For many men today, fatherhood is a tenuous, provisional state—something that can be annihilated by a woman’s decision to abort her child, or compartmentalized by a marital breakup. Even a man who voluntarily seeks in divorce an illusory freedom or a second chance may wince at the price such “happiness” exacts, both in the pain of a circumscribed role in his children’s lives and in the uneasy shame of shirking such an elemental responsibility. And for those who never sought such a separation, the reality of a bifurcated family must be heartrending.
Recently, my thoughts about new and old families, absent fathers, stepfathers, joint custody, paternal custody, surrogate parenthood and the like coalesced around the figure of St. Joseph. I am struck by the scene of the presentation of the Infant Jesus in the Temple. Mary and Joseph bring their first-born son; they offer, as the Law requires them to, the poor man’s sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons; and are approached by Anna and Simeon, two aged and pious Jews whom God has partially enlightened as to the significance of this child. Simeon prophecies that the child will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel” (Luke 2:32).
“The child’s mother and father were amazed,” Luke tells us, but then Simeon addresses these words to Mary alone: “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.”
A sword will pierce Mary’s heart. Why not Joseph’s? Mustn’t he have wondered why, and perhaps, like his wife, pondered these things in his heart through the years of Jesus’ childhood, until he apprehended the truth—that he would not be there when the time of suffering came?
He was Mary’s husband, Jesus’ utterly devoted foster father. He would be the boy’s earthly teacher and, as we moderns would put it, his role model. He would provide for his family dependably, perhaps at times anxiously, for many years. But he would not be permitted to witness and share the great agony of his foster-son and Lord. He would not be able to comfort and support his wife when the sword pierced her heart. He would never be memorialized in a Station of the Cross, never embrace his grown-up son on the via dolorosa. From the cross Jesus would entrust his mother not to the care of the long-dead Joseph, but to his youngest apostle, John.
Like any father, biological or adoptive, Joseph must have deeply yearned to be with those entrusted to his care in their time of deepest pain. We don’t know exactly when he died, but it was apparently well before Jesus’ public ministry, during the quiet years. He was no longer alive when Jesus returned to Nazareth to read Isaiah’s messianic prophecies in the synagogue and announce, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” He couldn’t move to stop the outraged crowd when they attempted to hurl his foster-son over the cliff; he couldn’t defend Jesus from the charges of a deputation of his relatives, who claimed he must be mad.
Joseph appears just once after the account of the presentation, and that of course is when, after a three-day search, the 12-year-old Jesus is found discoursing in the Temple with doctors of the Law. “Did you not know,” he tells his parents in the latest edition of the New American Bible, “that I must be in my Father’s house?” Earlier translations have used “about my Father’s business.” The effect upon his foster father would be enormous in either case, for His words are a preparation for departure, a foreshadowing of separation that the anticlimactic years of Jesus’ adolescence and young manhood could not have completely dulled.
I am reminded of Jesus’ second cousin John the Baptist’s words to his disciples: “He must increase and I must decrease.” I don’t think St. Joseph had any difficulty with questions of precedence or self-importance. But it must have been terribly difficult for such a good, faithful husband and father to realize that he must let go his responsibilities, retire his role, and leave his family open to persecution and desolate mourning. Joseph’s heart must surely have been pierced by its own version of Mary’s sword of sorrow, as he pondered these things during the hard-working years of waiting before his death.
Though he is patron saint of all fathers, his special experience of fatherhood should render him the refuge of the many fathers enduring variations on fatherhood peculiarly common in our era: those who are separated and divorced from their families; those who try to negotiate the landmines of stepfatherhood; those who become fathers late in life and worry about burdening their children’s young adulthood, or dying before those children are ready to face life’s difficulties on their own. And those who mourn for children never allowed to be born.
Joseph died during those seemingly tranquil Nazarean years, but that doesn’t mean he had no share in Christ’s Passion or experienced nothing of the vertiginous emotional heights and depths of the public years. He entered into Christ’s Passion, as we do, when he sought the Lord through and in his own agonies—his anxieties about the future, his sense of unworthiness, his wonder mixed with fear at the role God had chosen for him.
He was faithful—to God the Father, to Mary, to Jesus, to his religious obligations, and to the work he was trained for. He was faithful, though he must often have been confused, disheartened, and uncertain. It is hard to think of a better emblem for our singularly confused and faithless age than Joseph, who remained a rock of dependability for his family while entrusting the unknown to God.