It was an incredibly nerve-wracking three days. If any of you have ever lost a child for any period of time, you know how upsetting and frightening it can be. Can you imagine three whole days?
Yet there he was, sitting calmly in the temple discussing the finer points of the Law, when his mother and I found him. Can you imagine? Twelve years old and he was doing this. To say that we were upset is an understatement.
This child has been a source of problems for me from the very beginning. First, there was his mother’s unexpected pregnancy. I almost called an end to our engagement then and there. But God intervened, and told me otherwise. Then there was the sudden flight to Egypt after the visit from those three strangers from afar. Once again, I was told in a dream to do this.
And now, he deliberately decides to stay behind in Jerusalem for three days while we frantically search for him. No word of explanation, only a cryptic reference to “his Father’s business.”
You see, I know that this child is exceptional, but I keep wondering why.
Why am I the one who has been burdened with caring for him?
Not that I mind. I’m just unsure.
I am Joseph and the father of the boy called Jesus. Perhaps I should say “earthly father.” In all those dreams that I had about him, I’ve come to a clearer understanding that mine is a different sort of fatherhood. Though I’m not sure how and why, my sense is that my son is destined for something far greater than I can see with my simple human eyes. His mother keeps reassuring me on that score, though she remains as confused and uncertain as I am about what it all really means.
I guess like any parent, we can only do our best and hope that it all works out. I am confident that my son will forge his own unique path. Meanwhile, as with any other father, I am there to protect, and nurture, and pass on to him the values and ideals that are essential to his becoming a good, God-fearing man.
In that sense, my fatherhood is the same as anyone else’s. But I also believe—though I can’t say exactly why—that my fatherhood is somehow special: exceptional, if you will. My fatherhood has really been forged in adversity, in something grander and more compelling than my own needs. It is grounded deeply in my belief that God’s word is faithful, and that God will indeed provide. God will make all things clear. Otherwise, I’m not entirely sure that I could do all this simply of my own resolve.
All my life, I have tried strenuously to abide by what I believe to be God’s purpose for my life. I know that this is not always obvious or easily discernible. Many were the times that I failed to understand, or that I simply chose not to listen to what I thought I was hearing, either out of stubbornness or simply out of a sense of acute weariness. God can certainly be demanding, and I sometimes feel that the demands made of me have been more excessive than those required of most other fathers.
I have sometimes seen God as stretching the limits of my trust. In a way, I guess that is only too human. We can all too easily blame God for what we think is going wrong in our lives, or appears to be too much of an unacceptable burden. I have had to rely, sometimes rather blindly, on my faith, the faith of those who have come before me. This is what has consistently sustained and reassured me. But I must admit that there were times when I found myself at the breaking-point. The most recent three-day search for my lost son was one such moment.
Some people think I was a fool to let myself be saddled with a wife and a son like this. They think I’ve been rather naïve and perhaps even gullible in seeing God’s mysterious hand at work in what has happened to me. But how else could I make sense of it all? How else could I even hope to begin understanding, however vaguely, the unexpected turns that my life has taken?
There certainly is one thing we can say about how God works: we’re always being caught off-guard. I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing, and it definitely keeps me guessing most days. But then again, what’s the alternative? I know so many people who simply go through life not paying attention to what God is calling them to be, or to those moments when they are being pushed out of their comfort zone for what is really their own sake.
Now don’t get me wrong. I do not presume to be more pious or holier than anyone else. I am a God-fearing Jew, nothing more. But my tradition has taught me to listen as attentively as I can to how God is speaking to me through the holy Word, but also through the gift of life itself. I try to be a faithful listener.
I was saying earlier that my fatherhood has been forged in adversity, that there is some special quality about it that I can’t quite yet put my finger on. I’m not totally sure, of course, but I suspect that much of it has to do with my wife and our son. Her pregnancy stunned me, as did his birth. The voices of angels who told me how to respond at critical moments in our relationship have disconcerted yet reassured me. God obviously has some greater purpose at work in all this, and I must have some part to play in it, however minor. That is why I sometimes feel as though I were some other kind of father, some “stand-in” father perhaps. Now that may sound a bit demeaning, but I don’t mean it that way. Please don’t get me wrong. I feel like a complete and real father to my son. But behind this, I also feel as though I were an essential part of some larger and more compelling story—and, in a way, that gives my fatherhood some additional gravitas, a real sense that it is bigger, wider and even more gripping in its drama than my own little world.
I don’t think that applies only to me, of course. I think all humans are called to something bigger and wider in their lives, that each and every one of us is far more than simply the sum total of our discrete acts. Much as I believe that God has called me to something extraordinary in my own life, as hazy as it may still be at this point, so I am certain that we are all called to similar surprises—perhaps we can call them “holy” surprises—in our individual lives. The Holy never ceases to compel us to newer and bolder things. My own life to date certainly shows that.
If there is one thing I’m quite certain of, it is that my son is much more than what he now appears to be at the young age of twelve, and I must admit that I’ve already had a few glimpses of what may lie in store.
Occasionally, I also catch myself thinking about what that might mean for me in the future, and sometimes even in the much, much longer term future. What will they think of Joseph, the father of Jesus? I do hope they give me my due, and that they don’t just see me as a man who was not really a father, but only a stand-in. Because that would be so unfair, so untrue. I have done my best for my family. I have kept them safe and united and secure in the ways of God. I have opened my heart to God, and I have heeded what has been asked of me, as challenging and perplexing as that may have been at times. Above all, I would like to be remembered as a faithful man.
I hope I will also be seen as a just man. I shielded my wife from scandal. I took her son as my own, even though I am not biologically his father. And even now, I continue to shelter and protect them. I believe I am a good husband and a good father. Perhaps that is all one can ask for by way of reputation.
Yet there is one more thing. I would like to be remembered as someone who was not afraid of taking a risk on God. To me, that is the way of the true believer. Throughout my life, I have tried to abide by this simple maxim. I say simple, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Taking a risk on God implies that you leave yourself vulnerable.
But so far, it hasn’t harmed me. So far, God has definitely kept God’s part of the bargain.