Last month, for Mother’s Day, I offered a reflection on the idea that a domestic Church (the family) can be analogized to a ship at sea. We are the pilgrim Church on earth, bound for our Heavenly homeland and the family is a microcosm of the Church. In the analogy I said that Mom was represented by the sails of the ship. If Mom is the sail then Dad is the rudder. The rudder, submerged in the water, gives the ship direction. This direction is the spiritual headship of the father and it is rooted in Scripture and Church teaching (notice I said “spiritual” headship, not “tv remote” headship or “I don’t have to do any housework” headship). Dads have the duty to bring family to God through a style of leadership that is modeled by Jesus and his adoptive father, Saint Joseph.
Saint Joseph has no lines in all of scripture. Like a rudder he remains mostly obscured. What speaks most loudly are Joseph’s actions, specifically his obedience to God. Even when he was told that God’s will for him was to risk public shame in marrying Mary, or to display humility in accepting less than ideal conditions for his wife to deliver Jesus, or to risk life and limb by escaping King Herod or to risk it again by returning to Nazareth, in all these instances Joseph obeyed. As head of his family Joseph gave Mary and Jesus the best thing he could give—subordination to God’s will without complaint or compromise. The same is required of all good fathers.
Christ shows what it means to be husband and father by dying for his Bride, the Church. Nothing Jesus said or did was to glorify himself or assert his own authority. Jesus only ever did the will of the Father. He was obedient to God even unto death, due to love for his Father and love for us. It is only through the lens of this kind of servant leadership shown by Christ and Saint Joseph that Ephesians 5:28-33 makes sense (the infamous “wives be subordinate to your husbands” passage). I encourage you to look it up and reflect on it in light of Christ and his Church, or Joseph and the Holy Family. There’s a tendency, especially in our more progressive and egalitarian society, to dismiss this passage as an embarrassing vestige from a lesser time. And while it is true that many men have been guilty of abusing their headship and “lording it over others” in the past and some still do today, I think it would be a mistake to throw a truth away because of a corruption of that truth. In this week’s gospel Jesus says, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Despite the way headship can be misconstrued, a father is still called to lead his family to Christ by denying himself and taking up his cross first.
I’ve had the opportunity to observe the family dynamics of raising children to be faithful disciples of Jesus. In my experience the faith of a child can have a coldness and rigidity when mom’s input is muted or absent. When dad doesn’t take up his role as spiritual head there is almost no faith to be found at all. My father and mother worked together in a complementary way to raise us as Catholic disciples of Jesus Christ. We participated in Holy Mass every Sunday and on holy days of obligation. We prayed the Rosary as a family. We talked about Jesus openly and often. My father and I would go camping and have some really great talks about what about our faith in God meant. It is because he took his duty as spiritual head seriously that I have a relationship with Jesus. I never got that football scholarship to Notre Dame. I didn’t graduate at the top of my class. I have yet to earn my first million. But I know who I am and I know am loved. I know Who made me and why He made me. And thanks to my dad, I know what kind of father I must be.
“‘Remember that one day your child will follow your example instead of your advice.’