Jonathan Baker considers the role of fatherhood in the family of the Church
Anglo-Catholics are good at celebrating feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and quite right too, for all Christians should honour Our Lady, the one through whom Our Lord received his human nature, the one who bore him in her womb, fed him at her breast, and sorrowed for him at the foot of the cross. But on this festival we are invited to do something less typical of catholic devotion or Christian piety more generally, and that is to honour the husband of Mary and the foster-father of Our Lord, St Joseph. This too is a very good and proper thing for us to do, and, it seems to me, that this is a particularly appropriate festival on which to inaugurate the ministry of Fr David Chislett as the new parish priest of All Saints, Benhilton.
The first verse of tonight’s reading from St Matthew is in fact the last verse of his genealogy of Jesus, with which Matthew begins his gospel. It’s an idealised genealogy—14 generations of the tribes of Israel, fourteen generations of kingdom of Israel, fourteen generations of the dispossessed of Israel. Into the otherwise exclusively male list of names, St Matthew intersperses those of four women—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba—all of whom had something unusual or even illicit about them, women who were not of the chosen people of God, women who were (to put it politely) of dubious reputation. Perhaps by including them, St Matthew was hoping to tell his readers that God could act, as it were, outside the usual channels, thus preparing them for the greatest surprise of all: that Jesus was born of Mary, though (as St John has it) not of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
But let’s leave aside for now that fascinating question of the women in Matthew’s list. The genealogy is designed to emphasise that in Jesus, all the promises of God to the house of Israel are fulfilled. The redeemer does not spring out of nowhere, but has been long prepared for through the centuries of God’s patient, faithful, generous dealings with his people, even if they have not recognised or responded to his loving purposes for them and for the whole creation. Joseph is not simply Mary’s betrothed: it is promised to him even before the Lord’s birth that he will truly be his foster-father, because the angel of the Lord gives to him, to Joseph, the privilege and the responsibility of giving Jesus his name, the name which means, literally, ‘O Lord, save.’ And in Jewish tradition, the husband of a child’s mother, even if that child was not biologically his own, became his, became adopted by him, by the means of giving that child his name. As one writer has put it, the feast of St Joseph is ‘a celebration of adoption.’ I think it is not too far-fetched to suggest that the celebration of an institution and induction is also a sort of ‘a celebration of adoption.’
Fr David and the people of All Saints are not exactly strangers to one another as Father has celebrated the sacraments here often, and was a sure support during Fr Peter’s sabbatical and during the recent period of vacancy. But this is a new phase and a new relationship, and priest and people now make a kind of covenant in which they commit to work together in this place for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Being a step-parent, whether or not you go through the business of legally adopting your step-children, can be a tricky business (I know, I’m one myself) but of course it can also be immensely rewarding, a widening of the circle of one’s relationships which can be a blessing. It is a relationship which really has to be based on trust with nothing taken for granted. Joseph trusted God, utterly; he has the faith not to do what would have been so easy to do, what everyone would have understood him doing if he’d done it, to put Mary away quietly and get on with re-making his life. But Joseph trusted God, he was obedient, he was faithful, he demonstrated (as of course did Mary his wife) what it really means to be a disciple.
Joseph, the holy guardian as we call him, went on to play a vital part in the unfolding story of salvation, the unfolding story of the birth, infancy, nurture and coming to maturity of the incarnate word. Without Joseph’s courage and steadfastness, without him taking with utter seriousness the vocation to be a husband and a father, who knows what calamities would have befallen the Holy Family, who knows how short the story of our salvation might have been cut. Did God have a ‘Plan B’ had murderous Herod’s soldiers got to Jesus and killed him in infancy? Well the answer to that question is not ours to know, but what we do know is that the saving purposes of God seem to require the co-operation of many human agents, including that of Joseph, to bring them to fruition. This chimes very deeply with what we believe about the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ: that he works his purposes neither through hurling thunderbolts and raining down fire, nor by sitting, as it were, on the sidelines of his creation and watching indifferently to see what we make of it, but by working through the lives of men and women, by changing hearts and transforming communities. There’s something very important there about parish life and parish ministry I’m sure, and with a little encouragement I could go on for hours, but we’ve all got a party to go to so I won’t delay us much longer.
One thing I will say in conclusion is this: St Joseph may not be Our Lord’s biological father, but, as we’ve heard, he is his foster father in a way which carried great weight in the Hebrew culture of the age. Fr David comes to be your new Vicar, and he comes as a father of his own children (and as a father who has born no small loss and tragedy in that vocation) and he comes as a spiritual father, as a priest in the Church of God, as your priest in this place. Both kinds of fathering, of fatherhood, are absolutely crucial, and both, on the wider stage, could not unfairly be said to be in some kind degree of crisis. So many children lack a good model of what it means to be a father, and the vocation to be a father, to be, dare one say, an adult male with responsibilities in the domestic sphere, is one which needs cherishing and some degree of rescuing today. In the church, the spiritual fatherhood of priests has been compromised and even destroyed for many because of the grievous crime of child sexual abuse, and the abuse of vulnerable adults, which we are re-living through the proceedings of IICSA even at this very moment. But the Church needs priests—no, humanity needs priests, after the likeness of Jesus Christ our great high priest—in order that men and women might truly flourish and find their home in God. Tonight, then, we can ask St Joseph’s prayers for all fathers and for all priests, and for priests who are doubly fathers, like your new vicar—and me.
Fr David, in its parish profile the people of All Saints asked for a preacher and a teacher. We know you rejoice to teach and many of us have been enriched, deeply, by your teaching in spoken and written form. They asked for a spiritual guide, they asked for a pastoral heart; I believe you will offer them both these things. They asked for a priest who would rejoice in the opportunities for ministry afforded by the close relationship this parish has with its church school next door—again, I think all the evidence suggests that things can only go well. They asked for a team player, for someone who understood the need to make better known all the good things that happen here, to put All Saints on the map. They asked for an evangelist. Above all, they asked for a faithful catholic priest, who would hand on, through word and sacrament, the faith once delivered to the saints. The profile also spoke of that which is ‘invariably lofty and spacious but of somewhat flamboyant design,’ but that bit was about Teulon’s architecture and not the qualities sought in the new parish priest!
The Rt. Revd. Jonathan Baker is the Bishop of Fulham. This homily was preached for the collation and induction of Fr David Chislett, All Saints, Benhilton, on St Joseph’s Day 2018.