As Christmas Day draws closer and crèche scenes start to pop up in New York City, I inevitably begin to think about the Holy Family. But this Christmas, as my wife and I begin the process of adopting a child, I find myself drawn closer to the life of St. Joseph than ever before.
Imagine Joseph’s surprise when, in his old age, he accepts Mary as his betrothed only to find out later that she is pregnant. By law, Joseph had the right to stone Mary. So the first intended audience for the gospel must have found it quite surprising that Joseph decided to simply “divorce her quietly.”
A second surprise is that this choice causes Joseph so much angst that he can not even sleep soundly. A dream instructs him to be unafraid to take Mary into his home and also tells him to take this child, who is clearly not his biological child, and adopt him as his own. In his time this surely would have brought him shame and ridicule and yet, Joseph stays faithful to the dream; a vision of something he probably didn’t fully understand; but a dream that he felt held the very revelation of God within it.
Between Poverty and Pregnancy
If I were Joseph I would have run away screaming into the night. But Joseph doesn’t run. Instead he gets caught between poverty and pregnancy while registering for the census. He somehow finds shelter for his wife and new son that Christmas night and becomes his protector from that moment onward. Joseph takes a destitute family, a mother whose life he could easily have snuffed out and a child whose fatherhood is unspecified and cares for them as his own. Blood ties or not, Jesus is clearly Joseph’s son.
The scriptures tell us that “the child grew in wisdom and strength.” Living in a backwater town like Nazareth, poverty was common and therefore infant mortality rates were high, along with the death of children. Disease took lives quickly if one became ill. The fact that Jesus lived to into his mid-30s and Mary who stands at the foot of the cross 15 or so years older, tells us the sort of job Joseph did in keeping his family safe and healthy.
Since I was a summer camp counselor in my college years, I have eagerly awaited becoming a father. Having a little girl or boy to care for and protect while helping them grow into adulthood seemed to be both incredibly gratifying as well as a huge challenge.
My desire to become a dad was sidetracked when my wife and I were unable to conceive a child, so we began looking at adoption as our only option to have a child.
On a recent mission trip to a Nicaraguan orphanage we met Patricia, a beautiful four-year-old girl who calls me “Papa” and likes to ride fast in her stroller. She likes to play peek-a-boo with my baseball hat and is staunchly independent.
The prospect of raising a child in New York City frightens me but one look at Patricia and I was hooked. I knew I had to take her into my home. I even fought the idea for a while, thinking that I wasn’t good enough to be a father to a child who needs so much. But I couldn’t shake my love away, it haunted me at night with dreams of bicycle rides, softball games and prom dresses. We are in the process of trying to adopt her.
She may not be flesh of my flesh but she is certainly heart of my heart.
We know little about Jesus’ adoptive father, this carpenter named Joseph. Scholars believe he was dead by the time of Jesus’ crucifixion since he does not appear at the foot of the cross. But it seems to me that this nearly hidden figure in the gospel had an insurmountable task—raising the God-boy to become a God-man.
While there is little we can say about Joseph for certain, I’d like to think of him as someone who did his best with the unexpected and who made the most out of a situation that he probably didn’t always relish being in. Sounds a lot like a good father to me.
Raising a child is never easy. I know there will be days when I want to run away from all that responsibility. During those times I will pray to St. Joseph and remind myself of his fatherly heroism, hopefully it makes my job easier. After all, I’ll only be raising my beautiful little girl. Joseph had to adopt God.