A Homily on Family Sunday
Family Sunday in our Church is celebrated within the week after the celebration of Christmas; this year, that is today – the day after Christmas. Very naturally the attention shifts from the newborn Child, to Joseph and Mary caring for their Child, and the Child responding to their love. This is rich material, St. Ignatius would say, for prayer and contemplation. All of us are invited to use our minds and our imagination to experience interiorly the family life that existed between Jesus, Mary and Joseph. One can imagine how Jesus was fed, clothed, bathed and sheltered in his neediness as a human baby; one can imagine the joy his parents had in responding to all his needs as he grew into manhood. We had a small Christmas party here yesterday; I was elated to see many of my friends with whom I share work at the University, coming here with their spouses and with their little babies and little children, holding them, cuddling them, loving them, sharing their Christmas Day with me. It was a celebration of Christmas family joy, and I was the main beneficiary. We appreciate this precious joy especially in this Yuletide Season. Christmas as we know it is so much about members of families coming together, and celebrating what is an increasingly precious gift, our families. “Increasingly precious” since in our society the family is increasingly threatened and increasingly pulled apart. Even as our Gospel today tells of Joseph having to protect the Child and his mother by escaping into foreign Egypt from the murderous attempt of King Herod to kill the Baby, it seems to me that families today need to be protected – with great resolve, and possibly, with great heroism.
One of course can speak for hours on this topic. Let me just share with you our concerns as educators. You have heard of a formula now being used to describe a major effort at educational reform called K+12. To the ten year basic education system we now have – Kindergarten plus 10 years – we are moving into a reform which will add two years to basic education, thus K+12. All this is very interesting, very challenging, and very involved. But for today, let me just invite you to reflect on a remark that came from our esteemed Secretary of Education as he unfolded this system. As employers today normally require a college education as a qualification for a job, once K+12 is in, Brother Armin said, K+12 shall be for its graduates who wish as quickly as possible to begin earning for the family not plus two but minus two; these shall have been prepared “to work and to start and sustain a family.” Assuming one begins basic education at six years of age, twelve years later, one shall be 18 years of age, and basically ready to work and to start and sustain a family.
The question for the educational reformer, but certainly also for the movers and shakers of our families, is: What must be done to prepare our youths for responsible family life in the future?
One way of starting might be to try and find models of successful family life, and to try to understand why you consider them successful. You might look for them in your lives, and ask yourselves what it is that makes their families tick? Is it the material plenty that you find in these families? Or is it the way mother and father work together for the best way to bring up their children? Is it the way the families come together for meals, especially for meals on Sunday, where before meals there is a prayer that God bless the meal and the family that partakes of it, and after meals there is a prayer of thanksgiving? Is it the way there always seems to be time and resources for the family to do things together – to go to Sunday Mass together, or out to a meal together, or to spend time together at the home of a grandmother or grandfather, or even to go on vacation together. There are some families who even have managed to do projects together in the service of the needy – like to help build habitat homes, to share education with the ignorant, or to help families with livelihood projects. There are families really where the manner in which they live their lives brings one a sense of elation, a sense of gratitude that such is today even possible, an example of actual loving that reminds us of the way God loves us, and we love God. That is, after all, the whole meaning of the Sacrament of Matrimony: that the love between husband and wife, and between parents and children, reflect – be a sign and sacrament of – the love that is exchanged between God and ourselves.
We do well to reflect on our experience of successful families. Even as in contrast we might reflect on families that are less than successful, and to try to understand why. It is always horribly sad when this happens! When husband and wife are no longer lovers, not even friends; when a husband “falls out of love” and “drops out from life;” when a wife loses respect for her husband, and loses respect for herself. Where there is a general communications breakdown in the family. The wife can’t get through to her husband, and the husband can’t get through to his daughter; the son is confused and conflicted, but can’t talk to his father, and when they finally talk, the son feels he being misunderstood, talked at, and bypassed for some ideal son that has never existed. Dad is, of course, unable to take care of the details of child raising because he is concerned with so many important things providing for the family; in providing for the family, however, he wakes up one day to discover a house filled with provisions, but no family.
The question is a concern not only for educators, but also for all who value family life? How does one found and support a successful family today? How do you best prepare to be successful in family life. One spends many long hours preparing to be a good engineer or lawyer or scientist or businessman; but how does one prepare to be a good family man or a good family woman. How does one balance the demands of a successful corporate, professional or public life with the demands of a family.
These questions will have to remain open for purposes of this homily. Not everything can be prepared for conceptually, and there is much that is learned not in the hallowed halls of academe but in what former Health Sec. Alran Bengzon used to fondly call the “University of Hard Knocks.” For me, however, the following is certain:
For our educational system, we have to know which values we wish to promote in our schools. Are we educating for love or for violence; are we education for integrity or for pragmatism; are we educating for competition or for cooperation, are we educating youth who value what is right, and pursue it in life; or youth who learn what is right, and don’t care? Are we educating youth who are capable of love? By this we do not just mean sexual love, as important as this may be in a genuine relationship of love. But how do you educate youth to be genuinely loving, and responsible in love? Do we tell the youth it is a good, desirable, that families hold together, stay together, pray together, when fewer and fewer families do that, torn asunder by the pull to earn more for the family abroad; anyway the disruption to the family is only temporary. Well, temporary can be one year, or twelve. And when this happens, God knows we will need more than Skype to keep the lovers loving and the family together. What are the most important values we must communicate to our youth, and do we truly value those values ourselves?
Second, I think we are going to have to be convinced that a good family life is not just a theoretical possibility, but it is a genuine reality in the lives of increasingly rare families who make it. I think we are all, educators included, going to have to learn from them, and learn from the way they hold things – and one another – together.
Third, beyond recognizing values that are conducive to family, and recognizing the families that succeed genuinely in family life, I think youth have to be prepared to make choices, and understand that choices oftentimes mean that if you choose one, you do not choose the other. You cannot choose to be a married man and a priest at the same time; you cannot choose to lead a wholesome family life and be making choices that tear the family asunder. You have to choose: what is it that you truly want, a functioning family life, or a dysfunctional family. The successful or non-successful, the harmonious or cacophonous family, it must be urged, is not just the result of chance or accident. It is often very much the result of choices. Some of these are hard, excruciating choices. Others are choices that I have hardly ever chosen; they are choices made for me surreptitiously – sometimes disastrously – because I have not been careful. I cannot choose to be responsible and non-responsible at the same time; just as I cannot choose to be caring and non-caring at the same time.
Finally, let me say: in the past, values in society were formed basically by the Church, the families themselves, and the schools. The word of the priest could help persons judge between right and wrong; the word of the elders in the family could help persons determine what was right for the family and what was wrong; the schools could help in communicating fundamental insights in Christian and patriotic values, and even in making explicit the presuppositions between various moral systems, and lead the student to own the correct system. Today, however, the role of these guardians of values seems to have been compromised. What is increasingly determining the values of our youth is media – with its stress on fame, glitter and glamour, high profile but superficial relations, comfort, hedonism and materialism. If media is indeed the main formator of our values today, I think we can all look forward to many more superficial flesh-deep relationships, and many families torn asunder.
Joseph went out of his way to protect Jesus and Mary. Today, on Family Day, we have to understand that the family is under threat. We must do what we can to protect it. Even if it means heeding the voice within, leaving our comfort zones, and travelling to a new future of security and hope for the family. Unto this end, knowing we cannot teach what we do not first have, the values that Paul recommends to us in today’s reading may be crucial:
“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 you must 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…” (Col. 3:12-15).