Los Angeles,CA–Jesuit priest James Martin has some interesting things to say about St. Joseph and fathers in his new column The Hidden Man of Christmas (Slate.com, 12/23/08):
[W]here’s St. Joseph? Where is the man to whom, according to the Gospel of Matthew, an angel announced the birth of Jesus? Where is the guy who married Mary even though she was already “with child,” the man who helped to raise Jesus, the carpenter who taught Jesus his craft?
He’s off to the side or stuck in the back, behind a shepherd. And he’s old, balding, and stooped, looking more like Mary’s father than her husband. Sometimes, he’s not there at all. Many Christmas cards show just Mary and Jesus….
Though most of Joseph’s life goes unmentioned in the Gospels, he carried out an astonishingly important task: raising the son of God. For the first years of Jesus’ life, and perhaps into young adulthood, he would have learned much of what he knew about the Jewish faith from his mother and his foster father. Perhaps the practices Jesus learned alongside Joseph in the carpentry shop–patience, hard work, creativity–were put to good use in his later ministry. Joseph represents the holiness of the “hidden life,” doing meaningful things without fanfare.
Perkins and Cunningham both see Joseph as a central figure in the Nativity story, one who can speak to contemporary men and women. The Gospel of Matthew makes clear that he is a “righteous man” who does what God asks of him. After discovering Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph thinks of “quietly” ending their marriage plans, so as not to “disgrace” her. But an angel reassures him in a dream. “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife,” says the angel, who explains the unusual circumstances of the birth. Joseph’s “righteousness” enables him to listen to God and carry out his difficult task.
His personality shines through wordlessly. “Here is a model of someone who represents all the virtues in the Hebrew Bible,” says Perkins. “He is asked to do something shocking, but because he’s righteous, he follows God’s guidance. And it’s no fun–not only to deal with that, but with the rest of the story–the flight into Egypt, too.”
During that latter part of the Christmas story, when the holy family flees from the murderous King Herod, Joseph was responsible for protecting Mary and her son in extreme conditions. Moreover, says Perkins, “To have to take your family into Egypt–that’s not a direction that Jewish stories want to go. It’s the wrong way.” She calls him a “model for how people can follow God through difficult times”…
Maybe it’s time to take a fresh look at this “model” and restore him to his rightful place in the Christmas story. Remember his natural age. Reimagine him in our art. And recall his very human example of “following God through difficult times.” That’s something that can offer encouragement not only to fathers but to every believer.
At the end of our conversation, Cunningham told me about one of his favorite paintings, by a Coptic nun, portraying the flight into Egypt. “It depicts the infant Jesus sitting on the shoulders of a young, robust Joseph,” he said. “Mary is actually standing at one side and a servant on the other.” St. Joseph is at the center of the picture.
So the next time you’re singing “Silent Night” and get to the part about the “Mother and child,” don’t forget about the fellow in the back, the guy who cared for them for the rest of his life, silently.
Read Martin’s full column here.