Joseph of Nazareth is vital to the twelve-day Christmas odyssey. Pope Pius IX declared him the Patron of the Universal Church for raising the earthly Jesus. Catholic Christians see Joseph as a compelling figure because of his loyalty, compassion, and meekness. Such traits embody both traditionalist notions of chivalry (Pope Leo XIII praised Joseph in his pastoral letter Quamquam Pluries as a breadwinner and "administrator, and legal defender of the divine house whose chief he was") and a type of compassionate masculinity with potential to provide a counter-example to the often abusive tendencies highlighted in our modern families. Joseph certainly exemplifies all of these traits. But a deeper look at the figure of Joseph and the circumstances surrounding the Holy Family also complicates the idea of the modern "nuclear family" constructed since the 19th Century. Joseph challenges a puritanical world obsessed with biological ties. As head of an adoptive and mixed family mired in controversy, Joseph drags us kicking and screaming into complex realities that can only be navigated through faith hope, and charity.
Look up any picture of the Holy Family, and you will most likely see an idyllic painting (probably European) replete with halos, perfect pastures, and sublime subservience. Father Douglas Clark in the Diocese of Savannah's Southern Cross, acknowledges that Mary and Joseph's supernatural perfection and sexual purity make it difficult for modern families to identify with them, especially amid vigorous debates this year on how to pastor to non-traditional families. Father Clark suggests that, in the tradition of Pius IX and Leo XIII, Catholics should identify with the Holy Family, its head and their humanity as a bulwark of "traditional Christian family values" and "manly virtues" over and against "socialism and liberalism." The "model" Holy Family does teach us about important aspects of Catholic social thought, but are "traditional family values" the only, or even the primary, way to identify with Jesus' upbringing?
Having suffered abuse in a biological family with a "mother and a father", and been lovingly adopted and raised by a single father, I tend to look past the Renaissance paintings to the Holy Family's more eccentric side. After all, Jesus' family worried and suffered like most worldly families. Mary panicked when Jesus stayed in Jerusalem (and scolded him). A twelve-year old Jesus even talked back to Mary and Joseph for not guessing he was in the temple (Luke 2:49).
From this alternative perspective, Joseph, Jesus' adoptive father, is not stern, but rather exhibits compassion, faith, and flexibility. Mary conceived out of wedlock and although Joseph was determined to protect Mary at cost to his own reputation by "dismissing her quietly" the decision to "take Mary as [his] wife" was so difficult for the righteous Joseph that God had to send an angel to convince him that this really was God's plan. In light of that controversy, should Christians be dazzled and dissuaded by the family's stunning pious perfection? Or should Christians instead see in this family God's preference for working through the real world's messiness to bring about redemption? Should Christians focus exclusively on Joseph's righteousness, or also learn from his ability to suspend judgment and simply love?
American Christians must acknowledge that Jesus was born in dirt poor circumstances and swept up in state bureaucracies. He slept in an animal feed box in a cave or stable. His expecting parents could not find a room at a small-town inn, and received gifts of charity and adoration from three foreign wise men. Jesus and his family quite literally had Pope Francis' much-desired "sheep smell."
I frankly tend to identify with Jesus and Joseph's messiness more than their perfection. Long term, Jesus was unable to see or interact with his biological father, having to answer for his questionable lineage even until his early ministries ("Is this not the carpenter, son of Mary [no mention of Joseph]
( Mark 6:3)?"). As a six-year old adopted kid, I constantly faced classmates' questions about why my biological parents would leave me "if they truly loved me." For kids struggling with uncertainties about their roots, the mocking words "If you are the Son of God throw yourself down [from the temple peak] (Matt. 4:6)" and "If you are the Son of God, come down from that cross (Matt. 27:40)" have special resonance. For siblings broken up through state intervention, the question of God's "forsaking" some of us lingered early in our childhood. I, like many other adopted Americans, faced legal scrutiny with only one parent on a birth certificate and confronted general uncertainty about my biological and cultural roots. Such uncertainty taught me to base family on community, and not just blood ties, to ask, as Jesus taught us, "Who is my mother, who are my brothers (Matt. 12:48)?"
Joseph, the adoptive father, stood by Jesus in the early parts of his childhood transcending biological distinctions and taking on great social risk. Joseph, as Leo XIII pointed out, was Mary's "legal defender" in a time where a one-sided patriarchal society could have convinced him to stone Mary for a third-party pregnancy that had come before their proverbial "I Do."
The Holy Family's irregular situation goes beyond my situation surrounding adoption and family history. It's true that Jesus was not born into a single-parent home, but according to Catholic tradition, Jesus lost Joseph sometime between twelve his early thirties. Struggling single mothers and fathers, and those who have lost parents during their formative years can identify with Mary and Jesus who struggled. On a world scale, occupied regions subject to checkpoints can identify with a family forced on a dangerous journey at the orders of an imperialist power. Any refugee or immigrant can identify with a family forced to a foreign country fleeing a tyrannical corrupt regime.
Jesus' divinity is crucial to our faith. But as an example to everyday Christians, the Holy (irregular) Family's miracle lies not mainly in its supernatural pedigree per se (John the Baptist quipped that God could use stones to maintain a lineage (Matt. 3:9)), but its extraordinary faith and survival in the grind of ordinary life's most difficult obstacles.