Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Holy Family, Year C
December 31, 2006
1 Sam 2:20-22,24-28; 1 John 3:1-2,21-24; Lk 2:41-52
1) 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 begun to preach. He could have come as a teenager or as an 80 year old. 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. 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, which meant redeeming the family.
2) All of existence is meant to be familial. Pope 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, “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’ve made.
3) 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. It quickly passed to 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 David’s family. The list goes on and on. Simply put, the family had become a mess. As the human family “increased and multiplied,” so did sin. Jesus was born of a family to come to redeem the family, which has such a crucial role in the world God created.
4) So we turn to the Holy Family. Jesus chose to be conceived and born of a woman. But that wasn’t all. Even though he had a Father in heaven, he willed to be raised by a foster-father here on earth. He didn’t have to. . Even it would have been extremely difficult for Mary to have raised him on her own, all things — as the Archangel Gabriel told her at Jesus’ conception — are possible for God. But God the Father didn’t send Jesus another woman, a second mom, to help Mary raise Jesus. He sent an adoptive dad, because according to his human nature Jesus needed a dad. We should not overlook the importance of what God’s choices teach us. We will return to this later.
5) We call the family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph the “holy family.” I think they are holy for above three reasons:
a. First and foremost, because they centered their entire lives 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. As a sign of being centered around Jesus, the Holy Family 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, as we see in today’s Gospel, when Jesus was caught among the teachers in the Temple at twelve, 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.
b. Secondly, the family of Bethlehem and Nazareth was holy because 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, too. St. Luke summarized over half of Jesus’ life, the eighteen years from the time he was found in the Temple to the time he came to the Jordan and began his public ministry, in a sentence, that he was 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 each member always sought to do God’s will. It was holy because each of the members of the family tried to help the others in the family to do God’s will, too. Every family is called to do the same.
c. Thirdly, the family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph were holy because they really loved each other, which means that they were all willing to lay down their lives for each other, to sacrifice for each other, to bear each other’s burdens, to forgive each other. Mary was willing to be stoned to death for being pregnant by some means other than by Joseph and remained faithful to her son at the foot of the Cross even when almost everyone else abandoned him. Joseph gave up his whole livelihood, his home, his family, to protect Jesus and Mary and flee with them to Egypt. He may have very well given up lots of personal plans and aspirations in marrying a virgin and protecting her virginity. Jesus obviously gave his life on the Cross for them. They forgave each other. Even though Jesus was incapable of sin, Mary never chose to sin, and Joseph was a saint, there were misunderstandings, like in today’s Gospel in the temple. There were things that needed to be forgiven and they all readily did so. This, too, is the model of what is meant to occur in every home.
6) The feast of the Holy Family is a great occasion for every Christian family to see how we’ll they’re imitating the holy family in these three means to holiness.
a. First, each family needs to see whether they’re centering their lives around Christ. So many families today are centered around the television, or around sports, or lessons of one sort or another, around work schedules. But Christ needs to be the center of a family’s activities. Christ needs to be the main treasure. Mary and Joseph were literally dirt poor, Jesus was placed in an ancient animal dish, they needed to give two pigeons instead of a lamb at his presentation, but it didn’t matter, because they were centered on Christ and hence had it all. The family centered on Christ will be a family that prays together. “The family that prays together stays together,”as the Servant of God Fr. Patrick Peyton (buried in our diocese!) and Blessed Mother Teresa never tired of saying. It’s not enough for the members of the family to pray individually. They need to pray together. I experienced the powerful impact of family prayer when I was growing up. My earliest memories are of praying the rosary together with my parents, my two brothers and my sister. This prayer wasn’t always convenient; at times we had to give up doing other things like going out to play or watching a favorite TV program; at other times we had difficulty concentrating or avoiding interruptions, but we stuck with it. We grew as a family in our prayer. We prayed for each other. We prayed for family members in need. We prayed for the priests of our parish. We prayed for our public leaders. We prayed for friends. We brought all of them to God in prayer. We were never more united that when we were praying and God united us as we together lifted up our hearts to Him.
b. Second, the members of a family need to do the will of God and encourage each other to do the will of God. Many families do this. They inspire each other to become holy, encourage each other to pray when they don’t want to, form them to please God above every other goal. Some of the most beautiful conversions I’ve seen in the priesthood have occurred during marriage preparation, when the faith of the future bride or groom is so contagious that it inspires the other to start to take the faith much more seriously. One gets the other to start to come to Mass. One gets the other to start praying with him or her. One gets the other to start obeying those commandments which they other had been ignoring. It’s so beautiful. Marriage is like hiking up a steep mountain together — the heavenly Jerusalem. It’s hard to hike alone, but when you have someone with you, inspiring you to continue when you’re ready to take a break or throw in the towel, can make all the difference.
Sometimes, however, family members can do the opposite. Rather than inspire others in the family to do the will of God, they can discourage them from doing so. We can see it with almost any of the ten commandments. If the husband or wife starts to make something else their god — like work or money — that can influence for the worse all the other members of the family. When one begins to use foul language or take God’s name in vain, soon others at home are doing the same. Out of laziness, one can say he or she doesn’t want to keep holy the Lord’s day and come to Mass, and then the other stays home too. A wife can begin to get jealous of the time the husband spends helping out his mom and dad and makes it harder for him to keep the fourth commandment, or kids can compete in being disobedient. The couple may sinfully work so hard not to conceive a child that once a child is conceived, they continue to say no to a child and make one of the worst choices any person can make, the choice to go to an abortionist. Sometimes parents can do the same when their teenage daughter lets them know she’s pregnant, and rather than embrace her and embrace the child no matter how the child was conceived, they make her feel ashamed and take the unborn child to the slaughterhouse. The couple can commit sexual sins together and allow lust to corrode their love, or they can give a false witness to their kids, not calling them to chastity, not calling them to true love, but merely only telling them to “use protection.” People in the family can encourage each other to lie for them when, for example, someone’s trying to reach them on the phone. They can encourage them to be envious or covetous. They can encourage them to hold grudges and fail to forgive. They can, in essence, take a big bite out of the apple and then hand over that apple to their loved ones so that they can bite it too.
The members of the family, by what they say, do and fail to do, will either help the others become holy or help them to sin on the basis of whether they try to do the will of God and encourage the others to do the same. Today’s feast of the Holy Family is an opportunity to recommit oneself to doing the former.
c. The last of the three is that each of the family members is called to sacrifice for each other, to forgive each other — especially when the other has really hurt them — to bear each other’s burdens, to help each other out. This is what love really is. As St. Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” For a family to be holy, it must love in this way, and each of the members should strive to earn each of those adjectives.
7) A second application of the lessons we learn on this feast day is to the family of God that is the Church. The Church is an 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. 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 blood 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 which gives it its power.
8 ) This is a reality we have to live among all Catholics. In the early Church, the Christians were a family. The pooled all their possessions in common to make sure that the most vulnerable had what they needed. Before we can live that at a universal level, though, we need to look at how we live as a family here in this parish. Do we look at those who attend Mass with us more as strangers or as brothers and sisters? Do we even know their names? If a new person comes into the Church, do we look at them as a long-lost brother or sister or as just somebody who has the “arrogance” to try to come and sit in “my” pew? Do we try to sit next to each like members of a loving family would, or do we try to divide and split into the four cardinal points of this enormous Church? I’m convinced that if I asked every one of you privately whether you would want this parish to become a truly loving, close-knit family or to have it be like a big convenient gas-station where everyone comes as strangers individually to pump up their spiritual tanks each week and leave, that all of you would tell me you want it to be a family. The question for us is what we’re willing to do to bring that about. God wants us to become who we are really are, he wants us to be as united in love with each other as the persons of the Trinity within God himself (see Jn 17). But we need to cooperate. We need to live as family members. We need to center ourselves on God, help others to pray, and to pray together as a family, which is more than all of us praying individually at the same time. We need to encourage 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 need to help each other to do that by our own contagiously faithful example. We need to forgive each other, to bear each other’s burdens, to help the other when the other needs it without needing to be begged: it 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 as a true Christian parish family would be a great resolution for all of us to take up together for 2007. It would please God very much and help our whole parish, and each of us, come alive. I pray that you will join me and respond to God’s help so that he may form us to be whom he recreated us to be.
9) The one’s last application that I need to make from the lessons we learn from the Holy Family. I wish I didn’t have to do so. I know that this homily is already long even by my standards. But it’s important and I cannot duck it. This last point deals with the fact that the family is always under threat. At the beginning of time, with Adam and Eve, the devil in the beginning attacked to the family, separated husband from wife through sin, and got brother to kill brother. When Jesus came to redeem the family, the attacks didn’t stop. The devil filled Herod’s heart and the maniacal monarch sent his henchmen to try to kill the Christ child. But God acted. He sent his angel to wake Joseph up from his sleep and tell him to take Mary and Jesus and flee into Egypt. The devil continues to try to divide families through sin. We see it in countless broken families, the fifty percent divorce rate, in the unhappiness of many homes even when the family stays intact.
10) But there’s a new threat today that has never really been encountered in human history, not even in some of the worst eras and places. There is a conceptual attack on the family that has never come in any culture before. There have always been problems with the family, but everyone recognized still what a family was. Even if a woman needed to raise her children as a single mom, even when she did a good job, no one ever pretended as if that was the best thing for her, for her children, and if given the chance to have a loving husband and father, she would have jumped at the chance. Now we’re living in a situation in which our kids our being taught that a family without a father or without a mother is not missing something. Our kids are being taught that a family with two mommies or two daddies is just as good as a family with a mother and a father. They’re being taught that marriages can be husband-less or wife-less institutions, that families can be father-less or mother-less. In legal documents, the terms “husband” and “wife” are no longer even being used, being replaced by “Party A” and “Party B.” The terms “mom” and “dad” are no longer being used, substituted by “progenitor A” and “progenitor B.” In addition to saying that these pseudo-marriages and pseudo-families are just as desirable as families with loving mothers and fathers, they are also called those who support the traditional family as God made and intended it “bigots.” You know what I’m talking about. Those who are pushing for same-sex marriage like to say that their “gay marriage” has no impact on others and that we shouldn’t try to force our “religious” view of marriage on them. But what in fact they are doing is forcing their crazy idea of marriage and the family on the rest of us, changing our vocabulary, trying to indoctrinate our kids, attempting to make us feel that our support for traditional marriage makes us hate-mongers no better than the Ku Klux Klan. They claim that they have some type of intrinsic “civil right” to marry anyone they want, of whatever sex, despite the fact that they don’t in the 49 other states, they don’t in 99% of the countries of the world, and they never had one even in Massachusetts before a one-vote majority of the Supreme Judicial Court invented it. Their efforts, however, are not happening in a vacuum — and they know it. If we tinker with our vocabulary, so that even words like “mother,” “father,” “husband,” and “wife” become bigoted terms the N-word, then people will start to think that the gay notion of what constitutes marriage and the family ought to be the law of the land, rather than what every culture at every time has recognized, rather than what God has instituted. This is an attack like we have never seen before.
11) This Tuesday, January 2nd, there’s a very important vote on Beacon Hill. For the third and last time this legislative cycle, our senators and representatives will be meeting in Constitutional Convention. A majority of our legislators have been doing procedural maneuvers to avoid a vote on the Protection of Marriage Amendment, despite the fact that they took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the Commonwealth and the Constitution mandates very specifically in Article 48 that they must vote “yea” or “nay” on any citizen initiative petition, like the one before them on Tuesday. They know that if they take a vote, the petition will easily receive the 25% of legislators’ support to advance it toward the 2008 ballot, which is why they’re trying against their oath of office not to hold a vote. This week the highest court in Massachusetts — the same court that forced gay marriage on all of us — declared that the Constitution mandates that the legislators must vote, yet they’re still trying to duck it in violation of their oath. This is significant for two reasons. First, if they’re not going to follow the law they’ve sworn an oath to uphold, why do they think we should follow the laws they pass? But if we understand what an oath is, we should be even more alarmed. An oath is a solemn promise to God, generally made on the word of God, that a person will do something. In a court, for example, when we swear on the Bible that we will “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God,” we are saying that even though we may be able to deceive the judge, the jury, the lawyers and everyone else in the courtroom, we know that we cannot deceive God, and that if we are lying, we ask him to hold us accountable in this life and in the next. We make people swear oaths so that we can trust in what they say, because essentially they’re saying to God, “Send me to Hell for lying if I am lying now.” When our legislators willfully violate the oath they swore to uphold, when they think that lying to God and to us is less important than advancing the cause of the gay lobby, then we need to tell them in no uncertain terms that there’s no possible way they could be representing us and our views and we will remember it and remind them of it over and over again until we have someone who will represent us and our views. Three local representatives need to be reminded. Representative Steven Canessa, Representative Antonio Cabral and Senator Mark Montigny have all been violating their sworn promise to God and to us to follow the Massachusetts Constitution. In order to advance the amendment, we only need to change the actions of 9 of 109 representatives and senators who have been violating their oaths. Here in New Bedford, we have the chance to change three. Please pray for them. Please call them. Let them know how important it is to you that they show that they follow the Constitution. Let them know how important it is to you that they protect your notion of the family rather than San Francisco’s or Provincetown’s.
12) When the Holy Family was under attack, God sent his messenger to St. Joseph to wake him up and warn him about the threat. Joseph immediately got up and acted to protect the Holy Family. Today, the same God is sending you another messenger. He’s sent you the bishops of Massachusetts, who have been absolutely clear on this issue. He’s sent you some heroic fellow lay people who have been doing the work of thousands to try to restore marriage to what it really is. He’s sent you me this morning. Most Catholics in Massachusetts have been asleep for a long time on this and other issues. When God has sent them messengers to try to awaken them from their slumber, most have just hit the snooze button and gone back to sleep. Today God sets off his alarm clock again. The family is under attack. We have a chance to protect it. He wants us to get up like St. Joseph and act. Joseph was no superman. He was just an ordinary good man who when God needed him responded. In the same way, we don’t need to be superheroes. We just need to do our duty, counting on the Lord’s help, knowing that if he calls us to this effort, he will give us all the help he knows we need to fulfill the mission.
13) The family is simply one of God’s greatest gifts. On this day, as we reflect on what we learn about the structure of the family we see in Bethlehem, we ask Mary to intercede for us and our families, to help them become truly holy. We also ask St. Joseph to intercede so that we might be as courageous in defending the institution of the family in our commonwealth as he was in protecting the Holy Family.