A couple of months before arriving in Jerusalem, I was driving my six-year-old daughter to school and she asked me about Jesus' footprints. Not the real one located inside the Chapel of the Ascension, rather, she wanted to talk about the ones from famous poem called Footprints. She had seen the poster of it hung up in her school hallway, but wasn't able to read more than a few words of it. Yet the picture of the sunlit beach and the lines in the sand was vivid enough to make a strong impression on her.
In the car, she asked me to recite it. Well, not recite it, really, but "to tell her the story of the footprints". I did my best to remember the full poem, but it was as though everything aside from the twist ending had receded from memory, half-washed away like a real footprint by the ocean's tide.
Later that day, after she'd come home from school, I made a point of finding the poem to read it to her. She listened intently, with wide eyes and a slight smile on her face, until the end, when asked me to read it again. And again. And again. And...again. Apparently, I told myself, the splendour of God's divine mercy doesn't lose its sheen after five successive readings. In any case, I was happy that she took so much joy from it, and maybe even some childlike comfort. Moreover, I was happy that her innocence and curiosity lead me back to this clever little poem which in its own way reminds us of the incredible mystery of God's ineffable love.
In the same way that Jesus shows this type of love to all his adopted sons and daughters, I too strive to give the same measure of unconditional, sacrificial love in my vocation as father and husband. If the family is the domestic church, like St. John Paul II has written, then it is my job to be as holy as possible, so that I can help lead my whole family to heaven. And what better role model do I have for holy fatherhood than St. Joseph?
We can try to envision what it must have been like for a simple, devout man to undertake -- and I'm probably understating this just a little bit -- the most important job in the entire history of world. Over the course of less than a year, Joseph would go from bachelor to newlywed to father of a King. Now, at the time he may not have fully realized that last part, but still, for what parent is their child not the tiny prince or princess of their own universe? Either way, from the moment Jesus was born, St. Joseph knew it was his job to help care and protect him, to dutifully and lovingly raise him from boy to man, educating him in matters of life, work and faith. A daunting task, for sure, but one that was undertaken with great hope and humility, approached with the same fiat that Mary gave.
Clearly, Joseph was a man of devotion. He showed this in the way he treated Mary so honourably in marriage. In the way he loved her and the child inside her womb by bearing much of the physical burden of leading the family from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It was also shown by the lines and marks in his weathered hands. The way he worked with them, strenuously and tirelessly to provide for the material needs of his family. Looking at St. Joseph The Worker, it is easy to see how so many men have lost sense of their purpose because they've lost sense of their duty, which is, when it all comes down to it, the day-to-day task of loving service.
Under his earthly father's watchful eye and gentle tutelage, Jesus would learn the ins and outs of carpentry, what it meant to fashion useful things from the raw materials around them. We have no way of knowing what they made, but by the knowledge of their labour, we learn from both of them a great deal of what it means to be a proper son, a proper father and husband and very much a proper steward of God's creation. No doubt Jesus would have heard from Jospeh how important it was to use everything they could, not to waste any of their materials since to do so would be careless and irresponsible. Also, he would've been taught how important it was for a carpenter to use his time wisely so as to be able to meet any promise he might make to someone who was depending on him to finish a job. Joseph was bequeathing life skills to Jesus, but he was also giving good lessons in ethical behaviour.
These lessons probably did more to ennoble Joseph than they did to teach to teach the Son of God how to live a morally upright life. And in a way, the same could be said for any parent: the vocation of father or mother is truly a gift given by God. The job of being a parent is as much a sanctifying work for the adult as it is a useful education for the child. Like St. Joseph, the experience of raising children is meant to help train us to give more freely, love more fully, hurt more willingly, and desire heaven for everyone more thoroughly.
Being a parent is a pilgrimage. A long set of footprints which start in one place and end in another place ahead of you, a place which you can't quite make out for the low, bright sun hanging there in the sky. And when you look backward, the tide of grace has made your sandy footprints from five years ago almost unrecognizable compared to the footprints you made just three steps ago. And like St. Joseph carried Jesus when he was a boy, and the way Jesus carries us all through our lives, the most important thing we are called to do as parents is to carry our children as much as we can, leading them on a path to holiness.
Marc Boudignon is a Senior Editor for Salt + Light.