Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. After the preparations, celebrations and cleanup from the most recent Christmas Day, I imagine many of you a bit weary and yearn for some downtime. Christmas in the Church however is not only one day; it is a season for reflection, for reflection on the purpose of the birth of the Christ child. It is not yet ordinary time.
Have you ever wondered how Mary and Joseph felt in the days after the birth of their son, the first Christmas day? You who have been parents have some understanding – exhaustion, elation, concern, wonderment may be some words that come to mind.
From today’s Gospel we know that it was never to be ordinary time for them. Once it was clear that Herod was going to try to remove any threats to his kingship, including killing new born baby boys, Joseph and Mary could not rest in the beauty of the birth of the Christ child. To protect him they had to journey to Egypt following so closely on their journey to Bethlehem. Neither journey could have been easy.
Herod’s order to kill all baby boys in order to protect his power and his pride is a reminder to us that respect for life, core to who we are as Christians, has ever been under threat. In many areas of the world today sadly it is baby girls who are the selected victims. Let us pray for and work for greater respect for all human life from conception to natural death.
The model of the Holy Family is raised up in part to offer a glimpse of the key ingredient to holy living as depicted movingly in the crèche. There Joseph and Mary humbly bow in homage before the son of God, our Lord, Jesus Christ. The strength of our families whatever their makeup is whether Jesus is at the center.
The Book of Sirach, our first reading, was written several centuries before the birth of Christ. It emphasizes that families are blessings from God and that respect within family, by spouses for each other, parents for children, adult children for aging parents, not only strengthens the family but also strengthens each member’s personal relationship with God. St. Paul in our second reading reminds us that the standard for Christian living is Christ himself. ‘Put on as God’s chosen one, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ’, he wrote to the Colossians. We need these scriptural reminders because challenges come to all families, to us all. Our faith reassures us that in them we are never alone. Christ is with us.
A family was on the way home from a picnic when a garage sale was spotted and they decided to stop. As the father was maneuvering to park, the three year old boy opened the door and fell under the car, one wheel rolling over his hand. He was rushed to the hospital. As he was examined and emergency surgery scheduled, all his mother could think about was his hands, his perfect hands. Between surgeries, the father entered the hospital room, guilt shadowing him. The boy smiled with delight to see his dad. Then tears came and he blurted out, ‘you won’t run over my hand again will you daddy?’ ‘No never, never again’, the dad managed to say and quickly left the room.
Observing this emotional scene, the mother went to the hospital chapel deciding it was time for a heart to heart with God. She was angry with God. The chapel was plain with a couple of paintings. One was of Jesus, his eyes staring out. She returned the stare as if to say, ‘I’m waiting for an explanation’. Then she looked at the other painting. It was hands, not crucified hands. Not crushed hands like the tiny one a few floors above, but hands together in prayer. Perfect hands, she thought. She later wrote, ‘I could not move. I waited for something to kill the pain. It appeared, that painkilling wisdom, slowly like the morning sun warming me with its simplicity. And I knew why a mother was consumed with anger at a God who loves little children. My mountain sized anger had at that moment damned any overflow that might have spilled onto a father and a child who needed only love and support. Tears washed away the blackness. Finally I wiped them away and ran upstairs to a child’s beautiful little hands.’ At that moment Christ was at the center of her life.
David lost his parents in an accident when he was about three. His aunt and uncle who were hard working farmers took him in and cared for him over the years. As he was ready to leave for college, he reflected on all the sacrifices they had made for him. He said to them, ‘how can I ever repay you?’ His uncle said, ‘there is an old saying. The love of parents goes to their children but the love of those children goes to their children.’ ‘That’s not so’, David responded, ‘I will never stop trying to repay you.’ His aunt interrupted him, ‘David, what your uncle means to say is that a parent’s love isn’t to be paid back; it is to be passed on.’
In that sense we are all children and we are all parents. God the Father has given us life and unique gifts to be used and passed on. Mary, our Mother, has given us the model of faith and discipleship to be used and passed on. Jesus has given and gives us himself in the Holy Eucharist and in his church to be used and passed on.
To make our families holy, our relationships whole, we need only to follow the example of the holiest of families – trust God with courage, respect one another with kindness, and pray not only in need but in thanksgiving. Like Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and soon the Magi, let Christ be at our Center.