St. Joseph is a model for parenting
St. Joseph is called a “just man” in St. Matthew’s Gospel. What exactly does this mean? To answer this question, I would like to make a couple of assumptions. First, I presume that Joseph found out about Mary’s pregnancy because she told him, and that she told him the truth – that this was God’s doing, that this was God’s Son. Second, I presume that Joseph’s justice is not a function of his selfishness, but rather of his goodness. Therefore, to call Joseph a just man means that Joseph, knowing that Mary was pregnant and that the child was the Son of the Most High God, also knew that he could not wed Mary and claim that child as his own – for it was God’s child, and he, Joseph, was unworthy to claim to be his father. Joseph’s justice meant he had to drop all claims to Mary and to his future progeny with Mary.
When the angel then speaks to Joseph, the angel tells Joseph that God needs Joseph: God needs Joseph to bring this child into the House of David, and God needs Joseph to name this child “Jesus.”
Joseph, then, was given a wife, a child, a family that was not his own, and Joseph was told to be the father of this family. Is this not how it is with all of us? We all like to think that our families are ours, but really they are gifts to us. We were gifts from God to our parents, and any children will also be gifts to us. And as for me, a priest, I, too, have always had a strong desire to be the father of the family. My promise of celibacy does not obviate that desire; rather, the desire is recast in the promise of celibacy with the grace provided by God.
This desire to be father has touched my own life. Twenty years ago, I was completely surprised to be asked to be the rector of the Josephinum Seminary. It became clear that this was what God wanted me to do. God had given me a family which was not my own in Columbus, Ohio. And then, in 2008, he brought me to the Diocese of Lansing to help care for this family.
Why should I, or any of us, be surprised by this turn of events? Is this not really the nature of all parenting?
First, it is always given: God gives us our family. We carry out his Fatherly love in parenting those he provides to our care. In a sense, my own earthly father was given a family, a large one of 10 children. There is no way he could have anticipated what that gift would be, or how difficult it would be. And every one of us is given a family as well – one we know not, one which is not really ours. How well Joseph felt this can be seen in the Gospel of St. Luke. (2:41-51) When Jesus stayed behind at the Temple, Mary and Joseph searched for him. Mary, upon finding Jesus, told him: “You see that your father and I have been searching for you.” Jesus reminded his parents what they already knew, that Joseph was not his father, for the young boy responded: “Did you not know I had to be in my Father’s house.” The child is not Joseph’s. But then, no one given to us for our care is ever really ours. They all belong to the Father in heaven.
Joseph models for us the kind of parents we are all to be. He sacrificed any dreams he may have had, any plans for the kind of family he may have wanted, in order to be the father God wanted him to be. His whole self was sacrificed to Mary and Jesus. This is the role of every parent: We are to pour ourselves out to bring about God’s dreams and plans, and not our own. This is no small thing. God entrusted to Joseph the entire mystery of salvation. Is not that mystery far greater than any of our own human dreams? That mystery penetrates all of us – God’s will and plan are not something any earthly parent can predict or control. Most of the time we can only look on in awe at what God does to those entrusted to us – how God makes them holy, sometimes in spite of ourselves. To be a good parent, all any of us can do is allow God his way and to give ourselves over completely to his will.
Joseph also models parenting for us in that he is a man of action, as St. John Paul II said in his March 19, 1980, audience. When Joseph awoke from one of his dreams, we are told “he did as the angel of the Lord had directed him.” He did – Joseph was one who acts. This would have been one of the primary ways Joseph would have taught Jesus, by acting, by doing, especially by acting upon the will of God. So, we teach those in our charge to be persons whose words bear fruit in action, because we are willing to do what is required of us, no matter the cost to ourselves.
Finally, Joseph is a model for us of parenting because he does name the lad – he names him, true enough, with the name he received from the angel, but Joseph is needed to do this naming: Jesus. Joseph does not accept the angel’s request to take Mary as his wife and to fulfill his role with a tired resignation or sadness. Rather, he is given this task and he will do it. He will name, he will teach, he will guide, he will protect, always aware that this child and this wife are given him. They are not his. No one of us grudgingly accepts the family given to us; rather, we embrace that family with our all, knowing not how it will turn out, knowing it is not ours but God’s.
My brothers and sisters, as we celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph during this month of March, let us imitate what we celebrate.