Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Holy Family, Year C
December 28, 2003
Sir 3:2-6,12-14; Col 3:12-21; Lk 2:41-52
1) The Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, has been losing his voice trying to get the Church and society to confront what he calls the greatest crisis facing the Church and the world. The greatest crisis is not the threat of terrorism. It’s not the threat of nuclear war. It’s not the threat of so-called global warming. It’s not even the lack of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. All of these are real and they’re important, and the Pope isn’t downplaying any of them in saying that none of them is the greatest crisis facing the Church and the world. But the Pope, who himself is as astute about world history, politics and events as anyone is, and is as wise about things in the world as he is about the things of God, says that there’s a greater crisis facing the Church and the world, something that demands our immediate attention and the attention of all those who care for the human race. He says the greatest crisis all of us face is the crisis of the family.
2) The family, he notes, is being attacked from outside and inside. It’s being attacked from the outside by all types of laws and cultural pressures that make it harder today than at any time to raise a family, despite all of the material blessings and knowledge the human race has accumulated over the course of the past century. The family is under tremendous attack by those who see the traditional family as a threat to freedom, as by those in our state who are pushing for so-called “gay marriage.” It’s under threat by those who see children as an enemy rather than as the human race’s greatest resource. We see this in China, where parents cannot have a second child and if they conceive one, the child is either forcibly killed before birth through abortion or after birth by infanticide, or here in the United States, where over the course of this homily, 52 children will be killed through abortion. But we see it through other policies that discriminate against marriage and against the family. Our tax structure makes it economically disadvantageous to marry. If an unwed mother decides to marry the child’s father and right their situation with God, they take a huge hit in taxes. Widows and widowers sometimes sadly come to ask me if they can move in with the person they love without getting married, lest they lose their social security benefits. The pope notes, however, that the greatest attacks on the family come from inside the family, when the family starts becoming too worldly; when it no longer sees itself as a domestic CHURCH, but a mere social unit; when spouses don’t fulfill their obligations toward each other, toward their children, and toward God — when, basically, sin invades the persons who comprise the family and destroys their union. The sky-rocketing rates of divorce come not really because of external pressure on the family, but because one or more of the members of the family was attacking and destroying the family from within. The family is the primary cell of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, and the fundamental building block of society. When it is threatened, from within or without, both the Church and society are itself threatened at its core. And this is a crisis more pressing than anything Osama Bin Laden could bring about.
3) Therefore, this Sunday, it’s a great blessing that we have the feast of the Holy Family, so that we can reflect together on the purpose of the family, what it means to be a husband and father, a wife and mother, a child and brother or sister. The family has a purpose in God’s plan; it’s meant to help all of the members of the family grow into the realization of who God created each of them to be, through teaching all of the members of the family what love really is and means. The Holy Father says that the family is supposed to be a “school of love,” in which the person is loved for himself and inspired to give of himself in love to others. If the family fails to teach the parents, the children, the real meaning of love, society and the Church in that society will never thrive and will probably not even survive. So today we’ll concentrate on what made the family comprised by Jesus, Mary and Joseph a “school of love.” Their family is called the “Holy Family” because holiness is the perfection of love. For a family to be a school of love, it needs to model itself on the loving choices and priorities we see in the Holy Family.
4) When we look at the Holy Family, we easily see several crucial elements about what made it holy:
a) First and foremost, they were around Jesus, the living Son of God. Every family is called to center its life around Jesus the Lord. The family that does this grows in holiness. The family that doesn’t, doesn’t.
b) Secondly, all the members of the family strived to do God’s will. Mary said, in becoming God’s mother, “Let it be done to me according to your word.” Joseph was constantly obeying God through the Angel, to take Mary as his wife, to flee with Mary and Jesus into Egypt, to return from Egypt after Herod’s death. Jesus’ whole life is a lesson in obedience. St. Luke tells us in today’s Gospel he was obedient to Mary and Joseph, growing in wisdom and understanding. He was obedient to His Heavenly Father even unto death on the Cross, saying amidst beads of bloody perspiration in the Garden, “Not my will, but thine be done.” The Holy Family was holy because it always sought to do God’s will. Every family is called to do the same.
c) Thirdly, and related to both of these, the Holy Family was holy because it prayed. We read in the Gospels that the three of them would go regularly up to the Temple on the major feasts to pray. It was obvious that they also prayed a great deal at home, because when Jesus was caught among the teachers in the Temple at 12, he was already capable of amazing them with his questions. Jesus became familiar with the Sacred Scriptures according to his humanity, because both Mary and Joseph taught him Hebrew, like all Jews, by reading Sacred Scripture and meditating upon it with him. Similarly any family that wants to be holy, that wants to be what God calls it to be, has to pray, both going up to the temple as a family and then at home, from the earliest days.
5) God calls every family today to examine itself as to the extent to which it is imitating the Holy Family. Is Jesus the CENTER of your family? If someone who never met you came to your house to visit, would they be able to tell that Jesus is the center of your family life? Do you all strive to be obedient to God’s will, especially in the things you mind most challenging about living the faith? Do you recognize that sin is the true cancer of the family and harms those you love? Do you pray at home, individually and together as a family? Do you try to grow in faith together, for example, by together praying the Rosary or reading the Bible? Fr. Peyton and Mother Teresa both made famous the truism that even secular university studies have valid, that “the family that prays together stays together.” The corollary of this is that the family that does not pray together doesn’t stay together, even if they continue to coexist under the same roof. All three of these elements go together. The family that makes the sacrifices it will take to pray each day as a family will center itself more and more on Jesus and receive his help to be faithful to his will and grow in love of God and each other.
6) Your family is called to be a holy family and if it doesn’t become a holy family (which is God’s plan), it’s not God’s fault. Someone might say in response to me, “Father, everything you say is nice and makes sense, but let’s face it, I’m not married to the Blessed Mother, or to Saint Joseph, and my kids often behave more like little devils than the Christ Child.” You’d be right. You’re not married to St. Joseph, or to the Blessed Mother, and your children are not perpetually sinless delights like the Lord. But through your hardships with them, through your need to forgive and love them despite their defects, the Lord is calling you to be perfected, like rough stones will all become polished in a pocket if they’re allowed to rub against each other for long enough. With God’s help, your family can become holy, but you have to hunger for this and strive for this. Holiness is not easy, but it is possible with God’s help. And so the question is how badly do you want to be holy, for your sake and for the sake of those you love?
7) The holiness of the family starts with fundamentals like centering life on Jesus, doing God’s will by keeping the commandments, and prayer. But there are ways that each of the members of the family is called to help the family grow in holiness. I would like also to give some practical pieces of advice from today’s readings to the husbands and fathers, to the mothers and wives, and to the children here today. Each has special roles each within the family, missions that are becoming less and less commonly fulfilled today, which is why so many families, even families here in this parish, have difficulties that can destroy them.
8 ) First, fathers and husbands, please listen. You can learn so much from St. Joseph about what it means to be a husband and a father. To be a husband legally is pretty easy: just find someone free to marry you, and profess your consent publicly and legally in the presence of witnesses. To be a biological father is easy: even animals know what to do. But to be the type of father and husband God wants, you have to do much more. The primary role of the husband and the father we see in the life of St. Joseph, is to PROVIDE FOR and PROTECT the family. Joseph worked hard as a construction worker to support Jesus and Mary so that both of them could fulfill their missions in this world. He also protected them. When Jesus’ life was threatened by Herod, he immediately took his family to Egypt, giving up his job, his security, his hometown, to keep them safe from harm. The role of the father and husband is to love by working to provide for those he loves and by protecting those he loves. Most fathers I know realize this very well conceptually. Most are hardworking men who know it is their duty to work so that the family might have what it needs. And I’ve never met a father who wouldn’t risk his own life for his wife and kids were they to be in mortal danger. That said, while fathers always realize this theoretically, oftentimes in practice, they fail to provide what is most important to their family and don’t protect them from the greatest danger. The thing they’re called to provide more than anything else is an example of faith, to inspire their children. On the day they brought their children to be baptized, the priest said, “God is the giver of all life, human and divine. May he bless the father of this child. He and his wife will be the first teachers of this child in the ways of the faith. May they also be the best of teachers, bearing witness to the faith by what they say and do, in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Fathers need to examine their consciences on this point, and ask themselves whether , “by what they say and do,” they have been the best teachers of the ways of faith to their families. I haven’t been here in Hyannis long enough to know how the fathers here are doing, but back in Fall River, many fathers abdicated this responsibility entirely, showing more allegiance to the Patriots than to Christ, ceding their spiritual responsibilities in the family to their wives, to catechists and to Catholic school teachers. Moreover, the greatest danger to their wives and kids is spiritual danger. Jesus said, “Don’t fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Fear him, rather, who has the power to cast into the nether world.” And rather than protect their kids from sin, many fathers can be examples of sin, through abusing booze, through porn, through cursing, through putting other things in God’s place, through making their kids fear them rather than love them. Such fathers are neglecting their duties before God, to provide for their families and to protect them from harm. This Mass, this week, this new civil year, is a time for them to respond to God’s grace to become more and more like God the Father at home, more and more like St. Joseph, more and more like the patriarchs of the Old Testament.
10) Secondly, mothers and wives, please listen. We see in the life of Mary that her chief role was to nourish Jesus, to teach him how to love in a human way, and to be receptive to God’s grace so that he, too, would say yes to God in all things. The role of the mother is to nourish the child and teach the child how to love by her unconditional and constant love of the child, come what may. Most mothers do that pretty well. Very few kids grow up doubting whether their mothers really loved them, and most kids first learned about love from the love of their mothers. As wives, they are called to do what Eve did for Adam in the Garden, to remove his existential loneliness before God, so that man could learn how to love himself, another, and ultimately God. St. Paul says in the second reading, that they are supposed to be “submissive” to their husbands, which means literally to be under the “mission” of the husband to protect and provide for the family. It’s not just his duty; it’s also the mother’s role to provide and protect. I like to say that a mother is to spiritually breast-feed her children, digesting the faith internally and passing it on to the children in a way they can receive. Most mothers do this pretty well, but there are many mothers today, even Catholic mothers, who seem more concerned on making their children look cute on the outside rather than beautiful and glorious on the inside, especially with their daughters. When a mother isn’t on fire for the faith, for passing on Jesus, for making her love for God contagious, it would almost take a miracle for the family to become holy. The family can become holy when the husband and father is unfaithful to God if the mother strives to become holy, but if the mother doesn’t put God first, the family almost never will. The mother is the conscience of the family. If there are any mothers here who haven’t been putting God first in their family, and haven’t been doing whatever they can to bring the members of the family to him, then this Sunday, this week, this new year, is the time to make this most important resolution. Because even if a marriage lasts 60 years, if a spouse doesn’t make it to heaven, the marriage has failed. If children don’t make it to heaven because they never really got to love the faith when they were kids and hence never had much of a chance to love the faith later, the family has failed. Sanctity is the most important thing of all.
11) Finally, and briefly, children, please listen. Children are called to obey their parents in non-sinful things and to give honor to their parents. Their whole lives should be one of honoring their mother and father, not just in this world, but most importantly in the next world. The greatest way for a child to honor a parent is to become a saint, to respond to the graces of baptism that the parents brought the child to receive, so that they will be honored forever by God in heaven. Anything shorter than that might be giving “respect” or “courtesy,” but it’s not honor. Sometimes it’s hard to obey parents. I know; believe it or not, I was a teenager too! But I kept coming back to the truth that if Jesus, who was God, could obey his human parents, then surely could I. And that honor continues throughout the whole of life. There’s a special call in the first reading today from Sirach for grown children to care for their parents. As parents get older, frailer and sicker, this responsibility becomes more and more important. God calls them to provide love for their parents, and not just make arrangements for a nursing home. Listen again to the Book of Sirach, which applies not just to fathers and sons but to all parents and children: “My son, take care of your father when he is old; grieve him not as long as he lives. Even if his mind fail, be considerate with him; revile him not in the fullness of your strength. For kindness to a father will not be forgotten, it will serve as an offering for sin — and it will take root.” This is the word of the Lord! For children, parents are given to help us learn how to love God the Father through obedience. A child will never become a saint, which is why he was created, if he doesn’t love the gift of his parents, with all their frailties. This week, this Sunday, this new year, is a time to renew our fidelity to giving honor to our parents, even if one or both of them has died, because we’re seeking to give them eternal honor by living the type of life which will bring us to heaven, so that the angels and the saints might pull them aside if they’re in heaven as we hope and say, “Isn’t that your son or daughter?”
12) We come now to the celebration of the Eucharist, which always needs to be the heart of the family, the heart of the school of love. Husband and wife are married in the context of the Mass in front of the altar, which is highly significant, because their marriage is called to be a symbol of that marriage between Christ and the Church, Christ who loved the Church so much that he laid down his life for her to make her holy. Spouses need to imitate Christ’s love for his bride, sacrificing for each other to make the other holy. In every sacramental marriage, the couple enters into Christ’s union with the Church, which is consummated right here on this altar, when the Bride of Christ, the Church, receives the very flesh and blood of her divine Husband within her. For any marriage to thrive, for any family to thrive, they need together to come often to this marriage bed, where they’ll receive the Lord of love inside them and be able to share his complete and total love with each other. To the crisis of the family that the world and the Church face, God has given his solution — THIS school of love!