Every year the parents of Jesus used to go to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up for the feast as usual. When they were on their way home after the feast, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem without his parents knowing it. They assumed he was with the caravan, and it was only after a day’s journey that they went to look for him among their relations and acquaintances. When they failed to find him they went back to Jerusalem looking for him everywhere.
Three days later, they found him in the Temple, sitting among the doctors, listening to them, and asking them questions; and all those who heard him were astounded at his intelligence and his replies. They were overcome when they saw him, and his mother said to him, ‘My child, why have, you done this to us? See how worried your father and I have been, looking for you.’
‘Why were you looking for me?’ he replied ‘Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father’s affairs?’ But they did not understand what he meant.
He then went down with them and came to Nazareth and lived under their authority.
The Gospel reading for today says it all really. Joseph – who are you? Father with a small ‘f’ when I have a father with a big ‘F’. Jesus obviously was not a naturally diplomatic child.
The feast day is even called ‘Joseph the husband of Mary’. A bit like calling him ‘him indoors’. For a church so male dominated we treat Jesus’ first male role model as a bit of an afterthought. Remember that it was not only Mary who said ‘Yes’ – it was Joseph’s ‘yes’ that avoided her being stoned to death or exiled from the community. He must have been an incredible man; utterly compassionate; to have been able to have faith to honour Mary; to refuse to bow under the undoubted slings and arrows of the doubting and gossiping neighbours; to persevere with giving Jesus the most normal of childhoods. Joseph, who must have been the role model that gave Jesus his compassion; his generosity; his respect for women and children; his knowledge of the working man. Jesus at thirty is a man of great character and personality; a man’s man who is able to have healthy relationships with women; to have them as his friends. No mean feat at any time; certainly suggestive of a family life that displayed mutual love, devotion and respect. And yet we know nothing about him.
These days it is not unusual not to know much about your father; long working hours mean fathers are absent from the normal family day; single parent families are increasing in number; police blame the rise in gangs on the lack of a positive male role model; men in the media are often famed for bad behaviour; male characters in our soaps are always a bit dodgy or pathetic. In many ways the understanding of what it is to be a man had got a bit lost. Joseph stands for the ‘Unknown Father’ we know nothing about.
But not at least in the Catholic Church; the domination by men of the Catholic Church is well known and comes in for comment and criticism on a daily basis. I know; I have studied it; women’s theology, feminist theology; I am a member of two groups supporting women’s ordination. Linked to this are the daily reports of abuse and misconduct by members of the clergy and religious; the last time I tried to find information on priests for a school project I had my computer closed down for breach of policy access to inappropriate content.
More and more I find myself getting uncomfortable about the whole thing. Not because I believe that men are the root of all evil but because I believe that they are not. I am not going to talk about those that are guilty of abuse because they could be any men; such men know about finding positions of trust; know about secrecy and deception; know how to charm their way into people’s lives; know how to live a two-faced life – they fill the media screens and pages but they do not fill the church. We forget those taken for granted; the many,many good priests.
I know priests have plenty of other feast days but today I am giving them Joseph, the Unknown Father.
Like Joseph they say ‘yes’ to a life based on faith rather than any guarantee. What does a twenty-odd year old man know what they are letting themselves in for whether fatherhood or priesthood, it’s a ‘yes’ to mystery. But the love that causes a priest to say ‘yes’ is the most Christlike – it is agape love – the love of the Good Samaritan who gives to strangers; whose love projects outwards without the need for possession.
But then, we are not strangers, we are family and they are ‘father’ with the small ‘f’ doing the work of the Father with the big ‘F’. Ok they may be not long out of seminary and lacking in wisdom or experience some of the time; but the sense of fatherhood is there; the responsibility; the commitment; the duty to care. And they grow, and grow beautifully, especially when supported by their ‘family’, becoming godfathers; favourite uncles and wise elders.
Even if they don’t know us; don’t get on with us; don’t agree with us; that’s by the by. Like a good father they will do what they can; what they need to do and be there despite everything if it all goes wrong and celebrate joyfully when it all goes right. Priests will have thousands of children; lots who are older than they are; across miles of parishes and years of devotion. And people will remember them and the effect that they had on their lives and thank God for them. But they won’t make the news, the papers, the media hype and in years to come they may be as unrecognised as Joseph; but it won’t matter because they were there when they were needed and they did what they were called to do.