How often do you celebrate someone for something they aren’t? “Congratulations! You aren’t the one we’ve been looking for?” As the lessons and collect appointed for today’s feast declare, that’s pretty much what we say about Joseph, “the guardian of [God’s] incarnate son.”
The story of Joseph is amazing. In a world of patriarchy and misogyny and unless-they’re-independently-wealthy-women-don’t-get-to-complain, Joseph kept his mouth shut. His betrothed became pregnant by another source, and he remained faithful. “Oh?” he asked his fiancée, “you’re expecting a baby? Well, I guess that means I’m not needed around here, huh?” Not only was he denied his culturally expected conjugal right to be the first to have intercourse with his wife-to-be, he had to remain celibate (as scripture says) until after Jesus was born. (Of course, the Catholic Church maintains that Mary was a perpetual virgin, which is a-whole-nother level of sacrifice on Joseph’s part.) Yet Joseph remained faithful. He heard the Lord’s request that he keep Mary as his wife, that he raise the son-of-another as if it were his own, that he take the back seat to his son’s prominence, and he said yes.
It’s interesting to me that the gospel for today is Luke 2:41-52. The story skips ahead—past the annunciation, birth, and infancy—and to Jesus’ mid-childhood. Joseph doesn’t even have a word in the story. In fact, I think that’s the point. After both parents find their son in the temple, Mary says to the run-away Jesus, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” And Jesus’ reply is a stab in Joseph’s eye: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?”
We usually hear those words and think about Jesus and his connection with his heavenly father, but what about Joseph? Let those words ring in your ears as the hurtful-though-honest cry of a stepchild: “You’re not my real father!” Jesus didn’t mean it like that, but it must have sounded at least a little bit like that. And that’s the point. Joseph put up with all the emotional and cultural loss of being a stepfather. That’s his gift to Mary and Jesus and his gift to us.