Christ, the Source of Loving Family Life

December 28, 2014

On the feast of Holy Family, Sunday, December 28, 2014, Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia delivered the following homily at St. Dominic’s Church in Washington, DC. A few years ago, there was cartoon that featured a man answering a questionnaire about Christmas.  The first question asks: “Were you disappointed in Christmas this year?”  He checks off the box marked “yes.”  “Would Christmas be less of a disappointment if there were no exchange of gifts?” His answer: yes.  “Would it be less of a disappointment if there were no contact with the family?” His answer: yes.  “Was this Christmas more disappointing than last? 5%? 10%? 15%?” His answer: “More.” The last question is a fill-in-the-blank: “What in your opinion is the best way to celebrate Christmas?” His answer: “Hide!” The cartoon is funny, and like all good cartoons, it reflects a common experience. Since, for many reasons, things never seem to turn out the way we hope or imagine they will, the Christmas holidays can be a difficult and disappointing time.  There is a troubled and anxious side to the holidays, the side where the money runs out, where family tensions run high, where absent or deceased loved ones are missed, and so on.  In one recent article, the writer advised that the best Christmas present would be a set of travel tickets. Actually, this is a good day to confront the difficult side of the Christmas holidays. The feast of the Holy Family seems like an “in-between” Sunday, with Christmas past and New Years Day yet to come. It’s  a day when the depressing side of the holiday season might well be felt more acutely—not least because for many people the chief disappointments of the Christmas season are associated with family interactions. In fact, very much like ourselves and our families, the Holy Family was no stranger to sorrow and difficulties. Consider just how many harships Jesus, Mary and Joseph faced right from the very start. There were, in the first place, the harsh circumstances of his birth—so harsh, in fact, that the Christian tradition has not hesitated to see in these circumstances a prefiguration of the passion and death of Christ. Then there is the vivid account of the flight into Egypt, when the very life of their child was in danger. This year the feast of the Holy Family happens to fall on the very day, December 28th, when the Church normally celebrates the feast of the Holy Innocents, the young boys whom King Herod massacred in order to be sure that the Infant Jesus would be killed as well. Not to be forgotten is the journey home from Jerusalem when Jesus remained behind to talk with the teachers of the law, while Mary and Joseph “searched in sorrow” for him until they found him in the Temple. And finally, in this morning’s Gospel, we hear the ominous words of Simeon: “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted—and you yourself a sword will pierce—so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”  Not for nothing has the Church listed these early events in the life of Holy Family among the “Seven Sorrows” of Our Lady. As we ponder the difficulties that the Holy Family faced, we begin to look at things through the eyes of faith, like Abraham, and Simeon, and Anna, and Mary and Joseph. When we do this, we can see that today is not just an in-between Sunday, but a critical opportunity to get beyond the more superficial aspects of the holiday season and to grasp the true meaning of Christmas—even if we may have found the celebrations, humanly speaking, disappointing. For, at Christmas, we celebrate nothing less than the birth of the Savior of the world. By entering deeply into the mystery of the Incarnation,  we can look beyond our vague disappointments to seize hold of the saving grace which is Christ himself, who experienced for our sakes all the sorrows and disappointments of human life—everything but sin, but nonetheless even unto death—precisely in order to overcome their power to harm us. Our Savior came to take upon himself  and to conquer the sin that is the ultimate source of all our disappointments and sadness. Like the sword that pieced the heart of Mary, the grace of the Incarnation penetrates beneath our moods and feelings—happy or sad—to touch our  souls. The rejoicing this grace brings us can—and normally will—find expression in tangible ways in the liturgical and familial celebrations that make Christmas such a special and wonderful time of the year. But even in the absence of the good feelings we call the “Christmas spirit,” when we confess our sins, resolve to follow Christ faithfully, and receive his body and blood in the Holy Eucharist, we are transformed in the very core of our beings, whatever our particular feelings may be at the moment. Furthermore, the feast of the Holy Family teaches us that there are no perfect families—not even the Holy Family itself. Naturally, it is appropriate to take it as a model of the family, but not because it represents some unattainable idyllic state of familial bliss. On the contrary, we have seen that the Holy Family experienced sorrows and difficulties, some of them—like having to take flight to save the life of their child—more grave than anything any of us are ever likely to face. Moreover, Joseph and Mary were as much in need of the grace of Christ as we are: by the Immaculate Conception, Mary was preserved from the stain of sin by the foreseen merits of her Son, and St. Joseph was freed from sin by a special grace. It is precisely Christ’s presence that is the source of a loving family life—in the Holy Family and in every other family. The ordered and peaceful family that Sirach describes is possible only where Christ is present. It is not for non-existent perfect people or perfect families that the only begotten Son of God came in the flesh, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, buried and risen from the dead, but for us who are sinful and troubled.  Christ came not for those who are well but for those who ill. He can find room in our hearts and in our imperfect families as well if we but unlock the doors and welcome him in. While our opening cartoon captures a real problem, it offers quite the wrong solution. The last thing we should want to do is hide.  Rather, we should run like the shepherds to find and adore the Infant Savior, to rest always in the company of the Holy Family, and, through the intercession of the Holy Mother of God and St. Joseph her spouse,  to experience the full reality of the grace of Christmas and to share it with others. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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