Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Feast of the Holy Family, Year A
December 29, 2013
Sir 3:2-6.12-14, Ps 128, Col 3:12-21, Mt 2:13-15.19-23
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:
This is the written text that guided the homily
The Importance of the Family in the Divine Plan
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family, which is a tremendous gift each year to ponder the importance and meaning of the family.
It’s highly significant that when the Son of God became man, when the Word became flesh, he chose to be conceived and born within a family of an already committed husband and wife. He didn’t choose to come as a 30-year-old adult, or a teenager, or an 80 year old. He didn’t choose to be born of a single mom, or raised by two men or two women. He chose to be born within a family precisely in order to redeem the family. The family is always in need of redemption. We see with the first family of Adam and Eve how the devil succeeded in separating husband and wife from God and from each other, and we see the immediate consequences of the devil’s work in the next generation when Cain slew his brother Abel. Because the family is meant to be the world’s greatest image of God as a communion of persons in love, the devil never ceases to go after the family. We see how he did through Herod in today’s Gospel, terrorizing not only the Holy Family but all the families of ancient Bethlehem.
The Crisis of the Family
Since his election, Pope Francis has been seeking to draw attention to the crisis of the family. He has called special synods of the bishops from around the world to meet in the Vatican the next two Octobers in order to come up with practical ways to care for the needs of families around the world and to shine a light for all who can see on how society needs to buttress the family not facilitate its breakdown.
About two months ago, in preparation for next October’s Extraordinary Synod on the Pastoral Challenges to the Family, the Vatican put out a preparatory document in which it said, without exaggeration, that Never before has proclaiming the Gospel on the Family … been more urgent and necessary.” It highlighted that in the entire history of the Church, the family has never faced such challenges. In every generation, individual families of course suffer all types of difficulties, but now the family is under an unprecedented conceptual attack.
In one paragraph, the document synthesized the extent and many of the manifestations of the crisis.
- It lists widespread cohabitation that often substitutes for matrimony, with many thinking that marriage is simply a piece of paper and a worthless piece of paper at that.
- It notes the challenge same-sex unions and the move to redefine what marriage is: that many are pushing for marriage to be a husband-less or wife-less institution.
- It turns next to polygamy, which is still a problem not only in Utah with the court decision earlier this month but also in various cultures across the globe where men fail to make a commitment to one woman.
- It points out single-parent families not by accident or by abandonment but choice, with women seeking to start families with sperm donors or acquaintances without any intention to have a dad in a child’s life. It describes the culture of non-commitment.
- It talks about the widespread presumption that marriage is temporary, that it is meant to last only as long as people are happy, not for as long as both shall live.
- It talks about the problem of migration and the separation of families, not just across national borders but also in places like America where families live on opposite coasts.
- It describes the harms done by radical feminist ideas opposed to the very notion of the family, as if the family is an evil patriarchal institution by definition.
- It mentions the influence of the media in promoting new conceptions of family life; It’s not that every family needs to be like “Leave It To Beaver,” but have you noticed that there are almost no images of traditional families on television, but lots of other depictions of “new” familial structures?
- The document focuses on legislative and judicial proposals that facilitate no-fault divorce, which teach a culture that marriages break down for no real reason and facilitates people not fulfilling their responsibilities in marriage.
- It also mentions an increase in “wombs for hire” (surrogate motherhood) and what that means for trying to determine parenthood in the culture of fertility clinics.
Within the Church, the preparatory document says that many Catholics young people are growing up in homes that will not pass on to them the faith, who will never see their parents receive the sacraments. They’re not being raised to see how marriage is a sacrament not to mention how God has given us the sacraments of the Eucharist and Confession to help strengthen families through better or worse, in sickness and health, in poverty or prosperity all the days of their lives.
We can spend not only the rest of this homily but many homilies focusing on the problems confronting the family today, but I think we should rather consider how we can begin to strengthen the family as a whole one by one, beginning with all the families here. 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 be a school of love, a domestic Church, a gift of God to help all of the members of the family grow into the realization of who God created each of them to be.
Passing on God’s Wisdom about the Family
If a family is truly loving, united, centered on God — whether they’re rich or poor, whether they’re living in the first world or the third — the members of that family all have a much greater chance for happiness, holiness and heaven. But if people are in families that are divided by serious sin, that are broken, that are abusive, we all know that it makes it infinitely harder for men and women, boys and girls, to overcome those wounds and experience what God wants to give them in this life and in the next.
It’s totally obvious how important families are to human flourishing and all of us naturally feel sick to our stomachs when we see young kids being raised in situations of neglect and mistreatment.
But at the same time, most of us feel it’s somehow impolite to pass on what revelation, common sense and social science research all attest, that the best circumstance for kids and for others is to be raised in an intact home with a loving, committed, and married mother and father. We think that if we promote what teaches about the family, we’re somehow discriminating against every other arrangement. And while we’re not passing on what God has revealed as Good News, our culture is passing on alternative notions of the family that are becoming more and more common.
In the Old Testament, we see how important passing on God’s wisdom is in the scenes right before the Israelites crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land after nearly 40 years in the desert. Through Moses, God summed up for them the entire covenant and told them that their survival and flourishing depended on passing this wisdom on from generation to generation.
“These then are the commandments, the statutes and decrees which the Lord, your God, has ordered that you be taught to observe in the land into which you are crossing for conquest, so that you and your son and your grandson may fear the Lord, your God, and keep, throughout the days of your lives, all his statutes and commandments which I enjoin on you, and thus have long life. …’Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words that I enjoin on you today. Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. Bind them at your wrist as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates.”
Today serious Jews take these commands seriously, writing these words within curls of their hair, wearing them on their wrists, putting them on their doors, but the reason is because we see that back when the Israelites crossed the Jordan, the adults didn’t do what God had commanded. They presumed that their kids would just continue to follow in the Lord’s ways just as their parents, that they would pick up the faith by osmosis rather than by drilling the covenant into the people’s minds, hearts, hands and homes. And within a generation, their kids were marrying pagans, sacrificing to pagan gods, and living lives totally divorced from God’s covenant. It happened in just one generation! The serious Jews learned that lesson and that’s why they take learning the Torah so seriously today. We Catholics need to be just as serious about the faith in general.
Specifically with regard to marriage, however, what we have to admit is that we are now in the second generation when the Good News about marriage, family, love and sexuality has not been passed on to our kids. Basically across the board in the Catholic and Protestant churches, and in culture in general, we not only stopped passing on the faith but we started indoctrinating our children in various teachings against the Gospel. Instead of passing on what God has taught us very clearly about right and wrong, our culture has communicated to kids that work is more important than worship even on Sunday, that those who support God’s teaching on marriage as an indissoluble union of one man and one woman are not faithful but homophobic bigots, that those who with God oppose the deliberate premeditated assassination of innocent human beings in the womb are not righteous but woman-haters, that those who believe and practice God’s teachings about chastity are perverts rather than those living promiscuously, that those who remain faithful in marriage and forgive their spouses as Christ has forgiven them are the fools, while those who like Hollywood stars get out a situation they don’t find as fulfilling as they hoped to marry someone else younger, better looking, richer are the paragons.
The Social Costs of Failing to Pass on God’s Wisdom about the Family
What has this culture brought us? It hasn’t brought us happiness. We sow what we reap and what are we reaping? I’ll share just a few observations.
First, the need for psychological care has skyrocketed beyond all historical proportions. Psychiatrists and psychologists tell us that the vast majority of psychological issues can be traced to early childhood development. What should happen in the family doesn’t happen and as a result people grow up with all types of mommy and daddy issues — from attachment and identity disorders, to sexual confusion, to self-esteem problems to so many more — all flowing from the fact that many of their normal human needs weren’t met when they were kids. When we tinker with the family, our kids suffer, and many of them suffer for life.
The second thing I’ll mention is what’s been getting commented upon in the last couple of weeks with the first anniversary of the terrible atrocities in Newtown, CT. Several articles have been written showing that almost all of the serious childhood serial killers — like Adam Lanza — all grew up in homes in which a father wasn’t present. That leads to a mom’s needing to do a father’s job in addition to her own, and, frankly, many women aren’t good being dads just like most men aren’t good being moms. Sometimes they can discipline in a way that ends up filling their sons with rage, a rage that overflows in seeking to harm the innocent.
We know that 85 percent of incarcerated juveniles come from homes in which there was no father present. Children who don’t grow up intact homes have much higher rates of suicide, behavioral disorders, delinquency, dropping out of high school, aggression, confused identities and more.
The breakdown of the family has an enormous social cost. Our kids are the ones who first needing to pay that enormous bill. But as the Newtown tragedy and our filled jails show us, all of society pays that cost.
Learning from the Holy Family how to be part of God’s response to the crisis
In response to these very worrisome cultural trends, Pope Francis is trying to enlist all in the Church — especially Catholic families — to start being part of the solution. He’s calling on Catholic families not just to live the Gospel but to sow the Gospel of God’s wisdom on marriage, family, love and sexuality as best they can in their own circumstances, however imperfect.
As Pope Francis mentioned in his Angelus address this morning in St. Peter’s Square and as the Opening Prayer of the Mass reminded us, the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph enfleshes this wisdom that we’re called to embody and pass on. We prayed at the beginning of Mass, “O God, who were pleased to give us the shining example of the Holy Family, graciously grant that we may imitate them in practicing the virtues of family life and the bonds of charity.” All of us can learn so much from their virtues and love about how to make our families schools 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 them.
When we look at the Holy Family, we easily see several crucial elements about what made it holy:
First and foremost, they were centered 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.
Secondly, all the members of the family strived to do God’s will and sought to help others 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 that Jesus 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 that wants to be holy is called to do the same.
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. They would go to the synagogue at least every Sabbath. 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. St. Paul in today’s second reading called on all Christian families to “let the word of Christ dwell in your richly,” and the Word of God certainly dwelled in both senses in the home in Nazareth. Likewise 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.
God calls every family today to examine itself as to the extent to which it is imitating the Holy Family in making Jesus the center of family life, in praying together, in encouraging and inspiring each other to be obedient to God’s will through their own example. Fr. Patrick Peyton — who we hope to be the first canonized saint from our Diocese (he’s buried in Easton) — and Mother Teresa both made famous the truism that even secular university studies have validated, 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, because they lack unity on what’s deepest about us. All three of these elements I’ve mentioned 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.
And so I’d like to ask all families here to examine themselves on the virtuous behaviors of the Holy Family. Is Jesus really the center of your familial life? Do you pray, and pray to such a degree that prayer is really at the heart of who you are or is prayer treated just as another quick chore that you try to get done so as to focus on other things? Do you really try to help each other discern God’s will and do it? Today God wants to help every family grow in these behaviors and bonds of charity with God and each other.
The particular missions of individual family members
While the holiness of the family starts with fundamentals like centering life on Jesus, doing God’s will by keeping the commandments, and prayer, 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, are experiencing difficulties that are harming them.
The Mission of Fathers and Husbands
First, fathers and husbands, please listen. You can learn so much from St. Joseph about what how to fulfill your vocation. 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, many fathers 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. Each is called to ask himself if he’s abdictated this spiritual responsibility in the family to his wife, to catechists, to Catholic school teachers, to priests and religious.
Moreover, the greatest danger to one’s wife 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 both body and soul into the nether world” (Mt 10:28). And some fathers, rather than protect their kids from sin, can be examples of sin, through abusing booze, through addictions to porn, through cursing, through putting other things in God’s place, through making their kids fear them rather than love them. St. Joseph is a great model and a great intercessor for fathers to help them to fulfill their vocations well and I encourage fathers to learn more and more from St. Joseph’s example.
The Mission of Wives and Moms
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. Thanks be to God, few kids grow up doubting whether their mothers really love 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. She is the one who, in line with her femininity, helps her husband be receptive to graces of God.
With regard to her motherhood, 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. So many mothers do this superbly, but we also have to admit that there are some 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. God knows how many challenges mothers face, but God also promises to help them with each challenge as they try to mediate God’s own love in the home. Mary is a great model and intercessor for wives and mothers in how to make their homes true schools of sanctity.
Children and Siblings
Finally, 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 the person’s parents 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. All of us know that! But if Jesus, who was God, could obey his human parents, then surely other kids can too. St. Paul says in today’s second reading, “Children obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord,” while at the same time reminding parents not to provoke and discourage their children by abusing their authority.
This call to honor one’s parents continues throughout the whole of life. There’s a special summons 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 to free children of a responsibility that they could manage if they had different priorities — although we likewise need to admit that, once children can no longer provide adequate care around the clock for infirm parents, helping them receive good care in a nursing home can be a real act of love.
Listen 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, the new year which is about to begin, 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?”
The Eucharist as the Heart of a Holy Family Today
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. If someone asks, “How does Christ love the Church?,” I should be able to point to husbands here and say, “Like he loves his wife and kids.” And if someone asks how we in the Church should love God, I should be able to point to wives here and say, “Like she loves her husband and family.”
And all families members receive strength to love like that here at Mass. The Mass is the consummation of the union between Christ and his Bride the Church, when we take within ourselves the body and blood of the divine Bridegroom. 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 — Himself united with us and with our families, he who entered our world first as a little baby and remains in this world here God-with-us in the Holy Eucharist, teaching and feeding us every day and especially every Sunday in this, his school of familial love!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
SIR 3:2-6, 12-14
a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons.
Whoever honors his father atones for sins,
and preserves himself from them.
When he prays, he is heard;
he stores up riches who reveres his mother.
Whoever honors his father is gladdened by children,
and, when he prays, is heard.
Whoever reveres his father will live a long life;
he who obeys his father brings comfort to his mother.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 of him;
revile him not all the days of his life;
kindness to a father will not be forgotten,
firmly planted against the debt of your sins
—a house raised in justice to you.
PS 128:1-2, 3, 4-5
Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD,
who walks in his ways!
For you shall eat the fruit of your handiwork;
blessed shall you be, and favored.
R. Blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways.
Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine
in the recesses of your home;
your children like olive plants
around your table.
R. Blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways.
Behold, thus is the man blessed
who fears the LORD.
The LORD bless you from Zion:
may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life.
R. Blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways.
Brothers and sisters:
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.
And let the peace of Christ control your hearts,
the peace into which you were also called in one body.
And be thankful.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,
as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another,
singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs
with gratitude in your hearts to God.
And whatever you do, in word or in deed,
do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus,
giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Wives, be subordinate to your husbands,
as is proper in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives,
and avoid any bitterness toward them.
Children, obey your parents in everything,
for this is pleasing to the Lord.
Fathers, do not provoke your children,
so they may not become discouraged.
MT 2:13-15, 19-23
the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt,
and stay there until I tell you.
Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”
Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night
and departed for Egypt.
He stayed there until the death of Herod,
that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled,
Out of Egypt I called my son.When Herod had died, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream
to Joseph in Egypt and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel,
for those who sought the child’s life are dead.”
He rose, took the child and his mother,
and went to the land of Israel.
But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea
in place of his father Herod,
he was afraid to go back there.
And because he had been warned in a dream,
he departed for the region of Galilee.
He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth,
so that what had been spoken through the prophets
might be fulfilled,
He shall be called a Nazorean.