Even before the birth of Jesus, Saint Joseph was a model for a Christian married man. When he discovered that Mary, his bride-to-be, was pregnant he spared her the punishment for infidelity prescribed by the Mosaic Law, and later accepted when told in a dream that “she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:19-21). He cared for her throughout her pregnancy and during the birth of her child in Bethlehem; he took them to Egypt to escape from Herod; and when, after their return to Israel, “settled in a town called Nazareth”.
We are told little more about Joseph in the Gospels: he makes his last appearance when with Jesus and Mary he visits Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover and, two days into the return journey, realises that Jesus was not with friends or relatives in the caravan but had remained in Jerusalem. They go back to Jerusalem and find him in the Temple, conversing with doctors of the Law. Significantly, it is Mary, not Joseph, who rebukes him. “My child, why have you done this to us? See how worried your father and I have been, looking for you?” To which Jesus replies: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father’s affairs?” Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph “did not understand what he meant”, but we do. Mary was talking of Joseph as his father, but Jesus had not been discussing carpentry. Aged 12, he knew his true father was not Joseph but God.
This exchange between Jesus and his mother enables us to take our first step in the understanding of God. The second question of the old Penny Catechism, having established in the first that men and women were made by God, asks: “Why did God make you?” To which the answer is: “He made me to know Him, love Him and serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in the next.” To know him, but how? Father Alban McCoy in his An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Catholicism, wrote that “It is a mistake to think that God can be understood and judged and spoken of in the same way as any object within our experience”; and we are told by the Evangelist John that “no one has ever seen God; it is the only Son, who is nearest to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John: 1:18). And he did make him known from that first answer to Mary and Joseph in Jerusalem to his Crucifixion as his father who is also ours. “I am ascending to my father and your Father,” he tells Mary of Magdala after his Resurrection, “to my God and your God.” Thus, we can modify Father Alban’s dictum that we cannot compare God to anything in our experience: he has the qualities of a male parent, a father.
There is another character in the Gospel narrative mentioned by Jesus – the devil, the evil one, the prince of lies who sows darnel among the wheat and wanders through the world for the ruin of souls. What better darnel than to impede knowledge of God by erasing the idea of a father? In 1970, the Australian writer Germaine Greer published a book, The Female Eunuch, in which she argued that a family was better off without an identifiable father. Women should withdraw “guarantees of paternity and make the patriarchal family an impossibility”. Her book was praised to the skies, sold many copies, and influenced the thinking of a generation of women.
Greer’s premise, based on her own experience as a child, was that men were invariably feckless and violent in their treatment of women; and, in the decades that followed, as Melanie Phillips established in her The Sex-change Society, published 30 years after The Female Eunuch, this view of men became widely accepted in governing circles. As a result there has been a burgeoning increase in families without fathers – broken homes, single-parent families, same-sex parenting and adoption, gender fluidity and an increasing number of children conceived in vitro with sperm from an anonymous donor. The only consolation for those dismayed by this attempt to prevent us knowing God through denying children a father is to realise that the authors of this confusion are dupes of the devil – not, as might otherwise be supposed, malign or insane.
This article is from the December 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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