Here is a picture of my sister Helen with her husband Patrick and their son, PJ. It was a wonderful Christmas for them, even if the Redskins did have a poor season.
This reflection was inspired by the feast day itself and a homily written by Father McLean Cummings:
Can we actually say that it is civilization itself that is made new by Christ? If there is any transformation, it is haphazard and happens in fits and stops. Indeed, except for the periodic oasis of a truly Catholic family or special faith community, world civilization seems less entranced by Christ’s kingdom as it is by either a new kind of materialistic secular-paganism or a fundamentalist Islamic extremism.
It is true that the first thing sanctified by Christ was the family. Every Christian family must be in communion with the first family of the Church, the home of Joseph, Mary and Jesus. The word “holy” in the title of today’s feast tells us that just as the family of the nativity was holy, all our families must also be imbued with the holiness of God. This “holiness” is not simply sentiment or piety; all holiness is defined as a participation in the sublime transcendent “otherness” of God. Just as the household of Joseph and Mary was blessed by Christ’s presence; we must invite Jesus into our homes and recognize him as the one who binds our families together as a loving whole. At Christmas we speak of the Incarnation as that mystery which makes possible our seeing something of the divine reflected in the eyes of every child. Every child is a reflection of the Christchild. Similarly, we should find something of Mary in every woman, particularly those called to the vocation of wife and mother. Further, good St. Joseph should be revisited in every Christian man, particularly those who embrace their mission as husband and father. The feast of the Holy Family informs every Christian family as the nucleus from which the substance and values of the faith are transmitted. The family is the “little Church” where we first learn our prayers and come to know God and his love for us.
It is well worth remembering that Jesus performed his first public sign at Cana. Jesus is the good host, and petitioned by his mother he helps to insure the joyous festivity of a wedding by changing water into wine. Note also that the mother and Son are so much of one mind and heart, that all Mary had to do is tell the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Does this event clearly show that he is elevating the marital state from a natural bond to a sacramental one? If so, it is more by intimation than by a clearly discursive act.
The weight for a sacramental understanding of marriage arises from the Church’s reflection and experience. The supernatural dynamic of marital love is often discussed in terms of the marriage analogy with Christ as the divine bridegroom and the Church as his bride. Faith in Christ changes everything, particularly those relationships that are most cherished and intimate among God’s people. Jesus changes water into wine, but at the Mass, our earthly participation in the heavenly marriage banquet, he changes bread and wine into his body and blood. This “transubstantiation” makes possible and helps to actualize still another transformation, where we are changed more and more into the likeness of God’s Son.
Good St. Joseph is absent at the wedding feast of Cana and we can only surmise that God had already called the foster father of Christ from this world to the limbo of the fathers where he would wait for Jesus to usher him and all the righteous dead through the gates of paradise. This is a useful fact for us to remember, and is an important instance of God’s providential plan. Most marriages and families will one day undergo the pain of widowhood. This natural experience is also given deeper meaning in that good St. Joseph died in the arms of Jesus and Mary. They had to go on without their faithful guardian. Like us in all things, Jesus knew the loss that comes when a loving parent gets sick and dies. Mary and Jesus reveal, even prior to the resurrection, that death does not destroy the bonds we forge in life. God does not forget or abandon his children. Death is a parting, but it does not consume us or consign us to oblivion.
It is quite right that the family is a basic cell or building block to both civil and ecclesial society. The family is the little Church. None of us come to the baptismal font alone. It is the clearest instance of the need for a Church and how our personal relationship with Christ must be complimented with a corporate faith in Christ, the Church or new People of God. We are given the witness of parents and grandparents. We are taught our faith, values and prayers. We are shielded from those elements of culture or society that are antithetical to the Gospel.
The culture of death can only find an antidote in the Gospel of Life. Every couple open to the gift of children and who take their responsibility as parents seriously is a herald of this proclamation. They and their children become signs of contradiction to a world that trusts more in contraception and abortion than in divine providence and self-sacrifice.
One vocation supports and adds meaning to another. It is in this sense that the Holy Family becomes a model for our families and for religious vocations. Mary’s perpetual virginity is a singular element that makes the first family particularly important to the religious life; however, Mary was a faithful spouse and a loving mother. There is no contradiction. Chastity is a virtue that probably is needed more in our marriages than anywhere else; it prevents physical affection from becoming manipulative and abusive. Priests and religious should be faithful to the evangelical counsels and keep their vows, just as we expect husbands and wives to keep their promises to each other. It should be no surprise that many marriages fail at a time when there are clergy scandals and fallen priests. Families need to encourage vocations and to pray for those who have answered special callings from God. Priests need to see their families as the greatest assets and treasures in their churches.
Every pastor is canonically required to insure the religious formation of the children in his parish; parents, who are the principal teachers of their children should work closely with their priests in educating their children in the Catholic religion. Sometimes well-meaning and pious families inadvertently develop adversarial relationships with their pastors and bishops. This is contrary to God’s design and the law of the Church.
The challenge we have is real. We do not want our families to represent merely a ghetto refuge in a mad world; rather, we want to witness in such a way that the world around us might be changed for the better. However, the kingdom of God breaks into our world, not crudely through our own efforts, but ultimately through the ineffable and mysterious working of divine initiative and providence.
We must hold on to a particularly Catholic view of faith and discipleship. This is not all that easy because Protestantism, albeit a benign quality, has tainted much of Catholic thinking and practice. Catholics are not merely deontologists who follow law, but also teleogists who pursue reasoned truth. We look, both to the commandments and to the natural law. We define faith not as a vocal acclamation or even as a mental disposition, but ultimately as obedience. This faith-obedience is lived out in charity, works that are meritorious because Christ lives and continues his mission through and in us.
Hypocrisy is ultimately, according to these terms, a lack of real faith. It is merely posturing or pretence, going through the motions instead of being moved by the Holy Spirit. We tell children to keep the fourth commandment in honoring and obeying their parents. This is fine and good, but what if the parents are not honorable? How can they take anything seriously if their mother disrespects and browbeats her husband and their father? What becomes of his moral authority if the father is addicted to pornography?
By the way, this is the most pernicious poison to the Christian family. Women in particular are reduced to meat, objects to satisfy lusts. They are stripped of human dignity. And yet, every one of them was someone’s daughter and the potential mother of children.
The vows of the religious life are extensions of those characteristics that should be a part of every believer’s life. Yes, a religious embraces poverty and owns nothing. However, our laity must know a poverty of spirit, possessing things but never allowing things to possess them. Their treasure is Jesus and their families. They prize the three things that last: faith, hope and charity. Yes a religious embraces chastity in the form of consecrated virginity or celibacy. However, our laity must practice chastity in both the single-life and in marriage. Sexual expression only finds its proper place in marriage and even there it must be orientated toward fidelity and procreation. It is a remedy against concupiscence just as St. Paul warned his listeners: it is better to marry than to burn. Holy passion is not the same as bestial lust. That is why the late Pope John Paul II said that lust, even in marriage, is a sin. Yes, a religious pledges obedience to his superior or bishop. However, the laity are also obliged to respect and follow the good counsel of their pastors. They must place their first allegiance in God before all earthly powers and courts. All this is what is meant by the evangelical counsels being the medicine against the diseases of the soul: the world, the flesh and the devil.
A regular examination of conscience is quite valuable. Nevertheless, we should not underestimate our ability for self-deception. That is why prayer and reflection within the family is important, so that we as individuals might find correction from one another and thus real truthfulness. Not to be neglected is the role of a spiritual director, particularly a priest. Few make recourse to a priest for such purposes, just as many neglect their availability as confessors. This is unfortunate.
It is easy enough for a religious or new priest to say that poverty is a virtue and not a problem. But this is somewhat unfair to struggling couples who find their poverty a real difficulty. I think it is generally nonsensical for the laity to embrace material poverty or financial strain as a mortification. Certain Protestants argue such, as do various organizations within Catholicism, but usually with their hand out to relieve people of their so-called excess cash. Many parents struggle to pay tuition at Catholic schools or to raise money for college. Others find it difficult just to keep a roof over their heads and their children clothed and fed. I grew up in poverty and the Church helped us. My father worked hard but really did not receive a just wage for his labor. My mother stayed home and raised her seven children. My poor father was forced to work longer hours and to endure humiliating and hard work to provide for us. Sometimes he cried because there was so much he could not give us…and I am not talking about luxuries either! My father, like so many poor people, hated his job but sacrificed himself for his family. It was a wonderful expression of love but there was little that was happy about it. Many young preachers, or men who have limited exposure to all the family scenarios in parishes, often romanticize poverty. This is an injustice to the poor. No man wants to see his wife and children in rags or running around with holes in their shoes. No man should have to endure shame from others when his hard work cannot relieve the poverty of his family.
It is even argued that the Holy Family was poor. However, except for the peculiar situation of the Bethlehem census, there is no real evidence for this claim. Indeed, Jesus is identified as “the carpenter’s son,” implying that Joseph had an important employment in his community for which he was remunerated. Further, if one believes the story of the Magi, there is the matter of the kingly gifts that were bestowed upon our Lord. Many exegetes would concur that the Holy Family was not wealthy, but neither were they perpetually destitute. They probably ranked as middle-class in their day. Turtle-doves were among the animals sold for offerings at the Temple. Admittedly, it was not on the level of a lamb, but it certainly fulfilled the letter of the law and that might have been all that concerned good St. Joseph. That is not grounds to argue that they were poor. They may merely have been frugal, perhaps using their resources more for others than for temple sacrifice?
Again, it is simplistic to think that poverty and wearing hand-me-downs will make people better or holy. A prayerful life can lead to a simple life but a simple life in itself can still become a source of frustration and distortion, particularly if one is consumed by jealousy and resentment. I know middle-class and even wealthy families that are very prayerful and Catholic. They visit Rome and call the Pope a personal friend. The type of poverty most important for the laity is not material poverty but spiritual detachment. It is wrong to confuse the charisms of the religious life in an absolute way with those of the laity.
Those who are poor through accident or providence find solidarity with the self-imposed poverty of the priest. They recognize in him one like themselves. The priest and pastor does what he can to improve their material lot and most importantly to save their souls.
No matter what the financial or material status of a family, the old maxim of the late Father Peyton still applies, “the family that prays together, stays together.” And the prayer that this wonderful priest always promoted was the rosary and the Mass.
When speaking of the “mutual submission of husband and wife” some religious teachers fall prey to a form of political correctness regarding spousal love and obedience in the home. Just as in the Church, obedience in the home is also hierarchical. Children must obey their parents. Wives should be subject to their husbands as the Church is to Christ. Husbands should love their wives and be willing to lay down their lives for them and their families. The husband and father is the head of the Christian home. This is the testimony of both St. Paul and St. Peter. Wives seem to function as the heart of the home. Together, the head and heart insure the body of the family knows life, love and joy.