Sir 3:2-6,12-14; Col 3:12-21; Matt 2:13-15,19-23
“Do not provoke (embitter) your children, so they may not become discouraged” (Col 3:21)
Every year, the Sunday that comes immediately after Christmas is celebrated as the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Although major feasts are dedicated to each member of this family, the Feast of the Holy Family commemorates the life of Jesus, Mary and Joseph together as a family unit. As Pope Pius XII says about the family: “The life of a family united in intimate love is so beautiful! You can see each member eager and prompt in fulfilling his duties, in pleasing everyone, in practicing justice, honesty, kindness, patience in bearing adversaries and in forgiving wrongs, of strength in the hour of trial and under the weight of toil. You can see the parents educating their children with love and in the practice of all virtues. In a family such as this God is honored and faithfully served and everyone is treated with goodness. Can there be anything more noble and more edifying.” The Holy Family is the model of Christian families.
Today, I would like that we reflect on the manner in which parents bring up their children, basing our thoughts on the last sentence of the second reading of today. “Do not provoke (embitter) your children, so they may not become discouraged” (Col 3:21). In the verse prior to this one, St. Paul instructs children directly, telling them to “obey their parents in everything for this pleases the Lord.” God commands obedience because children need to learn to live under authority. Children need to be instructed in things spiritual. They need a mature perspective. And the best reason for children’s obedience to their parents is simple: “it pleases the Lord”. Today, let us look at the flip side of things, by concentrating on the responsibilities of parents to their children. St. Paul warns against parents embittering their children to the extent that they become discouraged. Let us first look at the exemplar of the Holy Family.
- LIFE WITHIN THE HOLY FAMILY OF NAZARETH
Genes are not the only thing that parents impart to their children. From scripture, we learn that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus. But the Messiah had to be of David’s royal line, “…Who according to the human nature he took was from the descendant of David…” (Rom 1:3). It was Joseph who legally bound Jesus to the house of David. It was because of Joseph that the family had to go to Bethlehem for the census, so that the prophecy of old might be fulfilled. Joseph was a true father to Jesus. When Jesus was found in the temple, Mary said to Jesus, “Your father and I have been looking for you.” (Luke 2:48). There was no shouting at, scolding or shaming of the “boy-Jesus who had strayed off”. We can imagine the love and affection between Joseph and Jesus, and between Joseph and Mary. Jesus, in his humanity, grew up in wisdom, age, and grace (Luke 2:52). It is certainly thanks to Mary and Joseph that he acquired these virtues. “Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. (Luke 2:48-51). It was Joseph who was Jesus’ male role model. From Joseph, Jesus learned many things, including the trade of carpentry that he would practice for some twenty years. We can imagine the pain of Mary and Joseph at poor circumstances of Jesus’ birth. We can imagine the pain that they must have suffered when Simeon told Mary that Jesus would be a sign that would be opposed and that a sword would pierce Mary’s soul (Luke 2:34-35). We can imagine the pain the two parents suffered when they had to take Jesus to Egypt for safety from Herod’s plan to kill the baby.
The strength of the Holy Family was evidently in their gentleness and togetherness with one another, and closeness to God. “As God’s chosen people, holy and beloved”, Jesus, Mary and Joseph lived in accordance with the words of St. Paul in today’s second reading: “they put on heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another (Col 3:12). Together, mother and father were at Bethlehem for the birth of their baby. Together, they presented the baby at the temple; together, they fled to Egypt; together, they returned from exile in Egypt, back to the land of Israel; together, they searched for the young Jesus. Even after the painful and early death of Joseph, the family unit of Mary and Jesus stayed very close to each other. Together, they went to the marriage feast at Cana; together, they were at the foot of the Cross; together, they were in the Upper Room. By their faith in God and their gentle and loving interaction in the home, Mary and Joseph made an immense, unique and indispensable contribution to the saving mission of the Messiah himself. The Messiah needed an earthly family in which to grow up as a balanced human being. Joseph and Mary provided one.
- ST. PAUL’S WARNING TO PARENTS
The words of St. Paul in today’s second reading are very revolutionary. In the ancient world children were very much under the domination of their parents. A parent could do anything he liked with his child. He could sell him into slavery; he could make him work like a laborer on his farm; he had even the right to condemn his child to death and to carry out the execution. All the privileges and rights belonged to the parent and all the duties to the child. In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul changes the status of children. Where before they were treated as objects and possessions, now they were to be treated with honor and respect.
However, St. Paul warns that parents are in danger of “embittering” their children. They are to be careful that they do not provoke their children to a “settled” anger. This command is not saying parents should never make their children mad. No, there will be times when that is inevitable. However, the idea here is that parents must guard against provoking an anger that is constant and seething, like a smoldering fire. This is precisely because by their actions, parents can DIS–courage their child rather than EN-courage their child. Rather than spur them on, parents may actually drag them down or hold them back.
A lot caution is required here in parenting. For, there is always a problem in the relationship between parents and children. If the parent is too easy-going, the child will grow up undisciplined and unfit to face life. But there is a contrary danger. The more conscientious a parent is, the more he/she is likely always to be correcting and rebuking the child, simply because he/she wishes the child to do well.
A certain developmental psychologist, called Diana Baumrind (1971), developed a theory on the various styles in which children are parented. Baumrind distinguished among i) AUTHORITARIAN PARENTS (very strict parents), ii) PERMISSIVE PARENTS (very lenient parents), iii) AUTHORITATIVE PARENTS (parents who combine just the right level of discipline and warmth) and iv) UNINVOLVED PARENTS (demands nothing and expects nothing). In order not to discourage their children, Baumrind would recommend the authoritative parenting style. Such parents are responsive, supportive, demanding, and they provide guidance to their children. Martin Luther once said, “Spare the rod and spoil the child. It is true. But beside the rod keep an apple to give him when he does well.” The difficult balance for parents is how to discipline their children without discouraging them; how to go about being firm without being harsh. There is a need for a balance.
- GOD’S POSITIVE PRINCIPLES FOR CHILD-REARING
If we put biblical passages on child-rearing together, we can come up with some important principles of parenting. The bible concludes that discipline is a vital part of child-rearing:
“He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him” Proverbs 13:24.
“Discipline your son, for in that there is hope; do not be a willing party to his death” (Proverbs 19:18).
“Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him” (Proverbs 22:15).
“Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die” (Proverbs 23:13).
These passages simply remind us that a loving parent disciplines his/her child. This does not suggest that children need a “beating” now and again. Discipline is helping a child learn the way that is right. It means giving them negative consequences for bad behaviour and positive consequences for good behaviour. At the beginning, it may be through a little spanking. But as the child gets older it may be through other more creative ways of making a point. But one thing is sure, misbehavior does not go away because we ignore it. Nonetheless, it is no secret that some parents go too far and become abusive.
In order to avoid excesses when a parent has to discipline his/her child, he/she must make sure his/her own anger is under control. If needed, a parent should send the child away while he/she gains control, then the needed punishment can be dispensed. Parents must endeavor to explain why the punishment is necessary; and finally, they must follow up discipline with love. Parents should remember that their first priority is to train your child in godliness. They should void the things that embitter the children by not applying force without love; not using double standards; keeping away from criticism without encouragement. Parents must do everything to be presents and be involved in their children’s life. Some parents try to re-live their “glory days” in their children, by placing expectations on our children that are not realistic. Sometimes, parents forget that their tastes may not be exactly as those of their children. The goal of parents should be to help their children to develop their unique potential, not to ‘re-create them in own image and likeness’. Parents should also bear in mind that they discourage their children when they make promises to them that they cannot keep. Sure, at times it is impossible to do some of the things we planned. Emergencies do happen. Children understand this. Nonetheless, when promise-breaking becomes habitual, parents gradually push their children to drift away from them. It is most important for parents to keep their promises with their children.
In conclusion, we remind parents that we do not live in a perfect world. Each family has its own problems. Even the Holy Family of Nazareth passed through its own moments of trials. But their secret was that they stayed close to God and close to each other. Therefore, parents should bear in mind the following realities:
- a) There are no perfect parents. We are all sinful creatures and our sinfulness occasionally shows itself up. No parent is alone in feeling that he/she is not doing a good enough job.
- b) There is always room for improvement; parents can all be better than they really are. The fact that there are no perfect parents should not cause any one to be lackadaisical in efforts to improve. Parents have an obligation to learn, to develop, to work at their parenting. They should work at being better listeners. They should work at underscoring the positive as well as pointing out the negative. They should be diligent in their efforts.
- c) Parents should remember that they are not alone in their parenting efforts. God is always taking the best that we have and augmenting with his grace. In whatever we do, if we are faithful, God will be more faithful. And this is why the most important thing parents can do for our children is to constantly lift them up before the Lord in prayer.
Dear Parents, God wants you to lead your children to Him. He wants you to represent Him to your children. You can do this effectively by you, yourselves, having a genuine relationship with Christ. He knows you are not perfect parents (even though you want to be). He wants you to know that He wants you to give it your best. And if you do, he promises that He will fill in the gaps.
May the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph intercede for us in this regard!