Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
Feast of the Holy Family, Year A
December 30, 2001
Sir 3:2-6, 12-14; Col 3:12-21; Mt 2:13-15, 19-23
1) The Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, has been losing his voice trying to get the Church to confront what he calls the greatest crisis facing the Church and the world. The greatest crisis facing the Church and the world 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, by those who see children as an enemy rather than as the human race’s greatest resource. We notice this in China, where parents are prevented from having a second child, and if they have one, that child is often forcibly killed either before birth or oftentimes after birth. We see it here in the United States, where, beyond the scourge of 4000 children killed every day in their mother’s wombs, many of our government’s policies 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. But the family is being attacked from outside even by some Catholics inside the Church. I’ve seen it with my own eyes in places when a young couple brings in a large family of 6-7 children. Catholics in the pews, affected by our culture against children, turn their heads as if to say, “Can’t their parents control themselves,” as if raising up a large family of God’s children is not pleasing to God. But the pope notes 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 just a 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 then destroys the family. 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 Usama 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. 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 “holy,” and ask what each of us can do and are called by God to do to make our families holier in the new year we’re about to start. Because all families are called to be a Holy Family. God’s plan is as simple as that.
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 well grows in holiness. The family that does not, 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 obeyed the angel in the first dream, took Mary into his home as his virginal wife, and in the second dream, which we hear about in today’s Gospel, when he took Mary and Jesus with him to Egypt, to protect them from King Herod’s wrath. Jesus’ whole life is a lesson in obedience. St. Luke tells us 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 day.
5) Today, everyone here needs to examine his or her conscience about how holy his or her family is. The adults can examine their familial upbringing and how they’re doing as sons or daughters of the family of their birth while examining as well how they’re doing as parents and spouses. Children need to ask themselves if they’re doing their role to help make the family holier. This examination is crucial and urgent:
a) Is Jesus the center of your family? Is he the “rhyme and reason” for everything you do? Has he become just someone who’s important to you, rather than someone who’s all-important, someone you love above all other things, which your whole heart, mind, soul and strength? 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? What evidence would they find on your walls, in your interactions with each other, in your daily habits, in your love?
b) Second, how obedient are you to God’s will, especially in things that you find most difficult about living the faith? Do you seek to obey God through his Church in everything, trusting in Him even more than in yourself? Do you obey all of the commandments and encourage everyone to do the same? Are you truthful to each other? Are you honest with everyone, inside and outside the family? Are you faithful to the promises you’ve made to each other and made to God? Children (and I’m not just talking to kids), do you truly strive to “honor” your father and mother? How do you do this? Do you cut any corners in the faith, convinced that even though you know you’re not really doing God’s will, you’re doing enough, compared to others? Do you recognize that sin is the cancer of the family? Again, if someone like Mother Teresa were to visit your home, would she be touched by just how much your striving to do God’s will in everything, or would she leave somewhat disappointed?
c) Thirdly, do you pray at home? Do you pray individually and as a family? Do you pray before meals? Do you pray when you get up and before you go to bed? Parents, do you pray with your children before putting them to bed? Do you try to pray every night together as a family, either by meditating upon the Rosary or by reading and praying about passages of Sacred Scripture? As Fr. Peyton, whose cause for canonization Bishop O’Malley introduced last year, used to say, “The family that prays together stays together.” The corollary is that the family that doesn’t pray together, really doesn’t stay together, even if they continue to coexist under the same roof. Like the Holy Family, do you go regularly up to the Temple together? Do you come to Church together and prepare yourselves for coming, so that you can get more out of what God wants to give you each Sunday? Do you try to help each other to apply the truths of faith from the readings and the homily to your daily life?
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 are often 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?
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 are 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, to provide for and protect the family. Joseph worked hard as a construction worker — that’s what the word “tekton” really means, not just a carpenter, but someone who would build houses — to support both of them, so that they could fulfill their missions in this world. If you’re starving or freezing to death, you basically can’t do anything else. He also protected them, as we see in today’s Gospel. When they were threatened by Herod, he took them to Egypt, at great hardship, at loss of his job, security, etc., in order to keep them safe from harm.
9) 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, I’ve seen so many do a lousy job, because they don’t 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.” Many fathers flunk on this duty, so often leaving it to their wives to raise their children in the faith, or leaving it to Catechists. Moreover, the greatest danger to 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, so often fathers are examples of sin. Fathers who are more faithful to booze then they are to God or their wives. Fathers who curse and swear. Fathers who have their kids fear them rather than love them and obey them out of love. Fathers who drop their kids off for Mass and never come in themselves. Young kids naturally look up to parents as heroes, and this type of example is terribly harmful. These 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. She was also always there for her child, accompanying him all the way to his death, even though it brought her great pain and her own heart was pierced seven times. 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 be, as we heard in the second reading, “submissive” to their husbands, which is their duty in the Lord. Sometimes, that can cause confusion. What it really means is not that the wife be the “slave” of the husband, but rather under the mission (sub-missio) of the husband. What’s his mission? To provide and protect the family. The wife is called to be under that mission of protecting for and providing for the whole family. It’s not just his duty, although it is his principally, but hers, too, under him. But while most wives and mothers do so much well, many fail, again, in what is most important. The role of a mother is to spiritually breast-feed her children, who will learn the faith from them first before they are ever capable of learning it on their own. Some mothers I have met, though, sometimes 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 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 everything necessary to bring the members of the family to him, then this Sunday, this week, this new year, is the time to make that the principal and 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 I struggled with it. But I kept coming back to the truth that if Jesus, who was God, could obey his human parents, then surely could I. There’s a special call in the first reading today for grown children to care for their parents. More and more children are neglecting their responsibilities here, especially as parents get older, frailer and sicker. But God calls all children 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. Husband and wife are married in the context of the Mass in front of the altar. There’s great significance to that. 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 gave everything he had for her. Spouses need to imitate Christ’s love for his bride. Their marriage enters into that greatest marriage ever, the union of Christ and the Church, which is consummated right here on this altar, when the Bride of Christ, the Church, receives the very flesh and blood of the Lord within her. There is a reason why there is a baldachino or canopy over the main altar of large basilicas like St. Peter’s in Rome, because a canopy is meant to cover a matrimonial bed, and this altar is the marriage bed between Christ and the Church. 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 — and it’s right here!