Joseph, Mary and Jesus: A Model Family
by Fr. Rufus Pereira
The Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, on 1st May, should take us back to the double Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, on 25th March, (4th April this year), and of his Birth, on 25th December, that commemorates and celebrates the greatest event that ever took place of the Almighty God's intervention in weak humankind: the Nativity, and the greatest mystery that ever was of the Holy God's love for sinful man: the Incarnation (Jn 1:14, 3:16). But a re-reading of the two Infancy Narratives (Mt 1 & 2; Lk 1 & 2) reminds us not just of God's unique gift of his divine Trinitarian self to broken human beings for their healing and deliverance, but also of God's unique gift of a human communitarian family to damaged families for their inspiration and even imitation - the Holy Family of Nazareth. The pattern of Joseph's relationship with Mary and Jesus, of Mary's relationship with Joseph and Jesus, and of Jesus' relationship with Joseph and Mary, described in these two narratives, sets us an extraordinary exemplar of what family relationships could and should be in every Christian home.
Mary fully trusted Joseph who in his turn was truly concerned about her:
Mary had been engaged to Joseph but, before they came to live together, she was found to be pregnant. Being a righteous man however he did not want to expose her to public disgrace, and instead planned to send her away quietly. He was about to do this, when in a dream an angel told him not to be reluctant to take Mary as his wife, for the child conceived in her was from the Holy Spirit (Mt 1:18-20). Joseph did as the Lord had directed him - he took her as his wife (Mt 1:24). Mathew thus gives the genealogy of Jesus through Joseph, as the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born (Mt 1:16). The very first test of his betrothal was, as the greatest trial of any marriage is, the test and trial of suspicion, - that of being led, contrary to all appearances, to suspect the woman whom he loved and who he was certain loved him too. One can imagine what must have been going on in Joseph's mind and heart. And only when God revealed the divine mystery to him that Joseph, being basically a just man and a loyal husband, knew at last that Mary was faithful to God without being unfaithful to man.
Similarly, the very first test of Mary's relationship with Joseph was also that of suspicion, the most painful and very common trial of a wife being suspected by the man whom she truly loves and who she knows loves her too. When the angel Gabriel revealed to her that she would conceive and bear a son to be named Jesus, who will be called the Son of God and will be King forever, Mary was obviously taken aback and asked how could she being a virgin conceive and bear a child (Lk 1:31-34). If, as a tradition suggests, Joseph and Mary had privately committed themselves to remain virgins even in the married state, Mary's question was that of discerning which was God's will: that she remain a virgin and be childless or marry and be a mother. The angel's answer was that both was God's will: to remain a virgin, though married, and to still bear a child - something humanly impossible becoming divinely possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. Mary's response was an expression both of her submission to God's will and of her faith in his word (Lk 1:38), a submission and faith which are needed not for something difficult but not impossible, as in Zacharias' case, but for something humanly impossible as in Abraham's case too, a submission to God and a faith in him expressing itself in submission to and faith in her husband Joseph (Lk 1:35-48).
Jesus proudly looked up to Joseph who cherished and protected him as his own son:
Joseph must have been in a very close relationship with God to receive in dreams through the angel divine messages of such great and universal import, upon which he acted instantly and unquestioningly, in two very mysterious and difficult situations. The first message was to take in Mary as his wife in spite of her being pregnant, while still only betrothed to him, because she had conceived by the Holy Spirit, and to accept her child as his own son by giving him the name chosen by God himself (Mt 1:21,25). Mathew thus gives the genealogy of Jesus through Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born (Mt 1:16). (How often adopted children want to know who their real fathers are, forgetting what Jesus taught, that we have only one real Father in heaven, and what Paul repeated, that every fatherhood has its origin in the fatherhood of God himself.) The second message, or rather set of three angelic messages, Joseph received again in dreams that enabled him to protect the child's life from danger. He trusted and followed this divine guidance fully, whether warned to take the child, whose life was threatened by King Herod, and his mother, and flee into Egypt (Mt 2:13), or prompted to bring the child and his mother back to Israel, after Herod's death, or cautioned again, when Archelaus the son of Herod became the new ruler in Judea, to proceed instead to Nazareth in Galilee (Mt 2:19-23).
On his part Jesus was identified and looked at as 'the son of Joseph' especially when he began his ministry (Lk:3:23). Even though his teaching dazzled his hearers at the synagogue in his home town, they would not easily forget that he was after all just the son of Joseph the carpenter (Lk:4:22), not realising that Joseph was himself of the lineage of King David (Mt 1:20; Lk 1:32). It was as the son of Joseph from Nazareth, that Jesus was identified by Philip to be the longed for Messias spoken of by Moses and the prophets (Jn 1:45), - Nazareth, an unknown village, not even mentioned in the Old Testament, of which Nathaniel would then scornfully say, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" (Jn 1:36). And when Jesus proclaimed that he was the bread that had come down from heaven, the Jews remonstrated, "But is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?" (Jn 6:41-42). But I love to think that it was not in spite of being the son of Joseph that Jesus' greatness shone forth, but also because he was the son of Joseph, not biologically as the real son but emotionally as the proud 'son' of a proud 'father', proud of the way his father had brought him up and taught him his trade. (For every true child loves his Mum but boasts of his Dad.) The finest thing then said about Jesus was that he was a son subjected not only to God, but also to the man God had placed over him.
Jesus obeyed Mary unequivocally even when she did not fully understand her son:
The discovery that Jesus, then twelve years old, was not with them at the end of the first day's return journey from Jerusalem to Nazareth, must have disturbed Mary and Joseph tremendously, because of their seeming lack of responsibility and the possible loss of their only son (Lk 2:31-45). (For the greatest pain a mother goes through is not in the sickness or death of their offspring but in the uncertainty of his ultimate fate - kidnapped or just missing.) But greater than such a distress was first their amazement in finding him three days later in the temple, putting questions to the doctors of the law and giving the answers himself (Lk 2:46-48), and then their bafflement at the behaviour of their otherwise responsible son staying behind in Jerusalem without informing them, "Child, why have you treated us like this?" and so causing them so much fear and pain, "Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety" (Lk 2:43-48). But the greatest anguish was Jesus' enigmatic defense and explanation of his strange action, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house and about my Father's interests?" (Lk 2:48-49). Like some mothers Mary went through the pain of the possible physical loss of her only son and like all mothers the still greater emotional loss of her baby son now grown up, more knowledgeable and more independent, and the consequent shock of the generation gap. A sword did pierce her heart, as Simeon had prophesied (Lk 2:34,35).
Jesus' retort to Mary may therefore sound at first brusque and querulous, - but actions speak louder and clearer than words, - and the episode continues, and ends, - by Jesus going down with them to their home in Nazareth, where he was subject to them (Lk 2:51). (What a contrast is this with the behaviour of two teenage sons of a well-known Catholic family of Mumbai who migrated to London two years ago in order to give them a better future. They have been coming home very late every night, their mother complained to me recently, and have never spoken to or even greeted her or their father.) Jesus' obedience to his human parents was a training school for his more exacting submission to his heavenly Father, (the Holy Spirit being given only to those who obey him - Acts 5:12), and an augury for his final victory, (the evil one having no power over him because he always obeyed the commands of his Father - Jn 14:30), in becoming obedient even to death, and that too on a cross (Phil 2:8).
It is no wonder then that the Lucan Infancy narrative concludes with the double comment: firstly that, though Mary did not understand all these things, she treasured them in her heart, as any mother would do, and secondly that, with the grace of God, his heavenly Father, and under the tutelage of Joseph and Mary, his earthly parents, the child Jesus grew in wisdom and quality, - and was increasingly pleasing to both God and man (Lk 2:19,40, 50-52). May every father then be another Joseph, the upright worker, the respected and trusted head of the family, and every mother another Mary, the devoted homemaker, the warm and caring heart of the family, and every child another Jesus, the dutiful child, the pride and joy of the family.
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Led by the Spirit reproduced with permission from Charisindia. Copyright © 2004-2005 Fr. Rufus Pereira. All rights reserved.