It was free time during a parish retreat; we were at a Dominican Sisters’ retreat center in the Hudson Valley, New York, walking randomly on the grounds. One of my parishioners pointed out a statue of Joseph holding the child Jesus. “You don’t often see that,” she said. What? I asked. “Saint Joseph with the child. Most statues are of Mary and Jesus.” She went on to make quick reference to social problems that involve men not being present for their children, and wondered if the church should emphasize Joseph more than it does.
A couple of years later, our parish had some (for us) sizeable memorial gifts, and we decided to use them to construct an outdoor altar, not close to the street but visible from it. We called it the “Saint Joseph altar,” and beside it was to be a statue of Joseph holding Jesus. I turned to the standard church catalogues of statuary, and found almost nothing. There were pages upon pages, literally hundreds of statues of Mary, or Mary and Jesus, and statues of lots of other saints. But I found exactly and only one statue of Joseph with Jesus. My parishioner was right. We ordered this statue.
A seasoned priest had told me, I know not on what authority, that every altar should be used at least once a year. We used the Saint Joseph altar twice a year. On Palm Sunday we gathered at the altar for blessing the palms, from which we would march into the church singing “All glory, laud, and honor.” Then on Father’s Day we had the whole Sunday liturgy out there, with chairs and blankets on the lawn. (In New York state, the school year ends around Father’s Day, so it was also a good Sunday for an end-of-year picnic.)
Centuries of liturgical refinement have taught us to speak of Saint Joseph as the spouse or the husband of Saint Mary while taking care not to speak of him as Jesus’ father. This is done to protect the point that while Mary is Jesus’ mother, his father is no human being, but God himself. The angel Gabriel came to Mary, Mary said yes, and the child was conceived in her by the Holy Ghost. Saint Luke tells the story famously. Yet at the same time, Luke does not seem so fastidious as never to be able to call Joseph Jesus’ “father.” In fact, when writing about a famous incident when Jesus was 12 years old, Luke says that “his parents” went to Jerusalem annually, and when Jesus was lost and then after three days they found him, Mary says, “Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.” Mary says “thy father and I”; Mary names Joseph as Jesus’ father—which of course he was! Stepping in to a hole where love needed to be, stepping into this place where there was no earthly father, Joseph was everything a father should be to a boy. We need, methinks, to remember Joseph right up there with Mary.
Out & about. My sermon on refugees (and fathers, with some help from Saint Joseph) can be heard here.
On July 2, I will be preaching at the traditional services, 7:30, 9, and 11:15 a.m., at Church of the Incarnation, Dallas.