Saturday, March 15, 2014

Saint Joseph - The Earthly "Abba" for Jesus

For someone about whom we know very little, Saint Joseph certainly seems to get a lot of press. Churches and cities carry his name, devotions request his intercession, schools and religious orders name him as their special patron, and countless people throughout the ages insure that his name remains a constant, solid option for both boys (Joseph, Joe, Giuseppe, Jose, Jusuf. etc.) and girls (Josephine, Johanna, Joanne, Joselyn, etc.). His name means “God will increase,” and this seems to be appropriate.

In the New Testament, the few times that Joseph appears show him to be a conscientious, kind, hard-working, responsible individual who quietly did all of those things that we associate with the best of what it means to be a father. He supported and protected his family. He provided guidance and love to those who were entrusted to his care, Mary and Jesus. He prayed and practiced as a pious, Jewish father would, raising his son through example, interaction, and discipline, bringing God and religious practice to life in the daily circumstances of his place and time.

When I think of Saint Joseph, I don’t think of him as the older, bearded man that is often seen in pious paintings of him. It’s likely that he was about 10 years older than Mary was, which would make him in his mid to late twenties when Jesus was born. Therefore Jesus would have been most influenced by him when Joseph was in his thirties and in his most productive years as a carpenter. Indications are that Joseph and Jesus could have been workers in wood, metal, and stone for a massive rebuilding project at a large city, located a couple of miles outside of Nazareth (population 400), which had been destroyed by the Romans around Jesus’s birth and underwent expensive rebuilding for years thereafter. In other words, they could have commuted every day, affording regular opportunities for conversation and mutual enjoyment. The Jewish Talmud also uses “carpenter” and “son of a carpenter” to signify a very learned man, someone wise and highly literate in the Torah (Jewish scriptures and commentary).

Joseph doesn’t show up in any of the stories associated with his public ministry. If he had been at the crucifixion, Joseph by Jewish custom would have buried Jesus, and Jesus would not have entrusted Mary to the care of the apostle John. Perhaps it was after the death of Joseph that Jesus began to see his life as reaching beyond Nazareth and the small Jewish community there. It was a life-changing catalyst.

The one fascinating aspect of Joseph’s silent presence in the life of Jesus is our common experience of fathers and sons, whereby our notion of “fatherhood” is primarily shaped by our experience with our own fathers. While never perfect, fathers are appreciated by their children whenever small gestures, halting words, semi-awkward situations, or the occasional sincere and quiet talk reveals a deep mutual love peeking through the crust of propriety and popular social expectations. Having known and loved someone from before they were born, fathers grow with their children through their phases of life, and come out relatively unscathed at the end. (Mark Twain: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”) Similarly, children grow with their fathers and come to find their maturity marked with his broad strokes, poignant memories, and small habits.

In the case of Jesus, his “Abba” relationship with God was based on his “Abba” relationship with Saint Joseph. Should it be any surprise, then, that Joseph yet retains that relationship and is held in esteem as a worthy intercessor for our prayers? He is the great model of what true teaching is all about.