The father as a model of love: Sunday reflection

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This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 2:13–15, 19–23:

When the magi had departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.” Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt. He stayed there until the death of Herod, that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled, Out of Egypt I called my son.

When Herod had died, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” He rose, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go back there. And because he had been warned in a dream, he departed for the region of Galilee. He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, He shall be called a Nazorean.

How do we see fathers in our culture today? At times, it appears under siege; some consider it unnecessary, while others think even less of it as a concept. Even in popular entertainment, fathers usually end up as gentle doofuses at best, well-meaning but clueless when not outright malicious. Rare is the model presented of responsible, steadfast fathers, although one could also make that observation about motherhood these days, too.

Some might consider that an improvement, or at least a nod to reality, to the models of fathers that popular culture imposed in earlier generations. In those times, fathers did no wrong, were all-wise if not exactly omnipotent, and were unquestioned leaders in their families. Neither model is a full reflection of reality, but at least the earlier model provided an aspirational view of fatherhood — and one that usually hit a little closer to the mark, in most cases.

Today’s Gospel reading gives us a glimpse of that aspirational view, but it’s the other readings that underscore the necessity of respecting the model of family.

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In today’s Gospel, Joseph has to make a series of life-and-death decisions about the future of his family. This is more than just the trivial crises that arise in our pop-culture entertainments; Joseph had tyrants trying to kill the baby he had to protect as the father of his house. He could not afford to be a goofy non-entity. Joseph had to make decisions and make them well, or someone would die, and likely all of them would die.

What did Joseph do? He didn’t assume his own omnipotence, nor did he consult only his own wisdom. Instead, he kept his heart open to the Lord and heeded His messengers. When they came to tell Joseph to get out of Judea, he packed up his family and did so. When the Lord told him to return, Joseph did, but wisely surveyed the situation and chose the safest path for Jesus and Mary.

The Gospels say nothing of Mary in these decisions, which itself is interesting. After all, it was Mary who received the Lord most fully and had the closest relationship to Him. The angels could just as well have told Mary all these things and let her relate them to Joseph. However, the Lord spoke to Joseph in these matters, and Joseph made these decisions on behalf of his family. Mary could have asserted herself in these decisions too — after all, she had no trouble asserting herself when kickstarting Jesus’ ministry at Cana — but instead appears to have chosen to allow Joseph to fulfill his role, his ministry, as a father. She put her trust in both Joseph and the Lord, just as Joseph put his trust in Mary and the Lord.

This models what St. Paul writes in his oft-misunderstood missive on marriage and the family in his letter to the Colossians. In our second reading today, we hear his famous admonition:

Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, so they may not become discouraged.

The critics of this passage leave out the critical context of what precedes it. Paul writes on the nature of true God-like love, and the family’s place in acting as a model of it:

Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

In this context, it is clear that Paul is using a poetic form to explain that caritas or agape love is always about subordination. Wives are subordinate to husbands so that they can carry out their own particular ministry, but the call for husbands to “love your wives” means to subordinate their selfish interests to serve their wives, including any delusions of power or grandiosity. Using “subordinate” as a call for being oppressed is a direct contradiction of the very next words from Paul’s pen, and clearly not what he meant in the context of the entire passage.

This is about creating a co-equal relationship built on self-giving love, not selfishness or power differentials. Paul calls husbands to love and serve, as Jesus put it later in the Gospels, with a servant’s heart, not rule as an overlord. The passage as a whole calls everyone, including the children, to mutually respect the complementary missions the Lord has given all of them, which models the complementary and self-giving love of life in the Trinity.

The story of Christmas itself models that complementary balance. Prior to the birth of Jesus, the Lord spoke to and worked through Mary for the benefit of Jesus. After the birth, the Lord spoke to and worked through Joseph. Both parents loved and respected each other and by doing so provided us a model of co-equal, and complementary but not identical, necessary roles of the family.

Needless to say, we all fall short of the perfect model of these roles. That doesn’t mean we should denigrate any of them, or discard them as relics of a bygone age. Mary and Joseph offers us a better model, one of equal dignity, respect, and purpose, formed toward the will of the Lord to build strong families and communities.

The front page image is a detail from “The Holy Family with a Palm Tree” by Raphael, c. 1506, currently on display in the Scottish National Gallery. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

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