I never knew my paternal grandfather Louie, who died when my father was only 20.
And my dad rarely spoke of his father, who was 51 when my dad was born, and was often away from home because of his work as a carpenter and homebuilder. In rural South Dakota of the Depression-era 1930s, you took work where you could find it.
But Dad told me that his dad “was a good guy.” My family history research has produced material that affirms my dad’s assessment.
There are postcards, saved by my late aunt, that Louie wrote to my grandmother while he was away from home, all beginning with, “My dearest Clara,” and filled with tenderness, love and expressing his desire to be home soon.
There is also a story, related by my aunt, of how as a young man, Louie one day came upon an angry man beating his horse by the side of the road. My grandfather — who my aunt said “loved all animals” — was so incensed by this brutality that he grabbed the piece of wood the man was beating his horse with and gave the horse-beater a taste of his own lumber.
I think about Louie Nelson, carpenter son of Norwegian immigrants, in connection with St. Joseph, carpenter husband of the Virgin Mary and descendant of Abraham and David.
It’s highly unlikely that Joseph, from what we know of him, would ever strike another man, yet we can logically ascertain from our Christmas season readings that he had a sense of fairness, tenderness, faith and love about him. Why else would God have chosen him to be the earthly father of Our Lord Jesus?
We see that fairness in Joseph’s unwillingness to expose his young wife to shame, once he learned she was “with child” (Mt 1:18). We see that tenderness in how he cared for Mary during her pregnancy and birth (Mt 1:24, Lk 2:5), and how he led her and Jesus soon afterward into Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod (Mt 2:14).
And we see, most of all, that faith and love in Joseph’s obedient responses to the angel of the Lord, to protect his Holy Family, and then to care for and provide for them in their new home in Nazareth, enabling Jesus to grow “and become strong, filled with wisdom” (Lk 2:40).
Given all that we don’t know about Joseph, I nonetheless suggest that he had a good sense of what had been taught and proclaimed in the Hebrew Scriptures for hundreds of years, particularly in those we now employ in our Christmas liturgies:
— “Forever I will sing the goodness of the Lord,” says Psalm 89, from the Christmas Vigil Mass. “Forever I will maintain my kindness toward him, and my covenant with him stands firm” (Ps 89:29).
— In the Mass during the day, Psalm 98:2-3 declares, “The Lord has made his salvation known: In the sight of the nations he has revealed his justice. He has remembered his kindness and his faithfulness toward the house of Israel.”
— And in the first reading of the midnight Mass, the prophet Isaiah — speaking nearly 700 years before the time of Joseph — proclaims, “A child is born to us, a son is given us. … His dominion is vast and forever peaceful, from David’s throne, and over his kingdom, which he confirms and sustains by judgment and justice, both now and forever” (Is 9:5-6).
You do not need to be a Scripture scholar to have a sense of justice and fairness. Nor, in fact, do you need to be Catholic. Joseph wasn’t, nor was my grandfather.
Both, however, were good, decent, honorable men who loved their families, provided for them in less than ideal circumstances, and helped their sons to be good, strong and caring men. May such lessons inspire us all to be as loving, tender and faithful with one another.
(Catholic journalist Mike Nelson writes from Southern California.)