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My friend’s six-year-old son wanted to be God the Father in the Christmas pageant. He reasoned that he was too old to play the second person of the Trinity, whose part in any case had been assigned to a doll. It was explained to him that the Father wasn’t in the cast of characters, despite his obvious theological significance. Jesus’s father with a lowercase f was the lead male role, but a boy doesn’t naturally look up to the Joseph of Christmas pageants. That thinly bearded fellow in the brown robe is such a downcast figure—a “just man,” St. Matthew tells us, and noble in all his ways, including his assent to the abruptly announced expectation that he will act as the legal father of a child his wife conceived not by him. Who wouldn’t be chagrined at this turn of events?

A six-year-old child doesn’t ask that question, but the tone of the nativity scene asks it for him. Joseph appears past his prime. His hairline recedes. His drawn face tells of long years of hardship. An art critic irreverently describes him as God’s “cuckold.” In scripture and hymns, when Jesus is called the son of David, Joseph’s distant ancestor, we see banners and hear trumpets. When Jesus is called the son of Joseph himself, we nod and understand it to mean that our Lord was born in a log cabin: “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” No match for his beautiful young wife, who has eyes only for her newborn God-sent son, Joseph in Christmas iconography exemplifies dutifulness, patience, humility—the whole range of beta-male virtues, as we tend to regard them. The kingdom and the power and the glory belong to the child’s unseen father in heaven. Jesus hardly ever stops talking about him. When Mary tells her son that she and his father were worried about him, the twelve-year-old boy in the Temple corrects her: “Don’t you know I must be about my father’s business?” Joseph says nothing.

From the moment he discovered that Mary was pregnant, he knew he wasn’t the child’s biological father, and now these many years later Jesus reminds him. Are Joseph’s feelings bruised? Perhaps the patron saint of “interior souls” appreciates the bracing effect of an honest blow to his ego, as a runner prizes the healthy muscle burn from a hard workout. Even as an adult Jesus will teach that “he who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,” suggesting that clarity about the hierarchy of values—loyalty to God ranks above loyalty to kin—was not just an expression of youthful zeal but a consistent theme with him up to the end. The principle was already established by Abraham when he obeyed God’s commandment to sacrifice Isaac: You are not the father of your son. God is. Your son belongs to him. God is his father if by “father” you mean the deeper source of the awe that a small boy feels in the presence of the man he calls “Dad.”

“Call no one on earth your father,” Jesus teaches, “for you have one father, who is in heaven.” But the meaning of “father” would evaporate if there were no men to whom we could apply the term even in scare quotes. Traditional churches in particular act on that understanding. The Eastern Orthodox have patriarchs. Catholics have the Holy Father in Rome. They address their priests as “Father.”

Priest, pope, patriarch: Christians hold up their father figures as rough sketches of God—but not even sketches, really, so much as symbols, which point to something without necessarily resembling it. If you point your finger at a landmark off in the distance, a dog will look at your finger, not the landmark. People are susceptible to the same misunderstanding. Human fatherhood is too emotionally charged a concept for skeptics to take their eyes off it long enough to contemplate what the Church, following Christ, intends it to signify. Freud taught that God is an imaginary object of our “longing for a father,” whereas for Christians a father is only what our hearts settle on for a time before completing their climb to God in heaven, in whom they find their rest.

Believers can agree with Freud about one element in his definition of God: Their attitude toward God the Father is characterized by longing. Others might call it instinct. I think of it as appetite. It’s irrepressible and a sign of vigor, like thirst.

But how do you slake it when the water supply is poisoned? I mean not just the sex abuse scandals that have damaged the reputation of the Catholic priesthood in our time. I mean the larger cultural trend that has been described variously as “the decline of males” (Lionel Tiger) and “the end of men” (Hanna Rosin). Across the West, the meaningfulness of fatherhood has faded to the point that Christianity struggles to make its theology understood or, where it is understood, admired. Some 30 to 40 percent of American children now grow up in homes where their biological fathers are entirely or largely absent, while religious observance wanes, particularly among the young. When your father has abandoned you and you’re told that God is your father, you’re liable to hate God, if you assume that he even exists.

A boy can be deprived of his father but not of his need for validation from older males he finds adequate. If they redirect his worship from themselves to its proper object, he’ll turn to God. Imagine the first time that the infant Jesus in his human innocence reached out to Joseph, who, though imperfect, had the distinction of being the only man the boy had yet encountered. From what the gospels and tradition tell us about Joseph’s character, we might infer that he pointed the child to his true Father in heaven. It would have been the most fatherly act a man ever performed, the very picture of fatherhood.

Nicholas Frankovich is an editor at National Review.

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Image by Belozerov Mikhail licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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