The first Sunday after Christmas is raised up for the Feast of the Holy Family when we contemplate Jesus, Mary and Joseph as one. It is appropriate since the Christmas season is a time for families, personal, extended and spiritual. It also recognizes that stable families are essential for a stable society, which sadly is not the reality of our times.
Pope Saint John Paul II wrote: “It is in the family that the mutual giving of self on the part of the man and woman united in marriage creates an environment of life in which children develop their potentialities, become aware of their dignity and prepare to face their unique and individual destiny.”
From personal experience we know that family life while beautiful in many ways also has its challenges. Someone said “I love to see my relatives come and I love to see them go”. A little humor goes a long way in family life.
It is clear that the healthiest family for raising children is a two-parent home with loving moms and dads, like the Holy Family. Yet less than a third of families in our country are like that today, (mine was not) and not all of those are places of tranquility, the loving can be missing. Another someone suggested that we might not have capital “H” holy families but we can have lower case holy families which are on journey to greater perfection whatever their configuration.
The Holy Family is sometimes romanticized into something it was not. Theirs was not without problems, even heart aches. Someone has suggested that it is unfair to compare our families, personal or parish, with the Holy Family. They were” perfect”, we are not. Most days I pray each day the devotion to the seven sorrows of the Blessed Mother. They include the prophecy of Simeon in today’s gospel that Mary would experience a sword, the sudden and difficult exile into Egypt, and the anxiety when Jesus was separated from his earthly parents for several days finally to be found in the Temple, sorrows which Mary shared with Joseph. The other anguishing sorrows after the likely death of Joseph and widowhood, were observing the Passion of Jesus and his way of the cross, the crucifixion itself, the receiving of Jesus when he was taken down from the cross, and his burial which all who have experienced the burial of a loved one knows results in an emptiness and loneliness that words cannot express. The Holy Family experienced the joys and the sorrows of all families.
The model of the Holy Family is raised up especially to offer a glimpse of the key ingredients to holy living for families and for individuals in the midst of the realities of life. The key lesson from the Holy Family is what the crèche depicts. There Joseph and Mary are in homage before our Lord, Jesus Christ. How resilient our families can be when Jesus is at the center.
The Gospel reading detailing the presentation of the Lord in the Temple is illustrative for us. First the very fact that they were in the Temple suggests the importance of a formal and faithful spiritual life attached to the community of faith the Church. Christ is found in the Church he instituted for us.
Secondly the encounter with the elderly Simeon offers honest reflection about the realities of family and life, beauty and sorrow. Simeon declared to Mary that her young one would be the fall and the rise of many, and that Mary herself would have her heart pierced, foretelling of the sorrowful mother at the foot of the cross. Yet Simeon experienced peace simply by being in the presence of Jesus. One scholar wrote about the elderly Simeon that “in the summit of his life he found the sunrise of the world.” In Christ is our sunrise after the dark of night, if we allow him to be.
Thirdly, Joseph and Mary shared the presence of God’s son with others, such as elderly Anna who long widowed lived a life of prayer and hope and who joyfully gave thanks when encountering the child born in Bethlehem.
There was a Family Circus cartoon that showed one of the little boys praying. His brother says to him “I’m gonna tell Mom that you are going above her head.” Sometimes we need with humility to go above our own heads and pray for God’s guidance for strength, for courage and for forgiveness.
Our readings remind us too that whether Jesus is at the center is reflected in the unchanging values we are called to live. The Book of Sirach 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 reminds us that the standard for Christian living is Christ himself. “Put on as God’s chosen ones,” Paul advised, “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ,” he wrote to the Colossians.
The Gospel reading ends with the Holy Family returning to Nazareth where Luke tells us that Jesus grew in strength and wisdom. What does it mean to grow in strength and wisdom under the guidance of moms and dads? Minimally respect, spiritual nourishment and love.
A father was left alone with his son one night and had some difficulty getting the boy to go to bed. As he lifted his son up onto bed, the boy said, “Daddy, I have to say my prayers.” On his knees he prayed the familiar: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep; if I should die before I wake, I ask the Lord my soul to take.” And then he added, “Dear God, make me a great big good man like my daddy. Amen.” As he went to sleep his father kneeled down and prayed, “Dear Lord, make me the great big good man my son thinks I am.” My guess is that in that small “h” holy family that there were similar prayers for and by mom.
To make our families holy, our relationships whole, we need only to follow the example of the holiest of families –have a robust and humble spiritual life, accept the sorrows with courage and with trust in God’s way, and recognize that we all are members of the one family of God. Like Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and soon the Magi, let Christ be at the center of our homes and of our hearts.