Last month, in observance of Mothers Day, we spoke of what motherhood teaches us about the Christian life. June presents us with a companion celebration, Fathers Day. This secular holiday, like its counterpart, echoes important elements of our relationship to our God and encourages us in our pursuit of the spiritual life.
The Scriptures show us many examples of fathers, and in them we learn something about fatherhood. For example, in the Old Testament, lineage was reckoned through the father. Many institutions which gave order and structure to religion and society, including kingship and priesthood, functioned through inherited offices. These were a fundamental part of the heritage of the Chosen People, and their legitimacy depended upon a succession from father to son. Secondly, fathers are mentioned frequently as the sources of discipline and order within the family, especially as teachers of basic morality and faith. For example the Psalms affirm that “[God] appointed a law in Israel, which He commanded our fathers to teach to their children” (78:5), and in Proverbs we read, “Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight; for I give you good precepts: do not forsake my teaching” (4:1-2), and “A wise son hears his father’s instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke” (13:1).
Thus we see that the role of the father in the family and society is to provide continuity through preservation of our heritage and to insure order through discipline. St Gregory Nazianzen reminds us that “one debt is owed by children to both their parents.” Yet each parent, father and mother, fulfills his and her role in the raising of children in a unique way. Their roles do not oppose one another; rather they complement each another. We spoke last month of mothers as nurturers of children and of selfless love as characteristic of motherhood. These things work within us to build our character. Fathers contribute, in part, toward our ability to deal with the world, by giving form to children’s lives, providing structure and discipline.
Still, there is something lacking in this description of fatherhood. We have a model of fatherhood in our Father in heaven. Our Lord sums up our relationship with God by assigning to Him the title “Father”. It is the term Christ most often uses. Of course, this usage reflects Christ’s own status as the incarnate Son. Thus, He would naturally refer to the First Person of the Holy Trinity as “the Father.” However, Christ affirms repeatedly that His followers are also children of the divine Father. He constantly refers to God as “your Father”, and when He gives us a model for prayer, He teaches us to begin, not with “Almighty One” or “Lord” or “Master” or “Creator”, but with “Our Father” (Matthew 6:9).
Human fatherhood reflects God’s eternal Fatherhood. Indeed, Christ even says, “Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Matt 23:9). He does not intend by these words to deny the title “father” to human fathers, but rather, to remind us of Him from whom the very idea of Father derives. As the Apostle declares, God is the One “from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Ephesians 3:15.). That human men can assume such a high calling is a privilege which He grants and which they can fulfill only by imitating Him. “Though all fatherhood is His, He has called men also fathers” (St Ephraim the Syrian).
Thus the role which fathers play, of providing discipline and moral instruction to their children, is a reflection of God’s correction and guidance of us. The Apostle cites Proverbs 3:11-12, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines him whom He loves, and chastises every son whom He receives.” Then he adds, “God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons …. He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:5-8, 10-11). God provides stability and good order to the world through His loving providence. Likewise human fathers are also called to exercise discipline in their household.
Like their heavenly Model, however, human fathers are called to provide guidance and correction in love and solely for the good of their children. God is not arbitrary, harsh, or self-serving in His discipline of us, His children. Neither then can those who exercise His office of earth and take upon themselves the exalted title of Father – neither can they forget the love and compassion which must move and inspire their every word and deed. As St Augustine admonishes, “If you forget ‘Him that is such from the beginning,’ you have lost your fatherhood.” St John Chysostom adds, “Begetting alone does not make one a father, but after begetting, also loving.”
Even some who are not our fathers in that they have not physically sired us, can become fathers because they fulfill that role in our lives. St Cyril of Jerusalem notes that “it is not by any means the natural father only that is called father. Hear what Paul says: ‘For though ye should have ten thousand tutors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I begat you through the Gospel’ (I Cor. 4:15). For Paul was father of the Corinthians, not by having begotten them after the flesh, but by having taught and begotten them again after the Spirit. Hear Job also saying, ‘I was a father of the needy,’ for he called himself a father, not as having begotten them all, but as caring for them …. So Joseph also was called the father of Christ, not from having begotten Him …, but because of the care bestowed on His nurture.” We acknowledge this calling particularly with regard to our parish priests when we address them with the title “Father.”
In speaking last month of motherhood, we noted that the sins of mothers arise from excessive and misdirected love. The sins of fathers derive from forgetting that love must also be a part of their role. Providing order and direction can easily become the sole end. A good father first and foremost seeks the welfare of his child, and guidance, correction, or punishment all derive from his desire to fulfill that goal. This is certainly true of our Father in heaven. “For though evil have been done unto Him, yet is He a Father; and though He have been provoked to anger, yet is He fond of His children; and one thing only does He seek, not to take vengeance for our affronts, but to see you repenting and entreating Him”(St John Chrysostom).
As the Scriptures and the Fathers make clear, children bear a responsibility to heed the instruction of their fathers. Yet we human beings are rebellious: we reject the guidance of the best of earthly fathers, and sadly we resent even the admonitions of our heavenly Father. The responsibility of father to child and of child to father, however, go hand in hand. St Paul himself parallels them “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged” (Col 3:20-21). Like fathers, children also have a heavenly model, in the eternal divine Son. The Apostle notes our Lord’s obedience to His Father’s will in the work of our salvation, when He “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8). We are not automatically children of God, though we are all His creatures. We are truly His children when we acknowledge His Fatherhood in obedience, in faith, and in love.
Likewise, we are called also to acknowledge the love and concern of our earthly fathers, and to respond to them always with respect in love.As we noted before with motherhood, the characteristics of a good father are also the traits of a good Orthodox Christian. We should always strive to deal with others in love and humility, not being self-centered, but seeking the spiritual good of all. We see these qualities manifested in God’s care for us, and they are reflected in human fathers who attempt to fulfill their exalted vocation in accord with His divine example. A great Father of the Church, St Gregory of Nazianzus, has left us a eulogy of his father. There is perhaps no better way to close a essay on Christian fatherhood than with this description of a true Christian father, an authentic image of our Father in heaven: “He was sublime in action, lowly in mind; untouchable in virtue, most accessible in conversation; gentle, free from anger, sympathetic, sweet in words, sweeter in disposition; angelic in appearance, more angelic in mind; calm in rebuke, persuasive in praise …; rebuking with the tenderness of a father, praising with the dignity of a ruler, his tenderness was not dissipated, nor his severity sour; for the one was reasonable, the other prudent, and both truly wise; his disposition alone sufficed for the training of his spiritual children, with very little need of words.”