Fr. Roger J. Landry
Sacred Heart Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Feast of the Holy Family, Year C
December 27, 2015
1 Sam 2:20-22.24-28, Ps 84, 1 John 3:1-2.21-24, Lk 2:41-52
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following text guided today’s homily:
Jesus’ plan to redeem family life
We celebrate today the Feast of the Holy Family of Mary, Joseph and the child Jesus. We mark the fundamental fact that when the Son of God became man, when the Word became flesh, he became flesh as a little child within a family. That was a divine choice, for Jesus did not have to come into our world in that way. He could have come as a 33-year-old adult and immediately begun his public ministry of preaching, teaching, healing and saving. He could have come as an 80-year-old sage or at least at the age of 12 dazzling the scribes and priests in the Temple like we see in today’s Gospel. But he was conceived and began his existence as a one-celled human zygote in Mary’s womb, progressed to a blastocyst, then an embryo, then a fetus until finally he was born as a baby in a family, where he was nourished according to his human nature and grew, as we see in today’s Gospel, in “wisdom and favor before God and man.” Why did he do this? He didn’t tell us the reason, but you don’t need to be a great theologian to see why it made sense: He wanted to redeem all of human life in its totality, from its very beginning, which meant redeeming the family from its very beginning.
All of existence is meant to be familial. Saint John Paul II used to call the Blessed Trinity a family, because it is a structured communion of persons in love, with a Father, a Son and the love between them. The human person was made in the image and likeness of God as a communion of persons, “male and female he made them” (Gen 1:27-28), and hence the image of God is familial: a husband and a wife can love each so much that, like the Trinity, their love can generate a third person. They can literally “make love” and then name, raise and live in joyful communion with the love they make.
The devil’s perpetual attacks on the family
But man, woman and children didn’t live up to their being in the image of God. Right from the beginning, sin invaded the family. It began with Adam and Eve and the first sin, in which Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent, with neither taking responsibility and with both hiding the most vulnerable aspects of their humanity from each other and God. The sinfulness quickly harmed their children. Cain killed his brother Abel. There was jealousy between Abraham’s sons Isaac and Ishmael, enmity between Isaac’s sons Jacob and Esau, envy between Jacob’s 12 sons, ten of whom ganged up to try to kill their brother Joseph. There was deadly jealousy in King David’s family. Jesus’ family tree is a chronicle of generations of infidelity to each other and to God. Polygamy and concubinage became rampant. Divorce was introduced because of the hardness of people’s hearts to keeping their promises of life. God would sum up the relationship with his people through the Prophet Hosea under the idea of adultery, because adultery, rather than fidelity, had almost become the rule in the relationships between spouses and family members and between individual families and the family of Israel with God. Simply put, the family had become a mess. As the human family “increased and multiplied,” so did sin.
Jesus was born of a family in order to redeem the family, to reconcile all of family life to God, because the family has a crucial role in the world God created. The family based on marriage is the primordial sacrament because it is meant to be an efficacious sign of the love of God in the world, of the loving communion of persons who God is. When the family is thriving as God intended, everything else can find its proper order. But when the family becomes a den of sin instead of a school of sanctification, the wounds cut the deepest. That’s why the devil always goes after the family, from Adam’s and Eve’s, to the families we grew up in, to religious families and to the family Jesus himself founded with his Bride and Body the Church.
Jesus’ healing and forming a family
Jesus’ whole work can be looked at as restoring the family to its proper place “in the beginning” by helping it to become a crucial part of redemption and a house of holiness. We see that restoration in the Holy Family of Nazareth, where their life was centered on God in prayer, where they sacrificed for each other out of love, where they helped and strengthened each other to fulfill the vocations God had given them, even at great personal cost. When Jesus inaugurated his public ministry, he continued to give great witness to the importance of the family in God’s plan of redemption. He began the public manifestation of his work with the miracle at the wedding feast of Cana, changing the “water” of the good of marriage from the beginning with Adam and Eve to the “wine” of a Sacrament that communicates his own divine life. Jesus taught about marriage in God’s original plan and sought to purify people’s hardened hearts to accept that God would make fruitful, faithful, indissoluble love, modeled on divine love, possible. He shared in the moments of familial life with Lazarus, Martha and Mary, and even in the family of Peter with his mother-in-law. He responded with haste to the cries of parents for their children, as he did with the Centurion whose son was dying, the Synagogue official whose little girl was moribund, the widow in Nain whose only Son had breathed his last, and Martha and Mary after the brother Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. Throughout his was one of profound mercy, in trying to reconcile people to God’s plans for marital and familial love. He tenderly told the adulterous woman that she wasn’t condemned but called her to go and sin no more. He compassionately exposed for the Samaritan woman that the man she was with was not her husband. He praised St. John the Baptist, who was in prison because he had reminded Herod that it was not right for him to marry his brother Philip’s wife.
And in this Year of Mercy, it’s key for us to grasp that the family is the first and fundamental setting for God’s mercy. Jesus was coming to redeem the family, to bathe it in his mercy, to raise family members and the family as a whole from the dead through reconciliation, and through the Church to form and continually rebuild a spiritual family. He knew that the process wouldn’t be easy. He had said, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in- law.” The family would be divided not by Jesus but because of Jesus. When he would come, he would provoke the decision to put God first or to try to retain sinful, earthly hegemonies. Jesus’ plan, as described in the final report of the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and Contemporary world,” was to bring about a “revolution in affection,” a “radical call to universal brotherhood,” where “no one is excluded from this new community gathered in Jesus’ name, because all are called to be part of God’s family.” But to bring about that revolution was going to require his own death.
Modeling God in the family of the Church and in our home
In this special ecclesiastical holy year, the Church needs to give a particular witness to the mercy every family needs so that that supreme divine gift might become so radiant within the family of the Church that it will penetrate every domestic Church (Christian home) and from there all the homes in a neighborhood. The Church is meant to be extension of the Holy Family of Bethlehem and Nazareth. God is the Father of the family in heaven. Mary is the mother. Joseph is the foster-father and protector. We are the children through baptism. That’s what the Church is. St. John tells us with great wonder in today’s second reading, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are!” We truly are God’s children and therefore brothers and sisters of each other. This is a fact that most of us know in our heads, but very few of us know in our hearts. The truth is that we are more united to each other through baptism that I am united by genes a to my identical twin brother! Sometimes we can think in overly material ways. We can say, “blood is thicker than water” and underemphasize our spiritual brotherhood. But in this case, the water of baptism is so much thicker than blood, because the water is made thick of the blood of Christ that gives it its power. But we have to treat each other that way.
In the early Church, the Christians treated each other as family members and that beauty drew multitudes toward Christianity. They pooled all their possessions in common to make sure that the most vulnerable had what they needed. They prayed together. They ate meals together. They went on pilgrimages together. They allowed the Holy Spirit to unite them. We need to ask ourselves, whether in our families of origin, our parishes, our religious houses, the whole community, our rectories and the universal Church, we treat each other as true brothers and sisters. Do we imitate the virtues of the Holy Family, centering everything on God, helping each other to pray, praying together, sacrificing for each other, and encouraging each other to do God’s will by our doing God’s will with joy? Jesus said very clearly that “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mk 3:35) and we built up the family that Christ came to found by our doing God’s will and facilitating others doing the same. At the same time we know that we often fail in love for God and for others, and that’s why in doing God’s will in the family we need to forgive others their trespasses just as God has previously forgiven us. And this compassion toward each other leads us positively to bear each other’s burdens, to help the other when the other needs it without needing to be begged, in short, to love each other, by sacrificing for each other, by being patient and kind to each other and all the other things St. Paul says comes from true love. To live according to the virtues of the Holy Family in community life would be a great resolution for all of us to take up together for 2016, as part of reparation for the sins against familial life we and others have committed, and as the road to reconciliation.
Jesus came to redeem the family and he wants us to be his co-redeemers. He comes to make us rich in mercy and to help us to pay it forward lavishly toward each other. St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians which is used on Cycle A for this Feast and was a passage Cardinal John O’Connor liked to comment upon often to Sisters of Life with regard to community life, said, “Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.”
Forgiveness and Family Life
St. John Paul II stressed in his beautiful letter to the families of the world that, if we’re going to treat each other with heartfelt compassion, we need to receive it first from God. “The love of spouses and parents,” he wrote, “has the capacity to cure these kinds of wounds, provided the dangers alluded to do not deprive it of its regenerative force, which is so beneficial and wholesome a thing for human communities. This capacity depends on the divine grace of forgiveness and reconciliation, which always ensures the spiritual energy to begin anew. For this very reason family members need to encounter Christ in the Church through the wonderful Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.” So many difficulties arise in the family because the devil takes little grievances and has them harden such that they become huge. When I try to help struggling couples reconcile, I always cover the various areas in which they long for each other to apologize and bring them to admit the areas in which they need to ask for forgiveness. But there’s always a lot of history there and starting the whole cycle of being the first one to ask for forgiveness is hard. That’s why I always ask when was the last time they went to Confession. Very often, neither spouse has received God’s mercy and asked for the healing help of his mercy in marriage for years. And it becomes clear why the wedge between them has grown, because the wedge of each of them with God has likewise grown. That’s why, St. John Paul insists, “family members need to encounter Christ in the Church through the wonderful Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.”
Pope Francis has been calling everyone to experience God’s mercy throughout this new Jubilee Year but he specifically mentioned it within the context of family life this morning in his homily at St. Peter’s in the Vatican. “In the Year of Mercy,” he said, “every Christian family can become a privileged place for experiencing the joy of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the essence of the love that can understand mistakes and mend them. Within the family we learn how to forgive, because we are certain that we are understood and supported, whatever the mistakes we make.” Pope Francis even speculated that Jesus may have asked forgiveness from Mary and Joseph on their way home for having caused them so much “anguish” by being lost from them for three days. Likewise we can be generous in saying we’re sorry for those times even when we didn’t intend to harm another, but when they suffered as a result of miscommunication. This Year of Mercy is a time to begin that whole process. It’s a time for every family member to learn from the Parable of the Prodigal Son, whether we identify most with the Father, with the elder son or with the younger, how to have mercy bring us all to the joy of reconciliation.
The family is meant to be the setting where family members, having received God’s mercy, share it with others in such a way that all are formed to grow more and more into the image of our merciful God. Jesus said in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the merciful, because they will be called children of God.” He explicitly called us to be merciful as our heavenly Father is merciful. And the family, with all the wounds of ordinary life, is the school in which we learn how to become like God in forgiving our family members.
The source and summit of familial mercy
Jesus came into the world to redeem the family. He has done so by entering the human family as a whole, by entering the particular family of Joseph and Mary, by entering through the Sacraments and prayer each family. He has done so by instituting the Sacrament of Baptism that makes us true children of God and family members of each other and has continually renewed the family through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which brings us back to our baptismal graces and gives us the strength to forgive each other.
But the greatest familial Sacrament of all, by which Jesus continues his redeeming work, is the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, whereby he incorporates us into his family — as his Bride, as his Body — and strengthens the bond of unity with each other. But for his saving work to be accomplished here, there’s a prerequisite. Jesus described it in the Sermon on the Mount: “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” To celebrate the Eucharist well, we need to be in communion with others, to recognize that this is meant to be the great familial feast, and therefore we need to be reconciled with those who have something against us before we’re able to participate fully in this feast. That’s why the Year of Mercy is so important for us to live if we’re going to be prepared really to live the source and the summit of our life in the Eucharist — and what it leads to, the eternal familial feast of heaven.
Jesus has come to redeem the family and it’s hear that he wants to do that great work. Together, imitating the faithful obedience of the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph, we say, together as a family, “Thy will be done!”
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 SM 1:20-22, 24-28
whom she called Samuel, since she had asked the LORD for him.
The next time her husband Elkanah was going up
with the rest of his household
to offer the customary sacrifice to the LORD and to fulfill his vows,
Hannah did not go, explaining to her husband,
“Once the child is weaned,
I will take him to appear before the LORD
and to remain there forever;
I will offer him as a perpetual nazirite.”Once Samuel was weaned, Hannah brought him up with her,
along with a three-year-old bull,
an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine,
and presented him at the temple of the LORD in Shiloh.
After the boy’s father had sacrificed the young bull,
Hannah, his mother, approached Eli and said:
“Pardon, my lord!
As you live, my lord,
I am the woman who stood near you here, praying to the LORD.
I prayed for this child, and the LORD granted my request.
Now I, in turn, give him to the LORD;
as long as he lives, he shall be dedicated to the LORD.”
Hannah left Samuel there.
Responsorial Psalm PS 84:2-3, 5-6, 9-10
How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!
My soul yearns and pines for the courts of the LORD.
My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.
R. Blessed are they who dwell in your house, O Lord.
Happy they who dwell in your house!
Continually they praise you.
Happy the men whose strength you are!
Their hearts are set upon the pilgrimage.
R. Blessed are they who dwell in your house, O Lord.
O LORD of hosts, hear our prayer;
hearken, O God of Jacob!
O God, behold our shield,
and look upon the face of your anointed.
R. Blessed are they who dwell in your house, O Lord.
Reading 2 1 JN 3:1-2, 21-24
See what love the Father has bestowed on us
that we may be called the children of God.
And so we are.
The reason the world does not know us
is that it did not know him.
Beloved, we are God’s children now;
what we shall be has not yet been revealed.
We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him,
for we shall see him as he is.Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us,
we have confidence in God and receive from him whatever we ask,
because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.
And his commandment is this:
we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ,
and love one another just as he commanded us.
Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them,
and the way we know that he remains in us
is from the Spirit he gave us.
Alleluia ACTS 16:14B
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Open our hearts, O Lord,
to listen to the words of your Son.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Gospel LK 2:41-52
Each year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the feast
and when he was twelve years old,
they went up according to festival custom.
After they had completed its days, as they were returning,
the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem,
but his parents did not know it.
Thinking that he was in the caravan,
they journeyed for a day
and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances,
but not finding him,
they returned to Jerusalem to look for him.
After three days they found him in the temple,
sitting in the midst of the teachers,
listening to them and asking them questions,
and all who heard him were astounded
at his understanding and his answers.
When his parents saw him,
they were astonished,
and his mother said to him,
“Son, why have you done this to us?
Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”
And he said to them,
“Why were you looking for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
But they did not understand what he said to them.
He went down with them and came to Nazareth,
and was obedient to them;
and his mother kept all these things in her heart.
And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor
before God and man.