On this Feast of the Holy Family, within the octave of Christmas, allow me to simply offer some considerations for prayer.
Begin with the Christmas Crib. The Belen. Never tire of hearing the Word of God in the mystery of that first Christmas! This is the Word of the Father made flesh. This is the Word of God talking to you and me. Take your time to find the inner silence that allows you to hear.
This is the Holy Family. Theirs was a profound sacrament of the love of the Father for us. Theirs was a sign that the Father loves us. There was love between Joseph and Mary, but no physical intercourse. Theirs was full submission to the Father, and joy in that submission. The Father enters humanity is his Word of Love-made-flesh. Here, the sublime intimate loving intercourse occurs irretrievably between the Father and humankind, intermeshing divinity and humanity. It is expressed beautifully in the third of the Christmas Prefaces: “For through him the holy exchange that restores our life has shone forth today in splendor: when our holy frailty is assumed by your Word not only does human mortality receive unending honor, but by this wondrous union, we too, are made eternal.” This exchange takes place when the Father’s will, his redemptive yes to humanity, unites with Mary’s yes through the incarnation of his Son and hers. Joseph and Mary respond to his incarnate love with their love and obedient service. The holiness of Joseph caring for Mary in the fullness of her pregnancy, the holiness of Mary laboring to give birth to this Child, the holiness of their lives together as family, is the holiness of the one, almighty all powerful God, aggrieved by our sin, embracing humankind in a Word of compassion and forgiveness. And Mary and Joseph’s shared yes to the Father. Enter into the mystery of the Holy Family.
Enter into the mystery of the Holy Family. Don’t merely recall petrified history. Be part of that history, knowing that the Word is spoken to you. Be present as Mary lays the Child in the manger that Joseph has prepared, as shepherds from the fields and wise men from afar gaze at them in admiration. Be present as they circumcise the Child and name him Jesus. Be present as then, according to custom, they go to Jerusalem to present the Child in the temple; they drew the attention of the elderly Ana and Simeon, who said that the Child was “for the falling and the rising of many” and associated it with a sword of sorrow piercing Mary’s soul (cf Lk 2:34-35). Be present as they must leave Bethlehem in fear for the Child’s life. To escape the violent jealousy of Herod, they flee to Egypt. Imagine how they had to live in this foreign land until word came that they could safely return. When they did, they returned to Nazareth, where Jesus grew “in strength of spirit, being filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him” (Lk 2:40). Imagine Jesus at twelve years of age, journeying with Joseph and Mary to Jerusalem. Imagine Joseph’s and Mary’s consternation and anxiety as he seems to be lost. For three days they search for him. They find him in the temple “sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions” (Lk 2:46). To Mary’s question of why he had done this to them, he replies, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk 2:49). These are the first words we hear from Jesus. He is already declaring his yes to the redemptive will of his Father. Be with the Holy Family as they return to Nazareth. “He was subject to them, and his mother kept all these sayings in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Lk 2: 51-52).
In contemplating the Holy Family over the years, in imagining Joseph and Mary teaching the Child to speak, feeding, bathing, and clothing him, Joseph earning the family’s sustenance through his carpentry, and Mary singing as she accomplished her household chores, in Jesus growing from childhood through adolescence to manhood, one can respond to Jesus from within, as in this day’s Morning Praise: “You, the eternal Word, made yourself subject to Joseph and Mary. Teach us humility. You, who made the world, were called a worker’s son. Teach us to work diligently. You grew in wisdom, age and grace before God and men. Help us to grow in all things towards you.” Enter into conversation with Joseph, Mary and Jesus.
The Feast of the Holy Family is occasion for us to reflect on our own family. How is the family going?
In considering the question of one’s individual spirituality, I have often recommended that one ask the question, “What makes me tick?” What really makes me tick? In a moment of honesty, in a moment of silence, one is invited to separate the image I may have of myself, or the image others have of me, or the image I desire others to have of me, from the truth of who I am, through this innocuous question, “What makes me tick?” Answered honestly, it reveals a person’s spirituality. Some persons “tick” because of power, others because of a “drive for pleasure,” others because of a sensitivity to “what others say.” Some persons “tick” because of a authentic concern “for others,” or “for the common good,” or even for “the Kingdom of God.”
Today, one might consider the spirituality of a family and ask the question, “What makes my family tick.” The question may have never yet arisen; the need to ask it may have never yet been apparent. But those who think the question unimportant may need it most urgently. They may be driven from compulsion to compulsion, and so have never had the space to recognize its urgency, and much less to answer it in truth. Meanwhile, a deterioration of family relationships, or a loss of joy in the family, may have already kicked it. “Survival” may be a ready answer: the family ticks because of the “need to survive.” But with the many ways families survive, this may be too general to account for how my family “ticks.”
Some may readily say, love, or concern for each other, or open communication. But this may be more our image of what we would like to be making the family tick rather than what actually does. The truth may lie elsewhere, in something like: Dad’s work, or Dad’s boss, or Dad’s power, Dad’s irresponsibility, or Mom’s self-absorption, her obsessive compulsiveness, her neurosis, her inability to communicate, or simply, such as arrogance, miscommunication, frustration and what others might think or say. For some, poverty is a driver of the family’s ticking, or the tyrannies of wealth, and why it often skips beats; for others being able to “show off,” to say, “I’ve arrived,” while one actually has not, is a key driver.
So: what makes my family tick? Truly!
For those who are Christian, who in this life respond to the gratuity of God’s love, I hope one might say, “love of God” and “love of those whom God loves” since God is love, and love belongs to the core of the “fullness of life” (Jn 10:10) which Jesus brings. With Pope Francis, I hope one might recognise consequently that a co-driver in the family is the fullness of joy that Jesus wishes for us (Jn 16:24. cf. also Jn 3:29; 15:11; 16:20). In sadness, there is no holiness. A sad family cannot be a holy family. In this light, I hope that the family is not just turned in on itself, instrumentalizing all – including people, colleagues at work, friends, or even the public good – merely to itself. If so, it perverts a potential powerhouse of spreading the joy of the Gospel into a selfish black hole of family egoism.
As marriage is a sacrament, so is the family a sacrament. On the Feast of the Holy Family it would be good to try to recover the core of matrimonial sacramentality that two lovers consent to on their wedding day in conferring on each other the sacrament of matrimony. It would be good to assess the degree to which this sacramentality constitutes the spirituality of married persons and actually is what makes their families tick. In this confused, wounded and violent world, the man is a sacrament, a sign of the passionate love of God for humanity; the woman is a sacrament, a sign of this world needily accepting God’s love and returning it. The deepest and most privileged manifestation of love between the husband and the wife, sexual intercourse climaxing in spiritual ecstasy, becomes a sacrament, a sign, of the Father’s entry into humanity through his Word-of-love made flesh, and humanity’s yes elevated to the divine. This fully spiritual level of fully physical loving transcends the bedroom and fills family life with its joy and creative meaning. It is conjugal love which bears fruit in healthy and happy children. It is conjugal love which continues to respond to the Father’s love in turning to the people beyond their family with joy and loving service.
In the light of the Holy Family, may our families find holiness in responding to the Word that manifests the Father’s Love, life, and joy in all fullness.
No family that has ceased to love, has ceased to live, and has ceased to be joyful is holy. No family mired in the consumptive despair of this world is holy. The holy family is the genuinely happy family, filled with hope.
3. Christmas in the Family’s Everyday
In the family spirituality that is energised by God’s discerned call to sacramental witness to the Father’s Word-of-Love-made-flesh – in which we recognise the redemptive activity of the Holy Trinity – and humanity’s grateful response in awe, gratitude, love and service, there is more profound truth to the statement that “Christmas is everyday” than one might expect. This is more than the superficial desire to extend the celebrations of Christmas day to everyday, but rather the profound challenge to husbands and wives to incarnate in their family the life commitment exchanged on their wedding day: not just a sterile memory of having been pronounced “husband and wife” before an altar, but the dynamic re-incarnation of God’s Word-becoming-flesh-in-one’s-human-family everyday, and the human family being uplifted to divine life everyday. It is the husband and wife living out a commitment in matrimony to set this sacrament in our world everyday, deciding to find their family happiness in the joy of this sacrament. Their joy is not only in people saying of them, “See how they love one another!” but in people also being able so say: “His love shows me how God loves, her love shows me how we all must love God and each other.” Despite the adversities and crosses of one’s everyday! The marriage based on living out the matrimonial sacrament is not abstracted from the Cross. But neither is it abstracted from the Resurrection. The marriage that appreciates the Child laid on the wood of the manger, appreciates the Lord fixed on the wood of the Cross, whom it offers humbly to the Father with all the suffering and hope of each and everyday on the wood of the altar. The marital act is not just in the ecstatic celebration of this union of divinity and humanity in physical intercourse, but its filling the couple’s everyday witness to this truth with its own sublime joy. In serving to help their family flourish in this light, in sharing of this light to others, they re-incarnate Christmas in the family’s everyday.
I do not at all mean to over simplify, or much less, to romanticize the challenge of setting the matrimonial sacrament in the family’s everyday. Problems of communication, of searching for family sustenance, of keeping the family members healthy, of overcoming illness, of relations with relatives, friends and society as a whole, of addressing tensions and conflicts and working them out, all belong to the family’s everyday. In facing these challenges sacramentally, in recalling that the incarnation and Christmas are God’s initiative to rescue us in our need, in recalling that in all out needs we have always been relieved and uplifted in God’s compassion, we may wish to appreciate “four principles related to constant tensions present in every social reality,” including marriage (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 219ff ). I will only mention them with brief personal remarks, simply to invite all to go to the original text:
“Time is greater than space” (222ff). The openness of time overcomes the confines of space in time. In time, we may hope that the challenges of marriage in space shall be overcome.
“Unity prevails over conflict” (226 ff). Marital conflicts may be overcome if couples do not lose sight of the unity their matrimonial sacrament posits.
“Realities are more important than ideas” (231ff). If it is just an idea or a good intention it is sterile, or even, historically, untrue. The matrimonial sacrament is set in reality not in mere ideas.
“The whole is greater than the part” (234 ff). The matrimonial sacrament is based on the witness and life of the family, not just on that of the husband, or of the wife or of the children.
With Pope Francis, I pray that families may live in the joy of the Gospel everyday. I pray that through living the sacrament of matrimony, families may bring to the world its greatest need – the assurance of being loved by God, a way of genuinely loving God. So may families be centers of faith, joy and peace.