Each year on the first Sunday after Christmas, the Church sets before us the image of the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. Unapologetically, it is an idealized image that the Church wants the whole world to contemplate.
There’s a “just man” who not only provides a livelihood for his family. But, more importantly, because of the priority he gives faith and its religious teachings, Joseph loves and respects his wife, Mary, and raises God’s only begotten Son to be a holy and righteous man.
There’s also the “Blessed Virgin Mary.” She not only provides for her family members’ needs, but she is also a pillar of strength, especially for her son when the tide of public opinion portrays him as a menace and threat to their existence. A prayerful and loyal mother, Mary is unflinchingly devoted to her child to the sad and bitter end, as is so beautifully depicted by Michelangelo’s Pietá.
Then, there’s the “Word made Flesh,” God’s only begotten Son. Scripture suggests that Jesus proved himself to be somewhat of a “handful” for both his father and mother as he grew in grace and wisdom before God and man. Yet, through it all, Jesus grew in grace and wisdom because he honored his father and mother and became for all humanity, the Savior, Christ the Lord.
As an idealized image, the Church presents a model of what family life not only could be―the stuff of dreams―but also what it should be―in the concrete realities of daily life in families. And, in doing so, the Church challenges all of us each year to ask some probative questions about the quality of our own families and family life as well as our successes and failures as fathers, mothers, and as children, so that we might better discern those areas where we need to grow as families and as family members. This is the only way that each and every one of our families will become what the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes as “…a communion of persons, a sign and image of the communion of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit” (#2205).
Many young people and adults as well might be asking: “Why do we have to celebrate the Holy Family? What’s that got to do with my life? Wasn’t going to Church on Christmas day enough?” Others might be asking: “Why does the Church put before us the Holy Family as a model of family life when the simple truth is this image has very little to do with family life as we know it today? Why not just ‘tell it as it is’, you know ‘be relevant’?”
These questions make great sense, especially if we ponder the predominant culture in which people today do or don’t get married, enjoy extended “pre-marital honeymoons,” and beget children both in and out of wedlock. That’s to say nothing about the titanic struggle currently going on in some states to define exactly what the word “family” means because lawyers can construe the word to mean just about anything. Then, there’s tragically high rate of divorce, the alarmingly increasing rate of domestic violence, the horrific increase in violence being perpetrated today by young people on young people, and the scourge of all scourges, the “contraceptive mentality” which, of all things, condones abortion as a choice. All of these diseases―evidencing the power of Evil in our culture and seducing its members―breed the “culture of death” as Pope John Paul calls it. Make no mistake about it: all of these diseases are interrelated and the solution has very much to do with the quality of our marriages and family life because these are the breeding ground of the “culture of life” that Evil wants to obliterate and destroy.
So, let’s contemplate a couple of jarring images today in order to see why it may be extremely important for us to celebrate the Holy Family and to revere the Holy Family as an image of what God invites all spouses, parents, and children to become. Fortified by these reflections, we will be empowered through the power of the Holy Spirit to become the people who will evangelize our culture about what God intended in having created what we call “the family” and begin to breed a “culture of life.”
The first jarring image:
Joseph and Mary are having a heated argument. Joseph curses and swears at Mary, calling her all sorts of degrading, dehumanizing, and vile names. Then, as the tension increases and after downing a few fine Egyptian “brewskies,” Joseph hits Mary across her right cheek with the full force of the back of his right hand, dislodging two of her teeth.
Inconceivable. Isn’t it?
Well, consider the fact that three years ago, the National Crime Victimization Survey reported nearly 700,000 nonfatal violent victimizations committed by current or former spouses, boyfriends, or girlfriends. Nearly 600,000 of these incidents involved women.
Statistics published in 1998 in the study entitled “Extent, Nature and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence: Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey,” compiled for the National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control, indicated that women in the process of separation or divorce were the targets of one-half of all intimate partner violent crimes.
And, that’s to say nothing about the two million spouses (mostly women) who are threatened with a deadly weapon annually, according to the US Department of Justice.
If that’s not enough, one half of all American homes are affected by domestic violence at least once a year. Alarmingly, Black females experienced domestic violence at a rate 35% higher than that of white females, and about 22 times the rate of women of other races, the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect reported in 1995 in “A Nation's Shame: Fatal child abuse and neglect in the United States: Fifth Report, Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families.”
If these statistics are in any way reliable, and there is no reason to be they are unreliable, of the married women seated in this congregation, perhaps as many as one half have been abused in some way by their husbands this past year beginning perhaps with verbal abuse, escalating into psychological and physical abuse.
Try this twist on the same image:
Mary announces to Joseph that she is pregnant. Hurt and confused, Joseph is seething inside. Pretending as if nothing is wrong, Joseph crafts a three-foot lance in his workshop. Then, taking Mary on a picnic trip to edge of the desert, Joseph kills Mary and the baby with one swift thrust. He proceeds further out into the desert and dumps Mary’s corpse onto the sand, leaving it for the vultures to forage.
Many of our fellow citizens found themselves shocked by the Laci Peterson homicide. But, that’s only because many overlooked the fact that, in 2000, 1247 women in the United States were murdered by an intimate partner. While the number overall intimate partner offenses against women has declined sharply since the early 1990s, not so the number of fatal incidents.
Inconceivable? Sadly, the answer is “No, in our culture this image isn’t inconceivable.” And, so the Church challenges our culture by confronting us with the image of St. Joseph.
The second jarring image:
After trying to make her marriage of nearly one year work, Mary has had it with Joseph and with being a mother. Finding herself in a desperate position, Mary is unable to support herself. Her parents, Ann and Joachim are unwilling to help. So, with nowhere to turn, Mary abandons her baby at the local Temple along with this note:
To Whom It May Concern
I am just 15 years old and unemployed. I can’t handle the pressure any more of being married and being a mother. I love my baby. Please get him a home where he will get the love and care he deserves.
Inconceivable. Isn’t it?
Yet, cases just like this confront those who work for the Pennsylvania Department of Social Services on almost a daily basis.
Or, try this twist on the same image:
Mary finds herself increasingly dissatisfied in her marriage. “It’s all about everyone else and their needs, nothing about me and my needs,” she says. So, after talking with some of her women friends about her desperate situation, Mary decides to leave Joseph and Jesus behind in Nazareth and to travel far away so that she can “find herself.” After a harrowing journey, Mary ends up at a local bar in Egypt and finds a sensitive and caring young man one evening. He just adores her. So, Mary moves in with him, hoping to leave her past buried in the past.
Inconceivable. Isn’t it?
Perhaps the good news is that we’re not watching an episode of Desperate Housewives. But, we are contemplating the logical consequence of a culture where being a spouse and mother believed to be “all about me and my needs” when, in fact, being a mother is “all about them and their needs.” A mother lives not for herself but for her children, no if's, and's, or but's about it!
Or, try a third twist on the same image:
To deal with her feelings of inadequacy and boredom in being a “at home Mom,” Mary re-enters the workforce by getting a full-time job. Putting her two-week old child, Jesus, into “quality” day care, Mary believes this will allow her to be attentive to her self-actualization needs and to meet her child’s ordinary, developmental needs.
Inconceivable. Isn’t it?
For decades, our culture has encouraged mothers to pursue self-fulfillment through full-time employment rather than being a full-time mother, even to the point of assuring mothers that their children will develop and mature just fine in day-care centers. However, these assurances are deeply suspect in the light of sobering data published by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care (NICHD-SECC) (Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Wen-Jui Han, and Jane Waldfogel, “Maternal Employment and Child Cognitive Outcomes in the First Three Years of Life: The NICHD Study of Early Child Care,” Child Development 73: 1052-1072).
The data leave little doubt: mothers who leave the home for employment less than a year after a child’s birth are exposing that child to real and lasting psychological risk as measured on standard tests of child cognitive development. Furthermore, when the focus of study is mothers in general, the data suggest that “one could conclude that encouraging mothers to stay home or work part-time during the first year would produce children with higher [psychological development] scores.” But, it might be asked, “When do these effects become evident?” Three years later when it may be too late to reverse the detrimental effects.
The evidence of the harm maternal employment holds for children is so compelling that the analysts inch toward challenging our culture’s beliefs about female employment. Confronting the assumption that a “Mom can have it all, especially children and a job,” the analysts question whether it is imprudent for “mothers to enter the labor force (full-time) early in the first years of [their child’s] life.”
Inconceivable? Sadly, the answer is “No, in our culture this image isn’t inconceivable.” And, so the Church challenges our culture by confronting us with the image the Blessed Mother.
The third jarring image:
Jesus’ parents have raised a healthy teenager. But, he is angry at his parents and growing increasingly hostile in his interactions with them each day. Jesus sometimes yells at Joseph and Mary, telling them that he can’t stand the way they’re making him go to the Temple on the Sabbath and he’s sick and tired of having to take classes in the Torah and Jewish religious law. Jesus also tells his parents that he’s upset because they don’t allow him to do everything his friends’ parents allow them to do. Jesus has even hurled curse words at Mary and stopped doing the chores Joseph has assigned, like cleaning up the carpentry workshop. Lastly, Jesus has been overheard saying to his friends, “I hate my parents. I can’t wait for the day they die. And, if that doesn’t come soon enough, I can’t wait to move out so I can do what I want to do.”
Inconceivable. Isn’t it?
Yet, one of the images routinely portrayed by television sitcoms is one of absolutely ignorant parents whose children are infallibly omniscient. Parents are supposed to do what their children say, not the other way around.
Another image routinely portrayed on television is that of parents who successfully befriend their children, especially parents who are divorced. These parents share everything with their children, including their work, social, and personal relationships. The image portrayed oftentimes goes so far as to suggest that the best relationship between parents and children is that of a Platonic romance.
This image are not what being children is all about. The fourth commandment minces no words: “Honor your father and mother.” This commandment sets forth the appropriate relationship: children are subject to their parents, not the other way around. What these pop culture images do is to twist and distort how God has called parents and children to relate in such a way that hating parents, cursing them, and hoping that they will die soon not only makes sense to young people but seems entirely natural.
Inconceivable? Sadly, the answer is “No, in our culture this image isn’t inconceivable.” And, so the Church challenges our culture by confronting us with the image of Jesus, the son of Mary and Joseph.
The Church doesn’t “recommend” each year that we contemplate the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. No, the Church almost “forces” us to deal with the precept of our faith that in God’s plan the family is a mystery of love. This image we contemplate today is the gift of love that can only be experienced in a family whose members each of whom is imperfect―seek to be holy. In this family, the “holier family” I call it, each member contributes to the good of the family because one does not seek one’s self-actualization outside of the family but, instead, seeks self-actualization inside of the family.
Using the image of the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, the Church challenges us to contemplate how proud Mary was to have a husband like St. Joseph, who was willing to risk everything to protect her and Jesus, a man who was so strong and loving, and yet so unassuming and humble. The Church also challenges us to think of the tremendous respect and awe St. Joseph had for the beauty of Mary’s heart and for the special duty God had entrusted St. Joseph with, namely, to be devoted in his care for Mary and Jesus. Lastly, the Church challenges us to contemplate Jesus’ love for Mary and Joseph, how Jesus was obedient to them as well as their directions for him.
Contemplating these images rather than those portrayed on television and in the movies, we discover how God accomplishes his plan of salvation most oftentimes through the quiet, hidden, sacrificial love that is only available within a “holier family.” The countless sacrifices that mothers, fathers, and children make for each other are the breeding ground which prepares them to be instruments of God’s grace and love for the wider family that God wants to build in the world, the People of God. It is in this “holier family,” what the Church calls “the domestic church,” that God prepares His children to evangelize and catechize those will build the “culture of life” by contesting the power of Evil at work in the world.
At the same time, as we contemplate these images, we must also challenge ourselves and prick our consciences by asking:
· Do I sometimes think that my family is not a place where God is truly present, because I so easily notice the defects of my spouse, children, and parents?
· Do I see in these real, fallible, yet amazing people that God has placed around me the work that God is quietly accomplishing in our lives?
· Do I see my role in my family as one of a ministry of service in building others up as the People of God?
We might also ask the questions that St. Paul recommends:
· Husbands: Do you love your wives and avoid any bitterness towards them? Do you provoke your children and discourage them?
· Wives: Are you subordinate to your husbands?
· Young People: Do you obey your parents in everything?
When our answers to these questions fall short, we have the image of the Holy Family to help us reconsider what we must do as spouses, parents, and young people to contribute our part to making our families “holier families.”
God has made the family His primary dwelling place. God has also given us the image of the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to help us learn how we might live for others rather than simply living for ourselves. This is our Catholic sense of family which breeds a “culture of life” and contests the “culture of death” that sees divorce as an easy solution to marital problems, condones infidelity, makes abortion a choice, and whose members pride themselves in achieving material success over success as a spouse, parent, or child.
In the concrete and sometimes very difficult and challenging circumstances of daily life in any family, God is present and provides spouses, parents, and children many, many opportunities to build “holier families.” But, it’s up to us, whether we’re spouses, parents, or children to be responsive to God’s grace which, as St. Paul says, allows the peace of Christ to control our hearts and to make us thankful so that, in all wisdom we will teach and admonish one another in our families full of God’s love not self love.
Does today’s homily raise any
question(s) that you would like