The Church’s loving concern for the family is enshrined in the liturgy. Every year, on the Sunday after Christmas, we celebrate a feast dedicated to reflection on the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. This feast gives us an opportunity both to honor the Holy Family and also to learn from them the extraordinary beauty and holiness of “ordinary” family life.
When Pope Benedict XV placed this feast on the Church’s universal liturgical calendar in 1921, some scholars were quite critical of the idea. They thought such a feast was an unnecessary duplication, since the whole Christmas season celebrates the birth of Christ into a human family. The critics did not want the liturgy to be used to promote a sentimental picture of “perfect” family life. But the Church could see that the growth of various social movements was seriously threatening Christian family life. The Pope’s decision has been proven valid, even prophetic. How could anyone have predicted that the most fundamental aspects of marriage and family life would soon face even more serious attacks, and would begin to erode so quickly?
Pope Francis has devoted a great deal of his time and energy to strengthening the Church’s ministry to families. He knows the sorrows and problems that burden so many families today, and he is deeply concerned about the errors that threaten to destroy the very roots of family life. For this reason he has convoked two synods of bishops in Rome, given a lengthy series of weekly reflections on the family, and personally attended the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. The primary reason for his recent pastoral visit to the United States was to promote “the gospel of the family.”
Marriage and family life have been central to the design of God from the very beginning. And when, in the fullness of time, the Son of God became man and entered the human family himself, he revealed even more fully the lofty dignity of the family. The human family is the “place” where we meet God. It is also the “place” where we best come to understand man – where we discover our identity in the context of the human community.
The Bible is full of wisdom for family life. Today’s readings are simply brief selections from this rich collection. In general the word of God points out two sides of the mystery of family life: on one hand, the lofty ideal of the family as revealed by God, and on the other hand, the sometimes appalling way in which we defile that ideal.
The wisdom of Sirach in the first reading reminds us of the importance of respect for one’s father and mother. When we honor our parents, we honor God. When we respect and obey their authority, we submit ourselves to the authority of God – and obedience to God disposes us to receive his blessings. Sirach points out that the honor due to our parents is not limited to childhood; even when our parents are elderly and no longer exercise practical authority over us, they must still be cherished and cared for.
When Sirach wrote these simple principles some two centuries before Christ, he was probably observing the tendency of young people to disrespect their parents and neglect their elders. These tendencies are part of our fallen human condition in every age, which is why we must be vigilant to resist them. The radical breakdown of the family in our times would be a severe shock to Sirach. To hear children blatantly ridicule their own parents, while observers think it’s cute or funny? To see grandparents routinely forgotten and abandoned? To watch societies propose as a “reasonable option” the legalized killing of those who can no longer care for themselves? We have strayed very far from God’s plan for the family. We need the wisdom of God’s word now more than ever.
Saint Paul, like Sirach, gives us wisdom for family life. He puts his counsel quite positively, but if we read between the lines, we can easily imagine the problems that he is referring to in the Colossian community. “You who are wives, be submissive to your husbands. This is your duty in the Lord.” Why does he say this, a message that many women find so offensive? He is not humiliating them or relegating them to second-class status. Paul has noticed that some wives are disrespecting the role of their own husbands, operating behind their backs, and in effect excluding them from the flow of family life. Husbands have their weaknesses too, so Paul tells them, “Husbands, love your wives. Avoid any bitterness toward them.” Surely he has seen husbands treating their wives without love, husbands who are bitter and abusive, who make unjust demands on their wives, treating them more like servants than spouses.
Next Paul turns to the relationships of parents and children. Knowing that children sometimes do not obey and parents sometimes oppress or neglect their children, he corrects them: “You children, obey your parents in everything as the acceptable way in the Lord. And fathers, do not nag your children lest they lose heart.” This scriptural counsel is actually a dose of good common sense, the sort of wisdom that grandparents normally pass down to the younger generations – though in this case, the advice is inspired by the Holy Spirit and handed on for our instruction.
The highest and best instruction on family life is the Holy Family of Nazareth, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. They lived an ordinary family life with its usual ups and downs, all the while putting into practice the wisdom of the scriptures. Today’s gospel recounts the only incident recorded from the years of Jesus’ “hidden life.” The twelve-year-old Jesus remains in the Temple while Joseph and Mary begin their return home to Nazareth. It is an occasion of sorrow for the parents, but not an example of disobedience by their Son. The misunderstanding brings out the importance of the most fundamental obedience of all, obedience to the will of God. All three of them were firmly committed to doing the will of God, and it was this that united them most deeply, even if it sometimes caused moments of hardship for the whole family.
Healthy and holy family life is built not merely on smooth interpersonal relationships but on dedication to the will of God. By their example, Jesus, Mary and Joseph teach us that we do not have to submit to all the expectations our relatives have for us, nor to the powerful forces that are causing the disintegration of family life in our times. Pondering the word of God in our hearts, we learn a new way, and we strive to put it into practice in our families and in all our relationships.
What are the powerful forces that are adversely affecting my family at this time? Do I believe that the word of God has answers for me? Do I treat each member of my family with the dignity they deserve? Is there someone in my family with whom I need to reconcile? What am I going to do about it?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 12, no. 1. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.