; we will not ever know, until (we hope) hecan tell us just how he felt. Until then, again, we must guess, we must infer. But I believe we can all agree about the inference: that even as he loved Mary greatly, with an extraordinary love, he grew to love Mary’s boy, this “Son of a Stranger” with a true father’s love. That as every good human father does, — and the gospels leave no doubt about Joseph’s goodness! — he grew in his heart’s affection and pride for the Child in his house, as that Boy “grew in age and grace before God and man.” Surely Mary told him of the angel’s message about this Boy, and what his mission and tasks for God would be, about the wonder and the glory in the future awaiting him. But what mattered more to him was just what Jesus was for them in the house: this Boy whom he, Joseph, took to his heart from the moment at Bethlehem when he first held him in his arms.
I find it hard to resist citing here some lines from the Nativity scene in Fr. (USA priest-poet) John Lynch’s book, A Woman wrapped in silence, so much read and loved years ago:
She knelt and held Him close against her heart,
And in the midnight, adoration fused
With human love, and was not separate.
And very near, the man named Joseph came.
He was not tired now, nor worn, nor sad,
His step was gentle, and a lightness soared
Within him till the memory of angel
Voices heard in dreams was now a less
Remembrance for him than the sight of hands
That held a sleeping child.
He was the first
To find her thus, the first of all the world.
And when her faint smile called for him to take
Him for a breathless moment, he was first
To know there is no other blessedness.
Many of you who read this will have heard the striking song with lyrics (1985) by Thomas Troeger, “The Hands That First Held Mary’s Child,” with its verses which say:
The hands that first held Mary’s child
Were hard from working wood.
From boards they sawed and nailed and filed
And splinters they withstood.
This day they gripped no tool of steel
They drove no iron nail
But cradled from head to heel
Our Lord, newborn and frail.
[And the song’s refrain runs thus:]
This Child shall be Emmanuel
Not God upon the Throne
But God-with-us. Emmanuel
As close as bloodand bone. (2)
Through all the days and months and years which were to come, surely Joseph was in every human manner and dimension Jesus’ father, and surely the bond which grew between him and this Son was truer and stronger by the day. How does a father’s love shape the mind and heart of the son, how are “lessons”, some of them difficult and pain-laden, passed with “hard love” from father to son?
Side by side with the carpenter’s teaching “how to avoid the knots in the wood, how to cut it along the grain, and how to make sure it is already quite dry so it will not unexpectedly split,” . . . how does the father transmit, without needless words, the greater and deeper lessons? How do truth and temperance, fortitude and friendship, patience and passion, authority and justiceget into the developingspirit through doing rather than saying? How is a parent’s love both hard love and tender love, and all the way true? Fathers (and mothers) who now read these lines can fill them out from their own experience and parenting; they can write out the paragraphs they have lived out in their own lives.
When we think of Joseph “the just man”, we must remember that he was the genuinely loving husband to Mary and genuinely in every way human father to Jesus; that there were chapters and chapters of day-to-day existence together, — over and beyond the few precious lines the gospels give us about Bethlehem and Egypt and the long years in Nazareth. Joseph was truly part of them all. He is not just “the forgotten man of Christmas”, but the forgotten man of so many years after Christmas; the forgotten man of the years before Jesus began his own mission for the Father; the years before Calvary and its wood and its nails hammered by other hands than those of the carpenter who first taught the Boy about the tests and travails of a man’s world.
When we worship at the manger of Bethlehem, we must not forget the man in the shadows beside the Virgin Mother: Joseph to whom God the Father entrusted his one Son and the Boy’s mother, especially when they most needed him. We are not to forget that Joseph was truly part of the earlier years of Jesus. And that truly, even now, he lives. He lives, and to him again so much has been entrusted by the Church.Joseph is “officially” the patron and protector of the Church herself and patron of the Christian home; patron of working people and their labors; of Christian vocations, specially to the priesthood; patron of travels and journeys, and at the end of life, in a most significant way, patron of happy and holy dying.
Devotion to St Joseph grew in the Church (so historians tell us) only in the second millennium. But the saint has had outstanding devotees: St Teresa of Avila named several of her Carmelite convents after him. She greatly revered him, because she said she never asked him for help, without receiving it. And the newly-canonized saint, “Brother Andre” CSC of Montreal, incessantly promoted devotion to St Joseph and taught people to turn to him for physical and spiritual healing – with many miracles included – and countless other blessings.
The Jesuit Order had a marked devotion to St Joseph during its earlier years and, it would seem, above all in the years which followed its restoration ( cf. Fr Peter Beckx,1853+). It seems also too that in the 19th century, the custom had developed that every Jesuit community placed an image of St Joseph near the entrance to its residence, to invoke his protection, to foster vocations to the Order and to implore the grace of perseverance unto death in the Jesuit vocation. On 21 April 1907, with the backing of the Order’s 25th General Congregation (1906) and of the General, Fr Francis X. Wernz (1906-1914), Jesuit communities all over the world solemnly consecrated themselves to St Joseph as their special patron. Fr General Wladimir Ledochowski (1914-1942) had Pope Pius XI give a special indulgence to a prayer addressed to St Joseph, to be recited by all Jesuits, asking for faithful living of the Jesuit life until death. As a young Jesuit, I remember reciting it from our “book of devotions”.(Read also the appendix to this article.) (3)
May this Christmas renew in our minds and hearts our understanding of and our love for this “forgotten man” of the gospels. This “forgotten man” whose hands “first held Mary’s Child,”has been “rediscovered” by some (even in the secular world!) who — at a time when so many human lives wander “on rudderless journeys” — seek some true models to live by. At a time when “the meaning of fatherhood, and even of manhood” has been so largely lost, St Joseph has emerged from the shadows as icon of what being a father means, what being a man truly means.
By C. G. Arevalo, SJ, Loyola House of Studies, 2010