As a father, I have almost nothing in common with St. Joseph, whose feast day we celebrate today. I was not betrothed to a woman who conceived a child by another source. I have no reason to doubt that any of my children are my biological offspring. And given our daily struggles with disobedient children, I know without a shadow of a doubt that none of my children is the Son of God.
As a father, I have a lot in common with St. Joseph, whose feast day we celebrate today. I know what it’s like to have my wife be an adept parent while I struggle to deal with squirmy kids. I have experienced the joy of having a child toddle up to me and ask to sit in my lap. And I know that most of who my children are and what they will become is totally beyond my control.
Joseph is an odd but beloved character in our Christian story. He’s the descendent of David, so he plays a critical role in defining Jesus as David’s offspring, yet Joseph has no genetic stake in Jesus’ identity. He is celebrated for his faithfulness and selfless love of wife and family, yet we hardly know anything about the carpenter who presumably helped raise God’s only begotten son. He’s the eternal stepfather. In large part, his greatest accomplishment is something he didn’t actually do.
In the gospel reading for today, we see the young Jesus offer unintentionally damning words about his relationship with Joseph. After hiding in the temple and being found by his anxious parents, Jesus draws a permanent line in his relationship with his earthly father. Mary, his mother, says, “Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety,” to which Jesus replies, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” All of the sudden, probably for the first time, Jesus recognizes and says aloud who his true father is. And it’s not Joseph.
I didn’t come from a blended family, but, for what it’s worth, I’ve seen them portrayed in the movies or on television. I hate that moment when the stepchild looks at his stepparent and says, “You’re not my real father/mother! You can’t tell me what to do!” Although Jesus doesn’t make his statement in that spirit of anger or frustration, I bet it still stung Joseph’s ears a little bit: “You and my father were looking for me? Didn’t you know I’d be in my real father’s house?”
We never hear Joseph’s impression of this moment—or of any other moment after Jesus’ birth. He disappears into the obscurity of non-history. Apparently, his role after the nativity wasn’t important enough to be featured in the gospel. But whatever did happen, we do know what didn’t happen. Joseph didn’t abandon them. He didn’t give up on Jesus. He didn’t leave Mary and her infant son for another woman—an actual virgin. He stuck it out. Surely Joseph is the saint of selflessness. He is the one to offer comfort for those whose accomplishments are never remembered as their own. Stepparents, anonymous assistants, and nurses should all rejoice that at least once one of their flock is celebrated for what he did do by not doing what he didn’t do.