Monday, December 31, 2007

Year A, Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph

Readings: Sir 3,2-6; Ps 128,1-5; Col 3,12-21; Mt 2,3-15.19-23

In our Psalm response today we sing, "Blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways" (Ps 128,1). In the very first chapter of Proverbs we read that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Pr 1,7). Naturally, this prompts the question, What does it mean to fear the Lord? Does it mean to be frightened of God, to do what is right and seek what is good because we are scared that God will punish us if we do not? It certainly can mean that, but we find the Christian perspective in the first letter of St. John: "There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love" (1 Jn 4,18). Therefore, our motivation for doing what is right and seeking what is good is love, not fear. Fear is an insufficient and unhealthy motivator.

Let us consider this in the context of our human relationships. We do things in order to please the ones dear to us, sometimes at great sacrifice, because we love them, not because they will get angry and punish us if we fail to do these things, though in their imperfection and ours this is sometimes the case. Relationships, especially adult relationships, in which one person does things only because it is what is demanded by the other person, who makes threats if her/his demands are not met, are unhealthy and can even be toxic. Very often, especially in family relationships, we fall into patterns of behavior that belie and undermine our desire for health and wholeness. In this regard we do well to remember that insanity, as defined by Albert Einstein, "is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result". We can be certain that God does not call us into either an unhealthy or a toxic relationship. Rather, God calls each one of us into a healthy, wholesome relationship in which God nurtures and empowers us thereby enabling us to fulfill the end for which are created, which is love. Indeed, the "whole law and the prophets" are summarized in the two great commandments: "love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind" and to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 22,37-40).

Holy Family with St. Elizabeth, by Peter Paul Rubens

Today, this first Sunday after the Feast of the Nativity, we celebrate the Holy Family of Nazareth. In doing so we acknowledge the universal call to holiness of all the baptized. We acknowledge marriage and family life as every bit as much a Christian vocation as priesthood or religious life. It bears noting that the word “holy” in scripture means different, or set apart. It implies being healthy and whole in an otherwise hurting and fragmented world. In English, the phrase “hale and hearty” captures well the biblical idea of holiness. Put even more directly, being holy means loving perfectly, or being perfectly loving.

Genuine love requires fidelity. Fidelity, in turn, requires obedience, but not imposed and enforced obedience, rather voluntary and intentional obedience. In the Rite of Marriage, couples promise, with God’s help, given them in and through this sacrament, which grace allows them to "assume the duties of marriage in mutual and lasting fidelity," to "love and honor each other as man and wife for the rest of [their] lives." In the fourth commandment, which today’s first reading from Sirach is likely a commentary on; children are commanded to honor their parents. This commandment is a bridge between the first three commandments about loving God and the final six about loving our neighbor. This accurately captures the unique place parents occupy in each of our lives, a space between God and all the other people.

Parents, we read in St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, also have a responsibility toward their children. Our second reading gives us 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 are shaped by gentleness, love, and forgiveness so they can bestow these on others. This feast reminds us that every family, regardless of its composition and circumstances, is called to be holy, to be healthy and whole, hale and hearty. For this a regular dose of God’s grace is needed. The sacraments are the means for obtaining the necessary grace, especially the Eucharist, but also the sacrament of penance and the practice of reconciliation in our homes. Family prayer and recreation are also channels of God grace. Gathering regularly to pray as a family, before and after meals, at bedtime, and reciting the rosary, praying spontaneously together, or reciting some portion or form of the Liturgy of the Hours, are all ways of obtaining what God, our loving Father, through Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, wants desperately to give us, His perfect and divine love, which is what constitutes the inner life and unity of the Blessed Trinity.

The Holy Family of Nazareth was supported by St. Joseph’s work as a carpenter, the very trade in which Jesus himself engaged. Perhaps it was with this in mind that the late Pope John Paul II wrote: "The family, the great workshop of love, is the first school, indeed, a lasting school where people are not taught to love with barren ideas, but with the incisive power of experience." It is in the family that each person first "experiences a living community, in which each one knows he is responsible for the others. In the family the law of mutual co-operation applies: husband and wife, adults and children, brothers and sisters accept one another as God’s gift and give each other the life and love of God" (Theology of the Body). Like the Church herself, the family, the domestic Church, is divinely constituted. Married life is "the one blessing not forfeited by original sin or washed away in the flood" (Rite of Marriage- Nuptial Blessing A). The family pre-existed and will outlast every nation and political construct of humankind. The family is the very institution that constitutes the state. Therefore, to tamper with this institution, to seek to radically redefine or alter it, is to undermine the very foundation of the state. The best way to safeguard the family is by each Christian family discovering "its own vocation to [true] love". Love "that absolutely respects God’s plan, love that is the choice and reciprocal gift of self" is what creates family unity, just as love constitutes the great mystery of the One God in three divine persons (John Paul II Theology of the Body).

That the Church is God’s family is reflected in a petition we make together often at Mass: "Father, hear the prayers of the family you have gathered here before you. In mercy and love unite all your children wherever they may be" (Eucharistic Prayer III). My dear friends, on this Feast of the Holy Family, let us not be content to relegate Jesus, Joseph, and Mary to lifeless and sentimental figures in a nativity scene. Rather, let them remind us that it is perfect love that became Incarnate for our sakes and perfect love we are called to incarnate everyday in the very ordinary circumstances of our lives. As the Holy Father exhorts us this Christmas season, "With Mary, Joseph and the shepherds, with the Magi and the countless host of humble worshippers of the new-born Child, who down the centuries have welcomed the mystery of Christmas, let us too, brothers and sisters from every continent, allow the light of [Christ] to spread everywhere: may it enter our hearts, may it brighten and warm our homes, may it bring serenity and hope to our cities, and may it give peace to the world" (Urbi et Orbi Christmas 2007).


  1. Happy birthday scott.

    O.K. so I am a few days late. ;-)

    Lance Hislop

  2. Lance

    It's great to hear from you. thanks for the b-day greeting.




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