Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Lent for Extroverts 30: Fathering against the odds

Georges de la Tour, Joseph The Carpenter
These are interesting times for the family as we know it. Even the word carries political freight; John Major's Tory Government famously championed 'family values' until it was discovered the Prime Minister was having an affair with Edwina Currie.

The 21st century family is changing; it may well these days contain two dads; no dad; a dad who lives somewhere else or a dad who's not biologically connected to the children he is bringing up.

The church today remembers St. Joseph, 'father' (or so it was thought) of Jesus of Nazareth. I think of him as mainly concerned with the birth and infancy of Jesus. He must have given him a good start, though we know hardly anything about him save his decency towards Mary, his ability to interpret angelic dreams and his trade as an artisan or carpenter.

The bible talks of Jesus' siblings and I see no reason to doubt that Joseph went on to father his own children with Mary (though this is hotly contested by the Roman Catholic doctrine of  Mary's perpetual virginity). But initially and crucially for the plan of God, it was Jesus for whom he faithfully cared in the first instance. And it would seem, in Catholicism at least, that Mary got all the credit.

It must have been difficult for Joseph to bring up a child to whom he was not biologically related, who spoke of another 'Father' - the one in heaven - in such warm terms. Fostering, adopting and being a stepfather are all hard callings reserved for those with perseverance, who are willing to stick at it for the long term, despite the absence of those fatherly feelings of 'ahh.....chip off the old block'.

With every further media exposure of male abusers of children we're in danger of losing the idea that a man can father and love children not strictly his own. Mr Tom,  played beautifully by John Thaw in the BBC adaptation of Michelle Magorian's Goodnight Mr Tom, is one positive literary example to balance our jaundiced fears of men and small children being a combination to be avoided at all costs.

Happy St. Joseph's day.

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