Today’s readings are concerned, as we should expect, with human relationships, particularly those of family life. In our modern society, where parental responsibility is, at times, notably and tragically lacking, there is a marked tendency for the government and society in general to “take over” from parents, and a corresponding tendency to give children rights against their parents. This political support of, and encouragement for, children against their parents, has no parallel in the Bible.
There, children have rights indeed, and Jesus Himself tells us to reverence and respect them:
See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you, that their angels in heaven continually behold the face of My Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 18:10)
St. Paul tells his converts in the Church at Corinth (2 Corinthians 12:14) that:
Here for this third time I am ready to come to you, and I will not be a burden to you; for I do not seek what is yours, but you; for children are not responsible to save up for (their) parents, but parents for (their) children.
The Scriptures are not ignorant of the abusive behaviour of some parents but, notwithstanding those failings of the few, hold firmly to the best teaching and only model for the wholesome upbringing of the many, as you heard in the first reading:
The Lord honours the father in his children, and upholds the rights of a mother over her sons. Whoever respects his father is atoning for his sins; he who honours his mother is like someone amassing a fortune.
We read in the Gospel how God Himself dealt with His Son as a human child. The Father in heaven did not by-pass Mary and Joseph to communicate directly to the Infant, nor even to the young boy Jesus. The heavenly Father spoke to Joseph and to Mary: they were the ones who would tell the Child and the Boy what to do and how to behave; they were the instruments of God for the Child, even though the Child was God’s own Son. Consequently we can easily recognize the Christian attitude and teaching as regards parenthood: it is an honour and a privilege to be a Christian parent, it is a position of authority and also a position of responsibility; authority given by God and responsibility before God. In all that is good, for the spiritual and the human good (both physical and psychological) of the child, the parents have a God-given authority and also a God-given backing: they do not need to have degrees in child psychology, nor certificates in human and social studies; seeking sincerely the good of their child, in favour with God and man (as the Scriptures say of Jesus), they will be guided by God in all the normal situations of life, and even in the extraordinary circumstances where no human help can be found. No Social Services, no child experts, can supply for God-given parents, and no legislation should be allowed which insinuates otherwise, nor should parents themselves ever begin to doubt their own special grace for bringing up their child as a child of God and as a positive and helpful member of society.
Parents, being aware of their position of authority and responsibility, should be ever on the watch to help each other in the acceptance and fulfilment of that position. You will recall how Mary, the mother, spoke to her Child when He had been lost for three days:
And when they saw Him, they were astonished; and His mother said to Him, "Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, your father and I have been anxiously looking for you." (Luke 2:48)
Mary was concerned, first of all, for Joseph’s authority; she wanted first of all to remind her Child of the respect He owed Joseph:
His mother said to Him, "Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, your father and I have been anxiously looking for you."
“Your father and I”, that was the order of concern for Mary: Joseph’s position first, her own, second. That is a model for all parents, for the Christian husband should have as his first concern that his child should love its mother; whilst the mother, like Mary, should always first teach and inculcate the child’s obedience to and respect for the father.
Finally, today, Christian parents should recognize that they, together, are the basis and foundation for the well-being -- spiritual, psychological and physical -- of their children; consequently they should pay close attention to the words of our second reading today. On no account should they ever allow their child to separate them, for the good of the child they should come first for each other:
And so, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. And beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. (Colossians 3:12-15)
Remember also those other words of St. Paul:
Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be embittered against them.
Those are not words of domination but of co-operation for the good of the children, the words mean what I have already explained and what Mary has already shown: that the wife should be concerned that her children respect and obey their father, and she should give them an example of that attitude; and that the father, in his turn, must insist that his children follow his example in loving their mother. It is on that firm and solid foundation that the other words of Paul will be fulfilled:
Children, be obedient to your parents in all things, for this is well-pleasing to the Lord. (Colossians 3:20)
In this respect we can discover something of the particular reason for Joseph’s position in the Holy Family.
Joseph was not the physical father of Mary’s child and it might seem, for that very reason, that he could never be really essential for the coherence and establishment of that family. He was legally necessary for Jesus’ Messianic descent from King David; he was personally necessary for Mary’s comfort and strength by sharing with her the public opprobrium of an apparently inappropriate conception; and he was physically necessary to protect the Child and His mother, above all when they were under threat from Herod’s persecution of the Holy Innocents. But, since it was Mary who -- having given, exclusively from the human standpoint, both body and blood to the Child -- would be largely responsible for the mental and spiritual formation of His human character, wasn’t Joseph therefore, for the essentials, somewhat superfluous, supernumerary?
By no means, for here we touch on the contribution of St. Joseph to Jesus’ human make-up – not just for His protection and upkeep, His health and security – but indeed for His make-up as a human-being, and above all, as Son-in-human-flesh before His heavenly Father. For Jesus, as man, had to learn about God, to recognize and respond to, His heavenly Father through the understanding and awareness of His human mind, and the experience and sensitivity of His human heart; and in order to do this He had first to learn what ‘father’ meant for Him as a child, a son, in a human family, above all, He needed to learn not simply what the word ‘father’ meant, but what was to be expected of a father and how a true child should relate to its father. As a child at Mary’s feet -- in her constant company and under her watchful guidance -- He would read and learn, love and appreciate, the Scriptures speaking of God’s love of and concern for, Israel His child, and in the synagogue He would learn to respond as an Israelite to such a God and Father. However, at home, He would learn to respond as an individual person to a human father through His Personal experience of Joseph’s individual presentation of fatherhood, and also from observing His mother Mary in her own attitude and response to Joseph as father in the family. Initially, such experiences would be very influential in helping the Child relate to the Heavenly Father -- uniquely His own true Father -- speaking to Him through the Scriptures, hearing and responding to Him in His life of human prayer and worship. Joseph would thus, initially, be supremely important for what was of supreme importance in Jesus’ life: promoting and guiding His initial sensitivity and responsiveness to, His growing appreciation and love for, His heavenly Father.
People of God, we should all recognize that the Scriptures do not offer mere options for our consideration, options that we can ignore or reject as the fancy takes us; nor is the Spirit of the Scriptures subject to the spirit of modern times. Holy Scripture, with its example of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, gives us divine and authoritative guidance together with the promise of sustaining grace and strength. We can indeed ignore it, we can reject it, because God has made us free; but we cannot do those things without cost, and most certainly, we will never be able to find better guidance, strength, or fulfilment from the prevalent ideas of currently acceptable worldly wisdom, the lurid examples of many news-making lights in today’s decadent society, or again, the preferred easy options of the many whose main aims are earthly pleasure and plenty, and conformity with the prevalent attitude of current society.