You know the Gospel passage about Jesus being “lost” in the temple. Of course, he wasn’t lost at all. At 12 years old, he just took it upon himself to stay behind when his family departed Jerusalem so he could interact with the elders in the temple.
Well, as we know, Mary and Joseph walked all the way back and found him after a three-day search, the story ending with his mother indicating that she would “treasure all these things in her heart.” Oh, yeah? That might be what mothers do, and we all know that Mary was not just any mother, but what about poor old Joseph? He must have been rolling his eyes, totally confused. I think that is why they never let Joseph talk in the Bible!
Meanwhile, they convince Jesus to come back with them to Nazareth, where he submits to their parenting for the next 18 years. Somehow, I can’t imagine Jesus being quiet for 18 years, which leads us to consider poor Joseph once again, still in the dark, down at the local watering hole with his cronies who are asking him, “Joseph, how’s that boy of yours doing? Still out talking to all of the locals about things they don’t understand? Can’t you do something to rein him in? He’s becoming a bit of an embarrassment to himself and your family.”
Of course, Joseph says, “What can I do? His mother says to leave him alone, he knows what he is doing. You know how it is – a father doesn’t have much to say about these matters. He and his mother seem to have a special relationship. I just stay out of the way, keep my head down and hope for the best.”
Isn’t this the way for fathers?
Cain and Able presented the initial challenge, but we baby boomers did quite a job on our dads, too, with rock ’n’ roll music, beards and long hair, questioning everything from government to religion to the traditional work ethic, going to school forever in subjects that barely got us jobs, etc.
And now today’s fathers face still new challenges related to the autonomy that modern kids have. They have their own cars, phones and computers and can do all kinds of things without their fathers ever knowing about it. They get their direction in life from the internet, TV, videos, their friends and their music. If they do have something to discuss with a parent, they are more likely to go to their mother. Dad would be a last resort.
In 1970, Alexander Mitscherlich wrote “Society Without the Father,” in which he described trends toward a fatherless western world. Ten years later, Peter G. van Breeman published “Certain as the Dawn,” in which he foresaw a decline of fatherhood and lamented, “To my father I owe my roots. Thousands of generations of ancestors have lived and died, but when my father dies, I am an orphan. It is through my father that I am rooted to my forefathers. We need these roots more now than ever before.”
Mothers will always be in the forefront with songs written about them and a day dedicated to them that ranks behind only Christmas and Easter in its sacredness. Perhaps fathers need to step up their act if they want to remain even a distant second to mom.
What’s a dad to do?
The key to being a loving father might be, as St. Joseph did, to (1) let go, while (2) remaining available. Doing either one of these two mandates is relatively easy by itself, but doing both together is difficult.
For example, you might let your children go while admonishing them to “keep on going and don’t come back here expecting me to bail you out.” On the other hand, you could be very possessive and impose your availability on them. Neither of these one-sided approaches would be love to the fullest. It takes both: letting go while remaining available.
Other things a loving father might do well to realize is that when he creates a child, he does not know how the child will turn out at the beginning or in the end. But through his creative act, he is committing himself to staying with the child through thick and thin; that is, remaining available.
This means vulnerability, in that the child can hurt the father just as easily as love him in return, which further means that fathers must be forgiving. Van Breeman states that “the father having given life once, can also restore it,” with forgiveness.
Ultimately, however, fathers can take solace in that they are not one and the same as their children. Fathers are still individuals with their own identity and lives to live. In this sense, despite doing everything they can to guide their children, earthly fathers, like God the Father, have to remain above it all. That is, whatever course the child chooses to take, the father’s life still goes on and can be happy, just as God’s peaceful existence continues despite humanity’s often ill-fated choices.
One last aside
Once a father, always a father, and you certainly want to remain available if called upon even in your golden years (hopefully for advice rather than money). However, I think old fathers, fathers emeriti, the veterans who have been lucky enough to make the rank of grandfather, should step aside on Father's Day. That’s right! All attention should be given to the young fathers still on active duty, still in the trenches, the ones who truly need the support and reinforcement from their families and the community, at large.
The old guys are retired now, in the reserves, cheering the young soldiers on, but they no longer are in the heat of battle themselves. If grandparents’ day ever catches on, then maybe the veterans of past parenting will get one last hurrah, one last nod, one final pat on the back for their sometimes forgotten years of service.