by Fr David Neuhaus SJ
Refilwe Mabula of Wits University wrote: “South Africa is reported to have among the highest prevalence of absent fathers in Africa, second only to Namibia.” Struck by this reality, it is fitting to reflect on Saint Joseph as we celebrate his feast this year on Monday, March 20.
I have always reacted allergically to the appellation of Joseph as “Jesus’s adoptive father”. It sounds almost dismissive. In every sense, Joseph was Jesus’s real father, even if he was not biologically so. All children have biological fathers, but the absence of a real father characterises our modern society. What might the Gospel story of Joseph teach us about fatherhood in our times?
Mary’s powerful “yes” is an important focus in our lives as disciples. We celebrate that “yes” just after Joseph, on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation. However, Mary’s “yes” needed Joseph’s loving, supportive and active listening, without whom the infant in her womb would have perished long before he could fulfil his mission.
Saint Matthew, the only Gospel writer to focus on Joseph, insists from the outset that Joseph is the father. Joseph, like all Biblical fathers (except Zechariah, who is dumb), named the child, the fatherly act par excellence. Joseph’s dreams, like those of his homonym in the Old Testament, Joseph in Genesis, open up a horizon that might otherwise be sealed off by fear and despair.
If Joseph had not paid careful attention to the angel in his dream, he would have dismissed Mary, exposing her to the danger of being put to death as an unwed mother in a patriarchal society. The moment the child was born, danger loomed again as Herod, the tyrant, fearing the one announced by the Magi as king, sought to exterminate him.
Again, Joseph’s listening led him to take the child and its mother to Egypt. He might have settled in Egypt if he had not listened carefully once more and returned to the land so the child might grow and take up his mission. However, the danger had not passed. Joseph was directed not to settle in Jerusalem but to go to Nazareth, safe from Herod’s successor.
Without Joseph, there would be no Jesus in those first tender years. This fact is not defined by biology but by protecting the child from all that might impede his mission. Mary’s “yes” in response to what she heard and Joseph’s attentive listening create the environment where the Word can become flesh, and God can take on human form. Joseph’s dreams open a horizon of hope and light in a world of chaos, confusion and darkness.
Looking to the example of Joseph, let all called-to-be fathers (of families and Christian communities) dare to dream of seeing beyond the horizons of darkness and fear. Take the time to listen attentively in prayer and act courageously to nurture life and help repair our broken world.