By Anthony MacIsaac
Inter-religious dialogue has often touched upon the topic of Motherhood, and there has been a wealth of reflection on this, even unto the apparently radical idea of God as Mother. Not so often, it would seem, has Fatherhood been discussed in this way. In this “Year of St. Joseph” – inaugurated by Pope Francis, and ending this December – it seems pertinent to consider what Fatherhood means more deeply.
To begin with St. Joseph himself, Christianity generally considers him the “Foster-Father” of Jesus Christ. In a certain sense of analogy, the Holy Family resembles the Holy Trinity. Jesus Christ as the Son, Mary as the Holy Spirit, St. Joseph as the Father. Alike to the Father – St. Joseph remains in the background, and is an unseen presence. His position within Christian piety has fluctuated. In the medieval period, he was often seen even as a cantankerous nuisance – caricatured as such in the carnival performances, which sought to emulate the key elements of Christ’s life, usually on Shrove Tuesday. It is difficult to say how this unfortunate image grew, but it seems to have been culturally rooted in the time. Many may have considered him an unequal spouse to the Virgin Mary, and the role of step-father may have been thought of in negative terms. Yet, it could be that the humour regarding St. Joseph was in good natured spirits too. Whatever the case, his cult soon grew, especially with his role as Patron of the “Good Death”. Since he disappears from the Gospel early on, he is considered to have died during Jesus’ teenage years. By the 19th century, he was seen as “The Worker”, and a Patron to labourers everywhere. His popularity continued to increase, and in the 20th century his role began to emerge anew as a Father-figure. He was invoked in particular as a Saint of family life. With the “Year of St. Joseph”, his status might be at its apogee, and it would seem the Catholic Church is calling her members to a greater consideration of this holy man. In short, his role as a Father-figure carries with it many connotations. Even if he wasn’t perfect, his hard work as a carpenter and his devotion to Mary provided a safe and secure environment for Jesus to grow. Himself taking on the carpentry that St. Joseph no doubt taught Him, Jesus became a man probably quite like St. Joseph, doubtless also in His tenderness and care for those around Him. It is also notable that the Jews of this time saw Jesus as the son of Joseph, to the extent that the genealogy of Jesus refers back to King David via him – even if Mary’s genealogy is actually used in one of the Gospels.
The place of the father within Islam has certain similarities to that of St. Joseph within Christianity. When the Prophet Muhammad’s mother Aminah fell pregnant, her husband Abdullah left for a trading trip. Tragically, during his time away he fell seriously ill, and died without ever meeting his son. The aged figure of Abd al-Muttalib, the father of Abdullah, then took Muhammad under his protection. Despite being Muhammad’s grandfather, Abd al-Muttalib raised the boy as his own son, and exerted a formative role in the boy’s growth. His place within the Islamic tradition is interesting, in that his earlier life is characterised by an adherence to the “old ways” of monotheism, before the coming of Islam. One episode in particular is striking, in that Abd al-Muttalib almost sacrifices his son Abdullah, alike to Abraham and Ishmael – in Islam it is Ishmael and not Isaac who occupied this place. The familial descent of Muhammad from Ishmael comes through the line of Abd al-Muttalib, whose own great-grandfather was Qusai, the King of Mecca. The parallels with Jesus’ descent from the King of Israel, David, and the preceding Patriarchs are clear. Dying when Muhammad was eight years old, one of Abd al-Muttalib’s other sons took on the role of foster-father to Muhammad, Abu Talib. The relationship between Abu Talib and his nephew was always one of warmth, but there is controversy as to whether he accepted Muhammad’s claims to prophecy – and he thereby remains a difficult figure in Muslim tradition. In any case, he helped his nephew secure his place within the Meccan community. Over time Muhammad himself became a father, and many Muslims today trace their ancestry back to his grandsons Hassan and Hussein. There are certain Sufi litanies that invoke these individuals, in prayer to God, and these reflect a veneration for Muhammad as father to the Ummah (Nation).
In Judaism, certain figures are likewise considered as fathers to the Chosen People. Abraham – venerated as “Father in Faith” by Jews, Christians and Muslims – represents the first among these, leaving asides the legendary Noah for now. Recently Pope Francis visited Abraham’s place of birth – the ancient city of Ur, in Iraq. This choice was made because of the unifying significance to the life of Abraham, whose role as father is key to God’s Covenant with him, that promises descendants as numerous as the stars. God even introduces Himself to Moses as the God “of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob”. With Jacob’s twelve sons, the twelve Tribes of Israel are evoked – and the Nation of Israel proper takes its foundation from these twelve Tribes. To take a brief glance back at Noah, his position as proverbial father of Humanity has also been used somewhat within Jewish apologetics to underscore the reality that we are all called to some share in God’s plan. There is much more that could be said here; however it seems good to highlight the role of fatherhood within mainstream Abrahamic religion as a creative, nurturing and guiding presence.
(Our Feature Image is Saint Joseph with the Infant Jesus by Guido Reni, c. 1635)