In our consumerist age, a child can be seen as something we select, and the conception of a child can be something we purchase. One company that sells conception, so to speak, is called ‘Man Not Included’. Now how exactly is a man not included? The products that are sold have been bought from male donors. Some man is necessary for the child’s conception. The implication then is that the man is not included in the upbringing of the child. This does reinforce the generalisation that the mother-child bond is unique and possesses a degree of exclusivity. The man, the husband and father, remains the perpetual outsider, and he can only reproach his wife for paying attention to the child at his expense, and he can only accuse the child ‘of always taking your mother’s side’.
It seems that St Joseph’s position was similar. And to compound it, he was not responsible for Jesus’s conception. Joseph truly is a ‘man not included’. This particular mother-child bond is especially strong, and there is a deep understanding between them. Joseph is not only an outsider, but on a much lower rung. Living with two people without original sin, if anything went wrong, the presumption surely must be that it was Joseph’s fault! This downgrading of St Joseph has affected Christian art. Mary’s perpetual virginity seems to require a similar sacrifice on Joseph’s part, and he is portrayed as an elderly widower, one whose virile powers have more or less fizzled out, a more credible partner for the Ever-Virgin Mother of God. But Joseph is more likely to have been a young man, and he is not one forced into continent chastity, but someone who is also invited by God to share in the great mystery of the Incarnation. Joseph truly is, as the Liturgy hails him, Mary’s ‘spouse most chaste’.
Because Joseph is not responsible for Jesus’s conception, there is a problem with what to call him. We could call him Jesus’s ‘foster father’, but every good father nurtures and nourishes his children. We might call him Jesus’s ‘adoptive father’, but Jesus is Joseph’s child, and you do not adopt your own children. He may be called Jesus’s ‘putative father’, but then he is what people suppose him to be, the father of Jesus. And then there is the modern term ‘non-biological father’, and although this comes close in terms of accuracy, the essence of fatherhood is surely more than just mere biology.
Although Joseph seems alienated from his family, and his fatherhood difficult to describe, the scriptural portrait of St Joseph is quite different. Joseph is ‘a just man’ who fears God, and is prompt and obedient in fulfilling what God asks of him. Joseph does everything well, and cares for and protects ‘the child and his mother’. It is Joseph who has to give Jesus his name, and it is through Joseph that Jesus inherits his lineage from David and membership of that clan. In his teachings and parables, there are hints of Jesus’s experience of Joseph’s fatherhood. When Jesus asks, ‘What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?’ (Luke 11.11-2), he surely has the kindness of his human father in mind as he tries to illustrate the goodness of his heavenly Father. Jesus notes the closeness of the father-son bond, for only the demands of the Kingdom could come in between and turn ‘father against son, and son against father’ (Luke 12.53). And above all, the name Jesus has for designating his heavenly Father, ‘Abba’, is the very name he would have used in addressing Joseph. And yet, the Abba, his heavenly Father, is the one—as Scripture says—‘from whom every fatherhood in heaven and on earth takes its name’ (Ephesians 3.15). So Joseph’s fatherhood is a finite, human reflection of God’s eternal fatherhood, and yet for the child Jesus, the human fatherhood he comes to know and cherish becomes an appropriate and fitting analogy for the heavenly Father’s love for the eternal Son. For this to be true, Joseph must have been a very good father, indeed the best of fathers.
With such a father, it is not surprising that Jesus follows in Joseph’s footsteps. He is called a carpenter (Mark 6.3), the son of a carpenter (Matthew 13.55). Like the good son of a good father, he follows in his father’s trade. This is true also of Jesus’s heavenly Father. He says, ‘My Father is working still, and I am working’ (John 5.17). The trade Jesus receives is given to him by the Father: ‘for the works which the Father has granted me to accomplish, these very works which I am doing, bear me witness that the Father has sent me’ (John 5.36). So in working as a carpenter, Jesus shows that Joseph is his human father. And by preaching the Kingdom and working signs, Jesus shows that he has indeed been sent by the Father in heaven.
In today’s gospel, when Mary and Joseph find Jesus, Mary throws a veil over Jesus’s parentage. She says, ‘Your father and I have been looking for you’ (Luke 2.48). It is not for anyone else but Jesus to reveal his heavenly paternity, and so Mary calls Joseph his father. And here, Jesus gives the first hint that he will reveal the heavenly Father. ‘Did you not know that I must be busy with the things of my Father?’ (Luke 2.49). His heavenly Father’s trade will occupy him eventually, but for now he will learn Joseph’s trade and be obedient to his parents.
There is, on the whole, a bad deal for fatherhood. It is seen as an optional extra, or as an ideal that fails so abysmally in reality. Fatherhood is an instantiation of the so-called ‘oppressive patriarchal system’. But what is wrong with patriarchs? One can love patriarchs just as much as matriarchs. There is nothing intrinsically evil about fatherhood. But many people have a bad experience of fathers, experiences of absence, betrayal, neglect and abuse, here where they should have found security, love and gentleness. It is here that St Joseph still has a role to play. Through his intercession and protection, those who are still hurting can find the hope of healing and peace. Through the good fatherhood of Joseph, we can come to understand the Fatherhood of God, when we, made sons and daughters in the image of Christ, can come in the Spirit to repose in the bosom of the Father, and there at last find perfect wholeness, perfect bliss.