Of all the direct descendants of King David, St. Joseph was outstandingly and beyond all comparison the most faithful, the most just, the most obedient, the most holy. As a good observant Jew, and lover of the Law of God, St. Joseph would gladly make the long journey to the Temple in Jerusalem each year for the great feasts. This was one way for him to demonstrate that his whole life was turned towards the God of Israel. In obedience to God, St. Joseph would willingly do anything, or renounce anything, or suffer anything, whatever.
With him went his beloved wife, the Blessed Virgin, Mary Most Holy, and the child Jesus, now close to taking up for himself the religious responsibilities proper to adults. This annual pilgrimage must have been for St. Joseph an occasion of deep spiritual joy, as he went up to worship, and to instruct his foster son in the ancestral traditions of piety and devotion. And since, of all the families there have ever been, the Holy Family was the most united, and loving, and close: just to be together for this time would have been for St. Joseph a source of profound happiness.
There is no hint in St. Luke’s account that Joseph was guilty of any sort of neglect. He exercised all the duties of his divinely mandated fatherhood with the utmost care and devotion; but also he was no domineering tyrant. The atmosphere in his household was one of loving freedom, rooted in mutual esteem and mutual trust.
But then, bafflingly, on this one, strange occasion, Jesus appeared to betray that trust. He deliberately abandoned his parents. There even seem to be some echoes here of the parable of the prodigal son. After their anxious search, filled with pain, they found him. But far from apologising, he appeared to give his father a slap in the face. “Did you not know I must be busy with my Father’s affairs?” It’s as if Jesus had withdrawn himself from his parents’ care, and then told openly St. Joseph: You are not my father, and I am not your son. St. Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph were both utterly astonished, and also, at the time, that they did not understand.
When the Church gives us this Gospel episode to be read on the Feast of St. Joseph, she does so knowing well that there can be no question of any actual rejection of St Joseph. On the contrary, the story ends with the explicit comment: he went down with them and came to Nazareth and lived under their authority.
To understand this story, then, and to see what it has to tell us about St. Joseph, we have to read it in the light of the rest of the Gospel.
St. Luke’s focus, of course, is on the identity of Jesus. He is the Son of David, and also the Son of God. He is faithful to the law of Israel, and he fulfils all the expectations and prophecies of the Old Testament; but also he brings a radical newness. Jesus came to inaugurate a new covenant with God, of which the covenant of Moses was only a foreshadowing. This covenant would be open to Gentiles as well as to Jews. Through Jesus, all could find forgiveness of their sins, and the way to eternal life with God. And the means Jesus would use to bring this about was the paschal mystery of his death and resurrection.
From the beginning, then, St. Luke has been careful to show that everything in the life of Jesus points towards this paschal mystery. A few verses before our story, Luke tells how the old man Symeon had taken up the infant Jesus in the Temple, and proclaimed him as the bringer of salvation. But then also: this child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is opposed; and a sword will pierce your own soul too (2:34).
Various hints or allusions link our Gospel story today to the death and resurrection of Jesus. It all takes place at the time of Passover. The presence of Jesus in the Temple, surrounded by doctors of the Law, asking and answering questions, gives us a presentiment of the days immediately preceding his passion, as narrated by St. Luke (20:1 ff). There are the three days of loss, followed by the happy finding. The question of Jesus to his parents evokes also the question of the Angels at the empty tomb. Why are you seeking the living among the dead? (24:5). And Luke tells us then that the holy women remembered his words, just as Our Lady stored them up in her heart.
There is also the little Greek word we translate: “it was necessary”. “It was necessary for the Christ to suffer and so enter into his glory.” “It was necessary for me to be about my Father’s business.” “It was necessary for us to celebrate and rejoice, for my son was lost and is found. He was dead, and has returned to life.”
What then does all this have to say about St. Joseph?
Perhaps in the first place, that those who are close to Jesus have to be conformed to the pattern of his death and resurrection. They must be ready to endure suffering for his sake, in order to be able to share his heavenly glory.
Without doubt, the episode of the loss and finding in the Temple was painful to St. Joseph in a way we can barely imagine. But no actual rebuke to him can be found in it.
Jesus insisted, rightly, that his first loyalty and love had to be to his heavenly Father. But this was also the first loyalty and love of St. Joseph.
Jesus had to be obedient to God first. So did St. Joseph.
Jesus wanted to serve God in the Jerusalem Temple. So did St. Joseph.
But then Jesus understood clearly, perhaps especially through this episode, that it was precisely God’s will that he obey St. Joseph. And St. Joseph understood, anew, that it was his mission to mediate God’s fatherhood to Jesus in a human way. St. Joseph had to be the teacher of the divine teacher; the protector of the Saviour; the master of the Lord.
Best of sons, then, and best of husbands, St. Joseph was also the best of all fathers. Now he continues for all of us his role and mission of fatherhood. St. Joseph, now in heaven, mediates for all of us the Fatherhood of God. May he then help us to live as befits those who are Sons of our Father in heaven, though Jesus Christ our Lord.