In reviewing some of my writing during the course of the death of my father, I have come to the conclusion that I was sometimes rather hard on God during that time. Now, as one of my friends says, "God is a big boy and can take care of Himself." I am certain the rantings of a grief-stricken man are easily overlooked in his Divine mercy and strength. However, God, as revealed in the Scriptures, does appear to have a concern for his reputation. Accordingly, I may be treading on thinner ice than I would like to admit.
My particular concern has to do with a statement I made as to God's inability to empathize with the loss of a father . He did experience the death of His own son (though according to the cry of Jesus on the Cross, it appears He cut out before the end came). Yet he had not experienced living with the slow and painful death of a father.
On further reflection, I was wrong. God did, in fact, experience the death of a parent, despite the fact that He is the Parent of us all. In that way, when I was in the depth of my anger and grief, I had sold God short. He indeed, could say to me, "I have been there. I know and understand."
I can now say this because, if the incarnation means anything at all, it means that what Jesus experience, God experienced as well. I may not be able to understand this relationship, or even the niceties of exactly how it worked, but my faith does not demand such knowledge. It only demands that I acknowledge that it is and was true. We have a savior that truly was tempted as we are, that knows and understands us. It also demands that I acknowledge in some way that God the Father, through Jesus, shares in this same knowledge and understanding.
So what Jesus experienced in the flesh, God somehow too experienced the same. To say otherwise is to reduce the doctrine of the incarnation to a mere mental exercise and rob it of its power and comfort to a pained and lost world–or to a pained and lost, albeit temporarily, Christian son in the throws of grief.
Did Jesus experience the loss of a parent, and especially that of a father? The tradition of the church says that in fact, he did just that. We note that the last time Jesus' father in the earthly sense was mentioned, it was when Jesus was 12 years of age. Once Jesus ministry starts at the age of 30, Scripture notes that Mary sometimes followed (and sometimes interfered with) her son. Joseph is not mentioned in this task. Only Mary and Jesus' brothers make appearances in the Gospel story from this point on. The church says that the reason for this lack is that by this time Joseph was dead.
The odds are strongly in favor of the church's assertion in this regard. According to most historians, "by the age of 12, most people alive during the first century would have reached the midpoint of their lives." (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, by Bruce Malina and John Pilch) This means that if people wanted to live long enough to see their children reach some level of independence before they died, then marriages and childbirth had to come much earlier for them than it does for us. I remember reading in Jim Bishop's The Day Christ Was Born, that Mary was probably around 12 years old when she was betrothed to Joseph and received the announcement that she was pregnant. This assertion appears to be historically accurate, as Geza Vermes in Jesus the Jew also notes that "it was possible, the evidence shows, for a girl to marry and cohabit with her husband before reaching puberty."
In simple terms, what would be taken for a crime against nature in our culture was a matter of survival for them then. If women waited until 18 or 20 to get married, as would be considered proper now, the death rate would have overtaken the birthrate within a very short period of time. (Not that I am advocating marriage to teenaged girls now. Thankfully, with the blessing of a longer life expectancy in our time, such a premature maturity is no longer necessary. Children can spend the longer time necessary in our culture in study and learning; prerequisites for trades in our time that also was not as necessary in theris. However, we still have the phenomenon of "children having children" so perhaps our biology has not yet caught up with our sociology.)
So if we take Mary's pregnancy as starting at the young age of 12 that would mean the Mary would have been almost 42 years old at the time Jesus started his public ministry. This would have been the minimum age for Joseph at that time as well. In fact, since husbands in the first century tended to be three to 10 years older than their spouses, than he would have been even older, in the range of the mid to later forties.
If that young marriage age is abhorrent to us, then that throws Mary's (and therefore Joseph's) age at the time of Jesus' ministry to be even higher. Such ages put the odds well against Joseph still being alive at that time. The first century peasant society was a dangerous time. According to In Search of Paul by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed:
In preindustrial society about one-third of live births were dead by six, two-thirds by sixteen, and three-quarters by twenty-six years of age. In that ancient world, and in all those places where the modern world is still ancient, death is not life's future and distant end, but its present and constant companion. Even apart from death by war, famine, and plague, there was death by injustice's disease, malnutrition's exhaustion, and infection's contagion.
According to Malina and Pilch, only 10% of the population lived to see their 40th year; as few as 3% lived to see their sixties. Most children lost one if not both parents by the time they themselves reached puberty. The fact that Joseph was an artisan only increased his odds of an early death. Like the asbestos that killed my father, the work environment of the first century tradesman would have been froth with danger. Any minor cut or injury-and a carpenter had to incur many-could have been deadly in a world with few remedies against infection and disease. (Indeed, until the invention of antibiotics in the previous century, many tradesmen up until the 1900's faced the same potential for an early and drawn out death.)
The fact that Joseph failed to live to see his son start his ministry is not incredible at all. What is incredible is that Mary managed to live so long. Having one parent alive by the time you were 30 would have been a rare enough occurrence in the first century. Both would have been almost impossible.
So Joseph was dead by the time Jesus started to gather his disciples and proclaim his word of the Kingdom of God to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Jesus probably lived at home, applying the trade Joseph gave him, at the time Joseph died. It is not beyond the pale of imagination that Jesus, as the first born son, was there by Joseph's side as he died. As first born son, Jesus had duties in terms of his honor, to supervise and administer the burial of Joseph. Also as first born son, Jesus would have had primary responsibility to then support and care for his newly widowed mother.
Though Christian doctrine says that Joseph was not Jesus' biological father, the sociological and emotional bonds would still have been there. The bonds between Joseph and Jesus would have been that of father and son in the first century as well as our own. I doubt adopted children, especially those who were raised by their adoptive parents from infancy, feel the pains of separation at death any less than those whose ties are through blood. Perhaps they feel it even more.
So any way you cut it, Jesus did experience the death of a parent, as specifically that of a father. Jesus was where I was on that horrible day in May as I watched my father die. Jesus knew then and knows now that pain that the power of death brings in our life.
Yet the pain Jesus experienced had to be even greater than my own. As my father died, I was powerless to do anything to prevent it. Yet Jesus knew that within a decade, he would have a ministry of healing, resurrection, and restoration. Yet, as Joseph lay dying, that same ministry of healing was denied him. Jesus could have healed Joseph, yet in obedience to his true Father in Heaven, his time had not yet come. That ministry of healing could start in Capernaum a few years in the future, but they could not start with his own earthly father who had risked so much of his own reputation and honor to raise Jesus as his own.
How much did the words on the cross echo a previous sentiment of Jesus must have felt at that time? "He healed others. Why can he not heal himself?" At Joseph's deathbed, did Jesus think to himself, "I will heal others; why can I not heal him now?"
Now that is a pain that I will thankfully never have to experience. Yet Jesus did it as well on my behalf and for the sake of the Father.
And through Jesus, God too knows the pain of the death of a father. The incarnation says that God is not aloof from the lives of men, but has lived them Himself in the live, death, and resurrection of the Son of God.
I don't understand it. I can't even fully explain it. But I do not have to do so. I only have to take comfort in living for a God who indeed, knows and understands all things; who is like me in all things, save sin.
It is a doctrine like that which would take over the world with its vision of compassion, forgiveness, and empathy. It has done it in the past and will continue to do so in the future.