“The devil also exists in the twenty-first century, and we need to learn from the Gospel how to battle against him,” Pope Francis preached in a homily on April 11, 2014. Many are the weapons in our struggle against evil. In Ephesians, St. Paul urges us to put on the whole armor of God, including the shield of faith and the word of God as a sword. Unparalleled in power is the practice of invoking the name and authority of Jesus. We can also fly to the patronage of Our Lady, who crushes Satan under her feet. St. Michael the Archangel is also our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil. But let us not forget St. Joseph, honored under many titles including “terror of demons.”
As the husband of Mary and the earthly father of the Messiah, Joseph is portrayed in Scripture as a strong protector against evil. It is to Joseph that the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream, entrusting him with a mission to rescue Mary and the Child Jesus from Herod, by taking them into Egypt.
I would like to focus specifically on Joseph’s fatherhood, to better appreciate his indispensable role in counteracting the devil’s influence. In chapter 8 of the Gospel of John, Jesus in his dialogue with his interlocutors offers some fascinating insights into the deeper meaning of fatherhood. His opponents begin by boasting of their status, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus replies, “if you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but you are trying to kill me … if God were your father, you would love me, for I came from God … you are from your father the devil.” It is interesting to note that Jesus not only acknowledges the absolute and supreme Fatherhood of God, but also the importance of created fatherhood, whether it be that of Abraham or the devil.
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According to Jesus, a creature different from our biological progenitor can be our “father.” If we follow the example of a particular person and carry out his wishes, he may be called our “father.” “If Abraham were your father, you would be doing what Abraham did.” Jesus is speaking of a fatherhood not of genetics, but of imitation. Only if they lived and acted like Abraham could Jesus’s listeners claim Abraham as their father. If they were set on evil ways, they reveal they are sons of their father the devil. It is a sobering reminder that Satan can indeed become our “father,” and we can become devils. As Jesus once solemnly spoke, “I have chosen twelve of you, and is not one of you a devil?”
In Neal Lozano’s book Abba’s Heart, he reminds us that Satan, in addition to being a liar and a murderer, is also a counterfeit father. “He will do anything to distort our view of the Father and who we are in the Father’s image.” As children, we are very vulnerable and impressionable, open to truth but also susceptible to lies. If children are wounded by a father who neglects or abuses them, Satan can seize this opportunity to fix in the child’s mind an image of God the Father who is mean, cruel, punishing, and so on. (The truth about the Father is fully revealed through Christ, who in many ways was a “father” to his disciples, but here I would like to focus on the role of created fatherhood.)
Abraham the original patriarch may be called our “father in faith,” but Joseph is a father of an entirely higher order. Theology offers us a glimpse into the grandeur of St. Joseph by placing him firmly within the “Order of the Hypostatic Union.” Properly speaking, the hypostatic union refers to the unity of the divine and human natures in the Person of Christ. But in God’s providential plan for the salvation of the world, two human beings were chosen to belong to this “order”: Mary in her role as the Mother of God and Joseph as the husband of Mary and the foster father of Christ. Only one man in the history of the world was chosen by the eternal Father to be his visible Face to the Incarnate Son. Jesus the Son of God actually called Joseph “Abba” or “father”! Mary herself also referred to Joseph in this way, as she once told the 12-year-old Jesus, “Your father and I have been looking for you.”
In recent decades, interest in St. Joseph seems to be gathering momentum as theologians further explore the importance of this oft-forgotten saint. There are a few books I would recommend: Joseph the Silent by Michel Gasnier, Shadow of the Father by Andrew Doze, and Leonardo Boff’s Saint Joseph: The Father of Jesus in Fatherless Society. At first I was skeptical of reading Boff because of his background in liberation theology, but I deeply appreciated his insightful study, even though he pushes the limits of theological speculation, referring to Joseph as the “personification” of the Father. I prefer to think of Joseph as an “icon” of the Father. An icon is an image that speaks a thousand words and mysteriously makes present what it signifies. St. Joseph in his very person is an icon of God the Father, a living representation of many of the qualities and characteristics of the eternal Father.
Let us once again contrast St. Joseph and the devil, who keeps on repeating those same old lies about God. Imagine for a moment the lies were true, that the Father is a cruel and punishing God. How would we respond and behave? Most likely with our own share of bitterness and resentment, perhaps even becoming cruel and punishing ourselves. In other words, believing the devil’s lies about God the Father could eventually make us children of our “father” the devil. Obviously we need to follow the example of a different father, as Jesus encouraged his hearers to reflect in their actions that they were indeed children of Abraham. With regards to Joseph, naturally we are called to imitate his virtues, but I would like to focus our attention visually, on Joseph as an icon of the Father. If St. Joseph helps us see more clearly the truth about God, then we are more likely to live accordingly as beloved children of our Father in heaven.
I have found that the icon of Joseph has worked miracles for me in purifying my memory of a distorted image of God the Father implanted in my psyche since childhood. My cherished image of Joseph is a mounted photograph of a small statue from St. Joseph’s Oratory, blessed by Pope Pius X in 1909, depicting Joseph holding the Child Jesus. I keep it in my room, like a picture of a family member. It is now permanently imprinted on my imagination as a positive, healthy representation of the Father.
The innumerable miracles at the Oratory in Montreal are one of many proofs that Joseph is a real person, living in glory, interceding for us. During the lifetime of Saint Brother Andre at the Oratory, hundreds of petitioners would accost him daily, many with serious physical ailments such as cancer or paralysis. Some pilgrims were put off by the simplistic advice proffered by this uneducated lay brother, suggestions such as “rub some of St. Joseph’s oil on the cancerous spot,” or “pray a novena to St. Joseph, and go to confession and communion.” To the astonishment of many, simple acts of faith produced physical miracles that multiplied beyond counting, and Brother Andre gave all the credit to St. Joseph, while praising the goodness of God. I believe similarly powerful spiritual healings can occur today through the example and prayers of St. Joseph as an icon of God the Father.
At the Oratory, St. Joseph is most commonly represented in his paternity, as a humble, gentle, and loving father, holding the Child close to his heart. For some people, depending on early childhood experiences of fatherhood, they may shake their heads in disbelief, instinctively cringing at the preposterous idea that God the Father could be described in such a manner. Humble. Gentle. Loving. Let us pause to let the truth sink in. The Power that generated the entire universe, the Providence that rules and guides our lives is a Person, a Father who is humble and self-effacing, gentle and compassionate, patient and loving.
Gazing upon an image or statue of St. Joseph, or simply calling him to mind as an icon of God the Father, is not a mere psychological exercise in which we alone produce results by our own power. We gaze prayerfully upon the image asking for St. Joseph’s intercession, with a contemplative receptivity, a humble openness of heart.
Imperceptibly at first, like the dawning of the day, we are enlightened interiorly. A veil is lifted, and something like scales fall from our eyes, as we are transformed by the renewal of our minds and a purification of our imagination. Slowly but surely we are healed by the splendor of the truth into a revelation of God the Father’s true identity.
Yet Joseph, like God the Father, is by no means weak. A case can be made that it is precisely as an icon of the Father that Joseph is the “terror of demons.” In one of the bas-reliefs in the votive chapel at the Oratory, St. Joseph is portrayed, like a strong father, protecting two young people from the forces of evil. With a face set like flint in righteous anger, his outstretched arm and pointed finger cast out the demons, who shrink back like grotesque insects scurrying away from the light.
Crutches hang from the walls of this votive chapel, a very impressive sight for first-time visitors. In the days of Brother Andre, pilgrims who were lame, once healed, would leave their crutches behind in gratitude. Today, I wonder if many people are limping around mentally crippled or shackled by distorted images and lies about God the Father. I can imagine walls covered in balls and chains left behind, signs of inner healings received.
It has been said that we live in the “age of terror,” plagued by a gnawing sense of unease that random violence can erupt at any time or place. Certainly vigilance is warranted, but one wonders if the depth of our angst may be a sign we no longer experience the closeness and loving protection of God our Father. If the devil as a false father has succeeded in separating us from our true Father, we may need another father to help repair the damage and restore us to our inheritance as beloved sons and daughters. Perhaps now more than ever we need to turn to St. Joseph, the terror of demons, the icon of the Father of mercies.