The theme at Mass yesterday was fathers, secretly.
Our pastor has introduced a new ministry, the Men of St. Joseph, which is meant to spiritually support men (fathers and otherwise), and provide fellowship for them and so help strengthen the family. We’re having perpetual adoration, beginning on St. Patrick’s day and ending on St. Joseph’s day, to pray for their intentions. Our family takes up three short side pews, and my husband was standing right in front of me as father made these announcements, so maybe I was primed to think about fatherhood, and the various ways it manifests itself.
At our parish, there has been an influx of families from a somewhat different culture. I don’t mean ethnically; I mean that the women and girls cover their heads and wear skirts, the boys and men wear dress shirts if not suit jackets, and the fathers are unambiguously in charge of their little tribes. I love hearing more babies at Mass, which is another change they brought with them. Previously, you had to hit the later Mass with the guitars and tambourines to hear a lot of kid noise — and honestly, a certain amount of kid screaming and berserking; but now the early Mass, the one with the organ and choir and the little scraps of Latin, also has its good share of miniature Catholics making joyful and various other noises unto the Lord.
There is also a sub-contingent of new families where the kids are deathly quiet in their pews. Maybe it’s just their personalities, and do I try to mind my own business, but it always pings my alarms when I see a young kid who seems able to sit and stand very still for a full hour, but is afraid to look his father in the face. I happened to look over and see a little boy with flaxen hair and a peaked, anxious face gather up his courage to pluck at his father’s leg to wincingly ask permission to visit the restroom. He seemed terrified. I do try not to jump to conclusions, but I can’t help notice these things.
At this Mass, we heard the Gospel about the transfiguration. Our pastor drew out the contrast in how the disciples behaved when they were just having a normal day with Jesus, going for a little hike up the mountain; and even after his face started to shine and his clothing become dazzling and Moses and Elijah appeared, Peter (who, our pastor pointed out, has no filter) started talking about making plans to set up tents so they could all stay there and hang out together. Peter was clearly overwhelmed, but not so overwhelmed that he stopped talking.
But when God the Father began to speak, then he shut up. Then they were afraid. “They fell face down on the ground, terrified.” Now this is God unfiltered, unmediated by human flesh in the Incarnation, and the disciples absolutely could not handle it.
It is a strange story. I said God the Father manifests himself to them, and I said he was “unfiltered,” but really it must have been just a sort of tip-of-the-iceberg situation, or else they would have been obliterated. He spoke to them from a cloud, terrifying though that was, presumably to protect them from the full force of his presence.
And for what purpose does he speak to them in such a way that they cannot help but hear him? To point them to Jesus. He says “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”
Well I would think so! When I heard this reading, I actually couldn’t remember what came next, so I listened the heck up to see what it was that Jesus was going to say, that God the father came down from heaven to particularly draw our attention to. So what does Jesus say?
He says, “Get up. Do not be afraid.”
That’s it. So what’s this about?
Jesus says a lot of things, before and after the transfiguration, and it would be a big mistake to decide that this is the main thing, and that the rest could be ignorable. But right after the Father says “listen to him!” Jesus says two things: “Get up” and “Do not be afraid.”
Two things. Our pastor pointed out how comfortable Peter and the others clearly felt with Jesus that day. He brought them up there presumably to receive the message from God, and Peter has the idea of making tents so that Jesus and Moses and Elijah can stay there. Peter wants to put up stakes and get them to come down, and stay down, and be where he is.
But instead, Jesus is asking them to come up to where he is. First he brings them up the mountain, and then he tells them to get up. I have no idea what his tone of voice was with these words! Reassuring? Annoyed? Exasperated? Tender? Commanding? Challenging? In any case, it’s their move: They have to get up. Staying down, hanging around, just keeping the status quo and either being comfortable and chill, or being terrified and immobile, is not an option.
But then he does also reassure them. “Do not be afraid.”
This is what he has been saying ever since he was born as a little nobody-baby in Bethlehem. He makes it so they will not be afraid to look God in the face, because they know him, and are comfortable with him. But now he also, I suppose, wanted to give them a little reminder of . . . who else he really is, besides their friend and companion and teacher. Because he knows what is coming soon, and he knows they will need to be strong.
He doesn’t want them to be afraid of him. But he does want them to know how high above them he is, so that they will stand up and be more like him. There are more mountains that must be scaled.
Jesus is not God the Father. But God the Father commands us to listen to him. And what he says is both comforting and challenging, both. I think what we are seeing here on the mountain is the fatherhood of Jesus. What he says is what all good fathers say. And what he shows them, in his dazzling holiness . . . I don’t know. Maybe that is what all good fathers can be. I once saw a man, a good father, kneeling on the floor, wrapping the ankle of a young man he treated as a son. There was a brightness in the room, and I was dazzled. I was afraid.
It must be extremely hard to be a good father. To be approachable without going too low. To comfort fears without making too much room for berserking. To impose discipline without instilling terror. To learn how speak to children so they will listen, so they will know that what comes out of your mouth next is the real deal. To know when they do need the occasional flattening, and then immediate inspiring after that. To be the protector of the family without becoming a threat to the family yourself. To do what must be done to strengthen them, knowing it may lose their affection. To give yourself up for your family without becoming lost. To be the one who has to tell people “get up” when, in fact, you are not Jesus and do not have supernatural aid and very much want to lie down yourself.
So fine, so I signed up for the adoration hour for the intentions of fathers in our parish (and that includes people who are affected by their fathers, which is everybody). I know there is a lot of nonsense about the crisis of masculinity and so on. But this is a very hard time to be a good father, and men who are trying to get it right are pulled in a so many more directions than we give them credit for. So many of them want to be good fathers when they have never had that for themselves, never seen it. It is hard. Harder than I realized. So let’s pray for them, to be strengthened and comforted and inspired by the fatherhood of Jesus.