I dare not approach while He reposes near your heart. Press Him close in my name and kiss His fine head for me and ask Him to return the Kiss when I draw my dying breath. (from an ancient prayer to St. Joseph)
I want to talk about fathers. I want to talk about fathers because — despite what one might garner from nearly every aspect of popular culture — they matter. They matter profoundly. I want to talk about fathers today because it is the Feast of St. Joseph and the day in which our new Holy Father, Pope Francis, will celebrate his installation. So, in honor of these two humble and loving fathers and in honor of all humble and loving fathers, we need to talk.
One day early last week as our alarm clock radio started blaring at 6:30 a.m., the voice of a woman tore me from my sleep. “Top 10 reasons why your husband is just another one of your kids,” she chortled. Bless her little heart. (This is a phrase my Southern women friends have taught me, which, given the proper intonation and inflection, connotes far more disdain than profanity could ever hope to muster.)
Let’s get a few things straight. Let’s start with what a father is not. A father is not an overgrown child (I’m sorry, almost every dad in almost every sitcom … it’s just not true.) A father is not a babysitter (so if you see a man out and about with his kids please refrain from telling him how great it is that he’s babysitting … it’s called parenting and you’d feel silly saying the same thing to a mother.) A father is not incompetent (he can change diapers, brush hair, kiss boo-boos, make snacks, cuddle babies, give baths, and all manner of other things at which fathers are generally presumed to be inherently inferior). A father is not destined by his gender to be a selfish and reluctant parent (again, my apologies to Homer Simpson, Ray Barone, and Al Bundy). A father is not an auxiliary parent. A father is not a mere donor of genetic material. A father is not replaceable, interchangeable, or irrelevant in the lives of his children.
Fathers matter. In a world in which men’s capacity as parents is constantly demeaned and belittled in television programs, commercials, and movies. In a world in which reproductive technology has enabled us to create families without the hassle of ever having to meet our “sperm donor.” In a world desperately in need of love that gives of itself quietly and constantly — love that makes us feel safe and honored and nurtured — fathers matter.
A father is someone who sings “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” or Otis Redding (with gusto, mind you) when you are so tired you can’t sleep. A father is someone who comes home very late after a long day at work (because maybe he’s working three jobs while writing his dissertation) and smiles tenderly at you as you eat all of the French fries and slurp down the last of the milkshake he got for his own dinner. A father is someone who will read you the Adventures of Frog and Toad (with all of the voices for all of the characters) a hundred million times if you ask him. A father is someone who knows how to comb your hair without occasioning a single tear. A father is someone who will let you crawl into bed next to him and will cradle you in his big, strong arms if you had a scary dream. A father is someone who sits up all night rocking you in the NICU when you are very, very little so you will not be alone under the fluorescent lights in the cacophony of beeping machines. A father is someone who understands and encourages your penchant for adventure. A father is someone who makes a mean quesadilla and provides you much needed respite from your mother’s attempts to feed you tons of sprouted grains, cultured dairy, and greens you never heard of before. A father is a confidant. A father is a binder of wounds. A father is a man who — in a million little ways (and sometimes very big ways) every day — puts his family ahead of himself. He matters.
On this Feast of St. Joseph, I celebrate fathers. I think of St. Joseph tenderly cradling the Christ-child in his sturdy, rough hands. I think about how God — with loving wisdom and providence — decided that Jesus needed a human father. I think of our new pope, Francis, whose humility, tenderness, and affection for the people of God (especially the poor) has enlivened and strengthened the hearts of the faithful and even those whose faith has waned. I think of my own father, husband, and father-in-law who sacrifice joyfully and quietly for the ones they love. I think of them with gratitude. St. Joseph, pray for all fathers. Humble foster-father of our God, teach us to love them better and to honor them more truly.