Christ the King Catholic Church
The Sunday after Christmas is the Feast of the Holy Family. The Jesus who became one with us at his birth in Bethlehem, grew up in a family. And today we celebrate that life and that love. We are reminded today of the sacredness of family. Think of all the ways in which God could have sent Jesus into the world. He could have simply descended from the sky one day; he could have suddenly appeared teaching in the Temple area; he could have ridden a stallion triumphantly into the Holy City. But, in the fullness of time, God sent his Son to be born into and to grow in a family. Family is near and dear to the heart of our God. Our families are near and dear to the heart of God.
That said, I must confess that for many years I found the Feast of the Holy Family a hard feast to preach on. Not that I don't love the Holy Family and not because there aren't many lessons for us to learn from the life that Jesus, Mary and Joseph shared together. The difficulty came from the fact that I always thought of the Holy Family as very different from my family or any of the families that I actually knew. Most of the families that I know are to at least some degree dysfunctional, and so I found it hard to make the connection with the Holy Family which I never thought of as anything but HOLY.
Father McBarron probably didn't help much as I was growing up at Sacred Heart in Terre Haute. He would preach on the Holy Family in glowing terms, describing their virtues in eloquent detail. He would explain how the young boy Jesus was always obedient to Mary and Joseph, doing whatever he was asked with a smile on his face and a song in his heart and my siblings and I would all squirm in our pew feeling a bit like chopped liver, for we knew that the Fourth Commandment was always front and center in our Saturday afternoon confessions.
Saint Paul's advice to the families of Corinth in today's second reading has enough material to make every member of the family squirm a bit in the pew. "Wives be subordinate to your husbands" - and I can picture my Dad glancing at my Mom as those words were read. "Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them," at which my Mom would return a loving glance at my Dad. "Children, obey your parents in everything," at which my brother and sisters and I
would be caught between the glances of both Mom and Dad." "Fathers do not nag your children, so they may not become discouraged," at which four sets of eyes would lovingly look at Dad. Saint Paul has something for everyone. So hold that thought.
One of America's great authors is Erma Bombeck. Until her death in 1996, she wrote a syndicated column that appeared in many of the nation's newspapers. She was an astute observer of human nature and our foibles as human beings. She had a wonderful gift of being able to put things in perspective with equal doses of wisdom and humor.
One of her favorite themes was 'family'. She wrote fifteen books and one of them, which became a best seller, was entitled. "Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession." In that book she includes some letters she had received from real people in real families. One of those letters reads like this:
"Even though the courts have given up on my son, I have not. He's my son, how can I give up on him? I pray for him; I cry for him and I encourage him. But, above all, I love him. "
Another letter is from a twelve-year-old girl who makes this profound reflection on motherhood:
"When my mom is working at the restaurant, I babysit my two little brothers and my little sister. I take them to the bathroom, I wipe their noses, I fix supper for them and I put them to bed. I do everything a real mom does. And what do I get? Instead of thanking me, my brothers and sister complain all the time. I am glad when my mom gets home from work. I think being a mom is the hardest job in the whole world. "
Both of these letters detail real family life. They make the same point: being a parent or a child isn't always easy. In fact, often times family life can be painful.
The Holy Family wasn't spared the difficulties of family life. Early in Jesus' life the Holy Family knew what it meant to be refugees as they fled to Egypt. There were problems and misunderstandings as Jesus was growing up. As a teenager, Jesus tested his parent's patience when he spent three days in the Temple area
without their knowledge or permission. Mary and Jesus knew the pain of loss as they mourned the death of Joseph and Mary knew the sting of having a son mocked, tortured and executed as a criminal.
I think the problem I had with the Feast of the Holy Family was that for a long time I thought 'holy' meant 'perfect'. But that's not the holiness we celebrate today. Jesus, Mary and Joseph are an example to us not because they were perfect, and not because everything came easy for them. They are an example to us because they loved each other. Through the ups and downs, the joys and sorrows, the highs and lows of life, they were there for one other. Through it all, they kept on loving each other.
Being born into a dysfunctional family is no more a sin than being born into a dysfunctional world. But Jesus, Mary and Joseph remind us that our families are called to be holy - not perfect, but holy. Through the ups and downs of our lives, we are called to be there for one another - to keep on loving. And it's in that being there for one another; it's in that loving one another, that we do become holy.
Erma Bombeck understood that. The families that she often talked about in her books and that she wrote about so often in her newspaper columns were dysfunctional families. That's why we can identify with them. The mother who won't give up on her son even though he's in jail again; the girl who understands that being a mom is one of the hardest jobs in the world and is happy when her mom gets home from work - these are holy families. They are not perfect, but they are holy because there is love.
We celebrate today something that is close to the heart of God. In the fullness of time, when Jesus was born, he was born into a family - a human family. Let us pray for our families on this Feast of the Holy Family. Our families are laboratories in which we learn the most important lesson of life: the lesson of love, and it is in learning to love that we become holy.
Now that said, there is probably good reason for most ofus to squirm in our pews at least a little today. On this Feast of the Holy Family, Saint Paul gives advice for every member of the family. For most ofus there is probably something we could do, and that we should do, to be a stronger link in the sacred chain that is our family.
On this Feast of the Holy Family, let us pray for our own family, for all of our parish families, and for the family that God is making of us at Christ the King.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph, pray for us!