"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Feast of St. Joseph

To the secular mind, the foster father of Jesus is a loser. Thus if, as Christianity asserts, Jesus was conceived only by the Holy Spirit and if, as the Catholic and Orthodox churches teach, Mary remained ever-virgin, then Joseph was a cuckold and probably a rather frustrated one at that. Other than the early death some traditions ascribe to him, his consolation must have been that his rival was God. One isn't quite so much the loser if it's impossible to win. Yet the fact that many Catholics even these days will bury a statue of him in their back yard so that their houses will sell better doesn't exactly enhance the man's stature.

Superstition aside, the Church sees things very much otherwise. When I was a child, I learned that Joseph is patron saint of families, of fathers, and of the universal Church. Why indeed does the Church venerate him so much that he gets a liturgical "solemnity" of his own, or what used to be called a "first-class feast"? I note that there is no record of devotion to him in the early Church. In that period he is completely overshadowed: first by the divine Child who was given into his care for a time, and then by his sinless wife, who is also greater than he though not of course divine. His cult is an almost exclusively Western thing and becomes noticeable only in the Middle Ages. It reached its apogee so far during the 20th century. Yet very few Catholics know what I just learned myself today: that two papal encyclicals have been devoted to St. Joseph: one by Leo XIII and one by John Paul II! I don't know of any member of the communion of saints other than the Virgin herself who has enjoyed such press from the Servi Servorum Dei. What gives?

Well, I have no greater wisdom to add to those of the two aforementioned popes. I am not as great and wise as they and you can read their stuff—which I have thoughtfully linked—for yourself. But I do have an observation that I think timely and necessary.

We live in a time when fatherhood is in eclipse. Indeed it is now socially acceptable to ridicule what is distinctively male, even as it is no longer socially acceptable to ridicule what is distinctively female. Something is terribly wrong and needs to be righted. What St. John called "the world" is not going to do that. It needs to be done by the children of light. St. Joseph points the way.

Unlike English, Latin has two words for 'father': genitor, meaning 'begetter', and pater, meaning 'father' in a spiritually fuller sense. That is well. Begetting a child is easy and fun; any animal can do it, and some do it better than humans do. Actually being a father is hard, but ultimately more rewarding. Nowadays, however, fatherhood in both senses is widely questioned. We have artificial reproduction and someday will be able to have completely fatherless reproduction. There are many, many single-mother households: some by paternal choice, more by maternal. Even as some women ask whether men are necessary at all, the fact is that the social costs of fatherlessness are enormous and well-documented. If our civilization is to survive and thrive, true fatherhood needs to be strengthened. In order to do that, those who have joyfully accepted divine revelation in and through the person of Jesus Christ need to understand the spiritual significance of his maleness. His foster father shows that significance by his example. Men don't need to be Messiahs to be men; they need only recapitulate his love in their own small ways.

Joseph was pater to Jesus, not genitor. He performed that mission in exemplary fashion despite having no natural motive for doing so. He did his duty out of sheer obedience to God—and then he got out of the way. Total selflessness. Such sacrifice is no doubt what made him great among the saints in heaven who help us on earth: when the seed falls to the ground and dies, it bears much fruit. Ephesians 5 gives us that same model for marriage. The headship of husbands and fathers does not consist in being superior to their wives and children; Joseph was inferior to his wife and child. Indeed he served them—by providing and protecting. Only authority so earned is credible.

That is what so many men fail to understand and so many women despair of finding in men. That's what we so desperately need more of today. Let us men invoke St. Joseph's aid in becoming more like him.
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