In St. Matthew’s gospel, we are introduced early on to the person of Joseph, the husband of Mary, whom the evangelist describes as a “righteous” or “just” (Greek: d??a??? Latin: iustus) man. In context, we infer that Joseph, who scrupulously observed the Law of Moses, was also a compassionate man, and did not wish to cause Mary any embarrassment due to the unusual circumstances in which she found herself. In a secular context, “righteous” suggests that Joseph was a virtuous individual, in whom the various moral “excellences” (courage, temperance, justice, and prudence) coalesced. That is quite an accomplishment for anyone, whether an emperor, like Marcus Aurelius, or a simple carpenter from Nazareth. It means that one pursues a life of moderation, in which human desire is guided by reason and good judgment.
The image on our parish bulletin this week, entitled “St. Joseph Leading the Infant Jesus,” comes from the Renaissance painter Juan Sanchez Cotan. Notice that, despite his diminutive stature, the child Jesus is playfully handling an “orb,” that is to say, creation, in one hand, while he is firmly grasped by Joseph on the other. It does not diminish Jesus’ divinity or authority in the least that, as a human being, he learned to walk the “middle way” (via media) under the guidance of his foster father. Indeed, as the Catholic Catechism points out (CC 531): “Jesus’ obedience to his mother and legal father fulfills the fourth commandment perfectly and was the temporal image of his filial obedience to his Father in heaven: ‘Not my will . . . ”
With the image of a strong but tender father in mind, we honor those men who incarnate the paternal love of God in the world: fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, godfathers, step fathers and, like Joseph, foster fathers. With their wives, fathers participate in the generative power of God to “transmit human life and to educate their children. . . cooperating with the love of God the Creator” (CC 2367). Fathers do not simply bring new life into the world; they protect, guide, teach, love, and forgive their children, showing them how to live a life that is worthwhile, generous, and noble.
It is, of course, risky to assign different kinds of virtues to individuals on the basis of their being fathers or mothers. Still, could one argue that, in general, mothers foster in their children a sense of hearth and home, whereas fathers prepare them to make their way in the world beyond the home?
In seeking a tribute to my own father for his funeral, I came across a wonderful quote on the subject of fatherly love by, of all people, Rene Descartes, the “father” of Modern Philosophy. Though not himself a father, Descartes articulates a poignant insight regarding the attitude of fathers toward their children, one that is entirely free of self interest. Does this resonate with you?
On the other hand, a good father’s love for his children is so pure that he desires to have nothing from them, and wills neither to possess them otherwise than he does nor to be joined to them more closely than he already is; instead, considering them each as another self, he seeks their good as his own, or with even greater solicitude, because he prefers their interests to his, and is not afraid to lose himself in order to save them. The affection people of honor have for their friends is of this same nature, though it is rarely so perfect.
I’ve often wondered how the philosopher who declared “I think therefore I am” knew Joe Valentine so well. I’ll be forever grateful, however, that he captured the essence of my own Dad’s love more elegantly than I ever could. To all these great men, living and deceased: Happy Father’s Day!