Sunday, December 28, 2008

Year B The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph

Readings: Sir. 3:2-6.12-14; Ps. 128:1-5; Col. 3:12-21; Luke 2:22-40

On this first Sunday after Christmas, we observe the Feast of the Holy Family. Our readings today largely consist of wise ways to live as families. Our first reading from Sirach is likely a commentary on the fourth commandment, in which we are commanded to honor our parents. In the view of many commentators, this commandment is a bridge between the first three commandments about loving God and the final six about loving our neighbor. According to this schema parents are rightly situated between God and other people.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul provides us with a list of values that are to be nurtured in the family. It is in the family that children first experience compassion and kindness. It is within the family that children’s spirits are shaped by gentleness, love, and forgiveness so they can bestow these on others as disciples of the Lord Jesus. This feast reminds us that every family, regardless of its composition and circumstances, is called to be holy.

While it is true that families come in many different configurations, due to broken marriages, resulting from sin, human weakness, abandonment, and abuse, while others are diminished by death, and still others that, due to certain circumstances, are single-parent families, all of which have value beyond measure and are to be strengthened and supported, it remains true that the family, consisting of mother, father, and children, is the natural norm as well as the ideal, an icon of the Holy Trinity. One reason for this is eminently practical: growing up in a home with both a mother and a father, on the whole, remains the healthiest way for children to be brought up.

Families are diminished in our time because marriage is diminished, thus placing us far from the cultures that constituted the context of these readings. One thing that ought to set Christians apart, making us salt and light, especially right now, is living our belief that marriage is a "covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of [children]" (Can. 1055 par. 1). Along with Holy Orders, matrimony is a sacrament in the service of communion. Therefore, Christian marriage is never merely a private arrangement between two people; it always has an ecclesial and public character.

But our confusion is more fundamental than misunderstanding the nature and purpose of marriage. We seem to be increasingly confused about what it means to be human. Recently, Pope Benedict called for a new “ecology of man,” an ecology of the human person "understood in the correct sense" (Christmas greetings to the members of the Roman Curia and Prelature). Ecology refers to the pattern, or totality, of relations between organisms and their environment. The new ecology of man called for by the Holy Father is more fundamental because it is prior to the pattern of relations between humanity and the rest of the natural world. As human beings we only understand ourselves "in the correct sense" by acknowledging the fact that we are made in the divine image. Unless we have a correct understanding of ourselves, we cannot relate properly others or to the rest of creation. So, the Pope tells us when "the Church speaks of the nature of the human being as man and woman and asks that [the] order of creation be respected, it is not the result of an outdated metaphysic. It is a question… of faith in the Creator and of listening to the language of creation" (Christmas greetings).

In the first of the two distinct creation narratives we find in Genesis, we read where "God said: 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle, and over all the wild animals and all the creatures that crawl on the ground.' God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them" (Gen. 1:26-27). Marriage can be a sacrament in the service of communion only because it is first a sacrament in the service of creation, instituted from the beginning by the Creator and made part of God’s covenant with humanity by Christ. This is a major "part of the message that the Church must recover" in order to give witness to God’s presence in nature "and in a particular way in the nature of man" (Christmas greetings).

Nothing contributes more to our confusion about what it means to be human than in what "is often expressed and understood by the term 'gender'" (Christmas greetings). Differing views concerning the human person in this regard can be put into two broad categories: sacramental and gnostic. A sacramental view of the world and of the human person sees "that the stuff of the world – including maleness, femaleness, and their complementarity — has truths built into it" (Weigel The End of the Anglican Communion). By contrast, "gnostics say it’s all plastic, all malleable," that, in essence, we create and re-create ourselves (Weigel The End of the Anglican Communion). A gnostic view is a fallen view, a way of looking at the created order as something from which we must emancipate ourselves. Rather than liberation, such a view is an assertion of the self against reality, a rejection of one’s finitude, a contradiction of our very being. As Christians we reject gnosticism in all its viral mutations.

When we consider the Holy Family it is easy to become sentimental. In recent years, however, we have recovered the human context of the Incarnation from the perspective of Mary, an event that made her, for a time, an unmarried, pregnant teenager. But in order to see the bigger picture, we need to recover the perspective of St. Joseph, too. He was betrothed to a young woman, with whom he had not had relations, but who turns up pregnant before coming to live with him. Despite this, he did not abandon her, but accepted the will of God, which, even though made known to him by an angel, must have remained incomprehensible and difficult for him, especially in the months leading up to the birth of the divinely conceived child. It is the kind of manliness exemplified by St. Joseph that we desperately need today. After all, the collapse of the family falls disproportionately on women and children, crushing many. The need for this kind of responsibility is reflected in the divine command to ancient Israel to care for the widow and the orphan, something for which they were frequently chastised by God through the prophets for failing to do. The crisis of fatherhood today, which results in the grave sin of men failing and refusing to provide materially, emotionally, and developmentally for their children, stems from our rejection of the family as an institution ordained by God through nature and grace.

By taking their newborn son to the Temple, Joseph and Mary, as faithful members of God’s people, acted in obedience to God’s commands out of their love for the child and for God. This, dear friends, is what it means to be holy! Christian parents are to do the same by being married in the church and by not delaying baptism for their children. By asking the church to baptize their children, parents take upon themselves the tremendous responsibility of raising them in the practice of the faith, of doing all in their power, with God’s help, to transmit their faith in Jesus Christ, expressed so eloquently in our Gospel by the old man Simeon, to their children by word and example. If the birth of Jesus Christ and the lives of the saints teach us nothing else, they teach us that holiness is objective and concrete, not abstract. "Blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways" (Ps 128:1).

Nota bene:

Sharon posts something that illustrates the reality of what it means to experience these things instead of just talking about them: My Daughter Is Getting Married Today. For us, holiness comes through living. Hence, it is a journey, albeit one with a destination. While we can only start from where we are, we move forward in the awareness of our destiny and of the Presence that accompanies us, which Presence often takes the form of a witness, that is, a friend. In sharing virtual friendship this morning on the joyous occasion of the marriage of Sharon's daughter, Suzanne drew our attention to our need to develop our capacity to carry.

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