Once upon a time there was a man and wife and who were expecting a baby. They had to make a trip to another town to take part in a census, but when they got there, there wasn’t any place for them to stay. They ended up in a stable and their baby boy was born there. That baby boy went on to change the world, one life at a time.
Of course, that’s the story we hear every Advent and Christmas, the story of Jesus and his family, Mary and Joseph. During Advent we have the run-up to this part of the story, the part where Mary has a visitation from Gabriel, goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, and then returns home. Then there’s the part where Joseph finds out Mary is pregnant and knows it is not his. He has a dream where an angel tells him that the child is God’s and that he should marry Mary.
So whatever happened in the intervening months between the Advent stories and the trip to Bethlehem we don’t know. Evidently Joseph and Mary (and their families) worked out some details and the couple worked out their own. After that, we only hear that they had to flee to Egypt to escape possible death, the child grew to the age of 12 and stayed behind in Jerusalem, panicking his parents. After their reunion we hear no more of the family except in one or two episodes and then the mention is only of Mary, not Joseph.
Stories have come down to us that suggest Joseph had had a family prior to his marriage to Mary but that his wife had died, and then that he had died sometime during the intervening years. What the real story is has been lost to the intervening years.
Joseph’s role in Jesus’s life has been seen as that of father, stepfather, adoptive father, teacher, and guardian. He was all of them, in one way or another. He fulfilled the role of male parent in the little family, teaching Jesus to use the tools of a tekton and bringing him in to the family business as a money-earner. He made sure Jesus learned how to be a good Jew, how to fulfill all the obligations and responsibilities, prayed the proper prayers, and learned the scriptures. Joseph also modeled a good head of the family, ensuring his family was well provided for, safe, and loved.
Being a step parent or adoptive parent is hard; a person comes into your life that isn’t really related to you. You then have to learn to love this alien being and think of him/her as your very own. They may not want you to love them, or want to think of you as their parent. For almost any parent, even the kindest treatment may produce rebellion and disobedience.
Young things have to learn to spread their wings, and that can be a most painful time for those who watch over them. I’m sure Joseph had a few of those moments with Jesus, no matter that he was really God’s son. We have to remember that Jesus was human and had to learn just as any child would.
We can think of Joseph as a model for God. That may sound blasphemous, but in a way, Joseph took a child that wasn’t his own and raised it with love, kindness, and probably a bit of correction. God does that for us. We humans make mistakes that need correction; God provides the means for us to learn from our mistakes, and to have the opportunity to correct them.
We don’t think of Joseph as often as we might. We can celebrate his feast today, dedicated to his role as the husband of Mary. There’s another feast day on May 1 which focuses on St. Joseph the Worker. As Mary’s husband, it’s also a fitting day to celebrate his parenting of a most extraordinary child.
Here’s to Joseph, a quiet saint with a tough job. Every child should have a father like Joseph. It would make for a very different world.
Image: Guido Reni [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons