Patriarchy has had a ‘bad rap’ in recent years. It seems that no matter what leftist movement we’re talking about, all appear united in a common belief that ‘patriarchy’ is an unequivocal evil which must be destroyed. Typical also of leftist ideology is that this abuse of reason is only matched by an ignorance of grammar and the English language. If we asked the average college indoctrinated graduate what the patriarchy they decry actually was, we would probably hear something like “the leadership of old, white males.”
Yet what “patriarchy” actually means, in its Greek roots, is ‘rule by fathers’. In a similar fashion, ‘matriarchy’ does not technically mean ‘rule by women’, but rather ‘rule by mothers‘. This is an important distinction, and one that is constantly, and tellingly, overlooked.
It does not seem to me obvious that patriarchy or matriarchy are two systems or paradigms which ought to be in conflict. Hopefully, in a family, both a mother and a father ‘rule’ jointly, and although the headship of the family biblically is asked of the man, we are not meant to understand this as a brute power dynamic, any more than when Genesis says that man may have ‘dominion’ over the created order, that means such a dominion should be tyrannical and rapacious.
Christians always view leadership as involving self-gift and self-sacrifice, with Christ himself as the model and archetype. However, we ought not to forget that Christ himself, humanly speaking, was formed by the virtues and personality of the man Saint Joseph, who as the last of the Patriarchs bridged the Old and New Testaments, much like the life and ministry of Saint John the Baptist formed a bridge in the prophetic order.
The fact that Saint Joseph can be rightly viewed as the last of the great Old Testament patriarchs is evident in the typologies found in the infancy narratives of both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels. Saint Joseph has numerous similarities to the Patriarch Joseph, the son of Jacob, who was a dreamer, a wise and just man, and a faithful steward. Like most Old Testament types, they both inform our view of their New Testament fulfillment, and are also completed by the same. Perhaps this is part of what is meant by calling Saint Joseph in his litany the “Light of Patriarchs”. He illuminates the role of the righteous patriarchs through the centuries, who by their fidelity to the call of grace, and in spite of their failures, show us how truly intergenerational the influence of a good father can be.
The patriarchs of old, in turn, also illuminate and foretell Saint Joseph’s own role as the foster-father of the Savior. We can see Saint Joseph in Abraham, who, in his great faith, travelled to a land he did not know to fulfill God’s providential design for him. We can see Saint Joseph in Jacob, who, when he saw a ladder climbing from heaven to earth in a dream, foreshadowed the Incarnation of the Son of God, whose divine nature is now inextricably linked with our own. We can see Saint Joseph in his namesake, Jacob’s son Joseph, who, in going to Egypt, carefully guarded the reserve of food by which his host country, as well as the nations around it, were saved from famine. Saint Joseph likewise guarded with zeal the one who called himself the Bread of Life, whose flesh and blood are true food and drink.
The Old Testament Patriarchs are not the only ones who receive illumination from the figure of Saint Joseph. Saint Joseph also enlightens modern day patriarchs, and also strengthens and beautifies our own conception of what we understand Christian patriarchy to be. In a very real sense, every person, whether or not they have physical children, are meant to be spiritually fruitful. If we have no children or many children, every Christian adult has a part to play in cherishing and passing on the values and priorities necessary for the sake of the well-being of the whole Church.
All of us have a role in protecting those who come after us, because those generations yet to be born have no power to form what we do, and so are most at our mercy. As Scripture reminds us, if “the fathers eat sour grapes, the children’s teeth are set on edge”. In a true sense, every Christian man is meant to be a patriarch, and every Christian woman is meant to be a matriarch; for no one enters heaven alone, but in relationship to countless other lives which are touched by one’s deeds and presence.
Saint Joseph shows us very clearly what it means to be a patriarch, because he demonstrates in the Scriptures, both by what is known and what is unknown, the law of love, as we find in St. Paul’s description of the virtue of love in his first Epistle to the Corinthians. First, love is patient, which means a willingness to endure suffering. Saint Joseph did that obediently throughout his life, from the very moment he was betrothed to Mary. Saint Joseph demonstrates the kindness of love not only by his devotion to Mary and Jesus, but also to us, his clients who approach him with confidence here on earth. Saint Joseph shows how love “protects, trusts, hopes, perseveres” (1 Cor 13:7) by his protection of his family, his trust and hope in the providence of God, and his holy death, in the company of the two holiest people to ever grace this world.
Saint Joseph did not speak much, but then again, Saint Paul reminds us that if we were to “speak the tongues of men and angels” without love, we are only “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1). Saint Joseph’s silence, much like Our Blessed Mother’s, shows us how the silence of love often speaks more eloquently than words can express.
Many commentators on Saint Joseph, during this year dedicated to him, often hold him up as a model of masculinity, and that is absolutely legitimate. But more specifically, he is not only meant to be that sort of model. He was God’s predestined choice to be an earthly father, a prerogative which rivals only that of Mary, the Blessed Mother. God the Father bestowed on Saint Joseph a legitimate, powerful, and certainly humbling patriarchy, in that he was given authority by the Eternal Father to care for the Word Incarnate. Saint Joseph thus illuminates the patriarchy in the natural family, by showing us the great power for good which a loving and provident father can provide, just as the Eternal Father, “from whom all paternity (πατρια) in the heavens and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15), creates and steadfastly sustains the universe.
Saint Joseph also illuminates patriarchy in the order of grace, of which sacred priesthood is a part. Just as our Blessed Mother in a sense bore us all as Christ’s Body in the order of grace because she bore our Head in the order of nature, so too by protecting and nurturing Christ, Saint Joseph guarded his most precious charge, and likewise guards us. Without his wisdom and courage, would any of the Gospels have made it past the first few verses?
If patriarchy truly meant rule by old men, I’m not so sure I would see the intrinsic benefit in it. Technically, that is not patriarchy, but gerontocracy. Rule by the old does not necessarily entail that it will be good. However, if we understand patriarchy as a concept formed by Christian discipleship and the illumination of the life and example of Saint Joseph, the Light of Patriarchs, perhaps we can understand afresh what his presence and example mean to every Christian man. I cannot see how anyone would, without some degree of perversity of will, reject such a patriarchy of love and benevolence. If Saint Joseph is our exemplar of what patriarchy means, I say, long may it reign in our midst!
(Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared in slightly different form at Scutum et Lorica.)
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