Poor Joseph! He sure is put-upon. First, he learns that his young bride is pregnant, and even to a good and kind man, “It’s the Holy Spirit!” must sound pretty thin. He decides to keep quiet about things, so that she won’t be publicly shamed — or killed — by his rejection. But Joseph doesn’t get to go through with this, because an angel comes to him in a dream and tells Joseph what’s at stake here. So he marries young Mary, and the rest, as they say, is history.
March 19 is the feast day for St. Joseph, who adopted the infant Jesus and raised him as his own son. I’ll admit that for a long time, I didn’t have much of an appreciation for Joseph. In the bible, he doesn’t say or do all that much. Mostly, he seems like a prop, an obligatory figure in the obligatory crèche at Christmastime. Then, I was reading the autobiography of Saint Teresa of Ávila; in her story, Teresa relates that she held a special affection for Saint Joseph and considered him a father to her as well. I found myself thinking, well, maybe there’s more to Joseph than I’d realized.
In the gospel appointed for the Feast of St. Joseph, we see Jesus as a child of twelve, having stayed behind in the great Temple in Jerusalem, listening to and speaking with the rabbis there. From The Message, here is the story:
Every year Jesus’ parents traveled to Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up as they always did for the Feast. When it was over and they left for home, the child Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents didn’t know it. Thinking he was somewhere in the company of pilgrims, they journeyed for a whole day and then began looking for him among relatives and neighbors. When they didn’t find him, they went back to Jerusalem looking for him.
The next day they found him in the Temple seated among the teachers, listening to them and asking questions. The teachers were all quite taken with him, impressed with the sharpness of his answers. But his parents were not impressed; they were upset and hurt.
His mother said, “Young man, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been half out of our minds looking for you.”
He said, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I had to be here, dealing with the things of my Father?” But they had no idea what he was talking about.
So he went back to Nazareth with them, and lived obediently with them. His mother held these things dearly, deep within herself. And Jesus matured, growing up in both body and spirit, blessed by both God and people.
This is the first time we see Jesus in the bible, after the stories of his birth in Bethlehem. He is twelve years old now, really a young man, and is old enough for his parents to trust him for a while on his own.
Think about that part for a minute. These days, we tend to hold our children pretty closely to us, and we always want to know where they are, especially when we aren’t with them. Imagine for a moment that your child is the son of God; that you had been visited by angels, to bring about this miracle-child. Would you ever let this child out of your sight? And yet, we see Mary and Joseph starting their 65-mile journey back to Nazareth, laughing and chatting with their friends and neighbors, not even realizing that their son — the miraculous son of God! — is not in the group. What’s more, they don’t even notice this until an entire day has passed, when everyone is settling into camp sites, laying out bedrolls and preparing meals. When Joseph and Mary realize that Jesus is not with the group, they know that an entire day’s walk is before them, to return to Jerusalem to find their son.
But the thing is… Jesus is not (biologically) Joseph’s son, is he? If we accept the doctrine of the virgin birth (which, to be perfectly honest, is harder for me on some days than on others), then the “real” father of Jesus is, well, God. Joseph is merely his adopted father, sort of a step-father. I believe, from what we see in this story, that Joseph loved Jesus every bit as much as if he’d sired Jesus himself. But I know kids, too. It stretches my imagination to believe that Jesus never threw this back at Joseph’s face. Who are YOU to say I can’t go play with Matthew? You aren’t my REAL father anyway! Let’s face it: kids can be mean little jerks, especially because they don’t fully understand how their words can become weapons.
This gospel story has this same sort of feel to me. When Jesus says, Oh, Mom and Dad, you silly grown-ups! Of course I’d be here, doing my FATHER’S work, I can just see Joseph reeling from those words, as though he’d been punched. Maybe Jesus intended them this way. Maybe he didn’t. It’s very hard for us to know. We can reflect on the story, visualizing ourselves in the scene, feeling and hearing the words from each point of view. But we just don’t know, not in this world.
What I do know is this: Joseph had a really tough job. Faced with a pregnant
bride, an 80-mile trip to Bethlehem when she’s ready to pop “great with child,” childbirth in a cave full of animals, strange magi visiting from the East with gifts and honors, a flight from Israel to Egypt in fear of his life, and finally a return home to his carpenter shop in Nazareth. Once he’s back home, now Joseph is faced with the task of raising this strange child. There are a number of apocryphal stories of Jesus as a youth, performing signs and miracles, some intentionally and others completely unconsciously.
Imagine yourself in Joseph’s place, with this child you’ve adopted (maybe resentfully? maybe believing your young wife to have been unfaithful and sticking to this strange story of angels?). And strange things keep happening around him, things you don’t understand and can’t explain. As if the whole craziness around his birth wasn’t enough, now he’s giving life to little clay birds and making lions and panthers bow down to him and cursing the other little boys when they fight with them… cursing them to death. What do you do with a child like this?
Through reflection and contemplation on the Holy Family, through this kind of active imagination, I’ve found my respect and admiration for St. Joseph growing. Joseph is such a wonderful father, accepting Jesus as his own, loving and caring for him, even when this is threatening or scary. Somehow he managed to not kill this precocious twelve-year-old, not even after Jesus had ditched his parents to hang out longer in the Temple. We can see, from scripture, that Jesus grows up to be a strong man: knowing himself, understanding others, with deep integrity, profound trust, and extravagant love. I sometimes wonder… if God’s son had been born to a woman whose husband was cruel and abusive, would that son have been able to save us all?
who from the family of your servant David
raised up Joseph to be the guardian of your incarnate Son
and the spouse of his virgin mother:
Give us grace to imitate his uprightness of life
and his obedience to your commands;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.