Homer and the Ancient Greek poets tell us that in the beginning there was the world, Gaia, and the heavens, Uranus. The earth and the heavens came together and gave birth to the great and powerful Titans—and the chief titan, Cronos, waged war against his own father and killed him and ascended in power and ruled over the world.
In turn, Cronos had children—the Olympian gods—but fearing his children would dethrone him, he ate them when they were born. Yet, at the birth of one of his sons, Cronos was tricked into swallowing a stone and the young male child, named Zeus, escaped and grew strong and bold until he led an assault against his own father and cast Cronos down—and Zeus, having defeated his own father, became the chief god of Mount Olympus. From his throne, Zeus used his power to live a life of adultery and manipulation.
In the gods of the old West, the relationship between father and son was one marked by antagonism, power dynamics, and violence. And as such, the family suffered.
We must understand the contrast between the old ways and our true religion. In reality, God the Father and God the Son act in perfect unity and the Son is obedient to the Father’s will. It is not a dynamic of power and violence but one of obedience, humility, and love. As it is written, “For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son that whosoever shall believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” Father and Son work together for the salvation of mankind. And Christ does not come in power and strength but as a tender child, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.
Today, the Church gives us the gift of contemplating the Holy Family—Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Not only does God the Father and God the Son model the proper relationship between Father and Son, but God sees fit to give us a family, a holy family, which we can take as our model and guide.
There is much that can be said about the Holy Family, but regarding the relationship between a father and a son, it is notable that the father in the holy family, the exemplar of all families, is an adoptive father—Saint Joseph is the adoptive father or foster father of Jesus Christ.
What can this teach us? Two general observations:
First, it shows us what it truly means to be a father to a son. To be a father is not reducible to or even inclusive of a biological connection. For as Pope Francis teaches, a true father is one who is intentional in parenting his children. A man could have several children inside his home to whom he is not actually a father. As a good example, we think of St. Joseph who stood in the breech between the world and his family. He protected them. He listened to the voice of God and led his family into safety and security. Under his fatherhood, his wife and son were allowed to flourish and carry out their vocations. In contrast, one may think of the priest Eli who refused to be a father to his sons, Hophni and Phinehas. His sons terrorized those around them and, most tragically, failed in their vocation to serve the people of Israel.
St. Joseph, as an adoptive father, shows us that being a father is an intentional act.
The second lesson from the adoptive fatherhood of St. Joseph is that we are all adopted. As Joseph adopts Jesus Christ into his family, so too does God the Father adopt all of us as his sons and daughters. St. Paul often reminds us throughout the New Testament that the Father adopts us through his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. For Jesus is True Son of God. Whereas we bear the image of God like a coin bears the image of a king, Christ bears the image of God like a son to his father. It is in Jesus Christ that we are adopted and find the joys of salvation.
As we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family, like us take St. Joseph as a model of fatherhood, an adoptive and intentional fatherhood. A fatherhood that is willing to stand against the gods of this age that seek to bring antagonisms and violence into the family. A fatherhood that is willing to lead the family into being adoptive sons and daughters of Jesus Christ.