The Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph
Dear brothers and sisters,
Up until a relatively short time ago, we, as a society, recognized the family as the most important institution to the building of a just and harmonious society. The family was seen as the place in which we learned fundamental values: how to love one another, how to forgive one another, and how to put others before oneself. The family was seen as a school of love and self-forgetfulness. This selflessness was learned from watching the example of a husband and wife whose principle task was to “establish between themselves a partnership of their whole life, … which of its own very nature is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children” (canon 1055 § 1).
We knew that for a happy and successful marriage, a husband must put the needs of his wife ahead of his own. We knew that for a happy and successful marriage, a wife must put the needs of her husband ahead of her own. We knew that for a happy and successful marriage, a husband and wife had to safeguard their relationship and look to it before anything else. We knew that parents needed to put the needs of their children ahead of their own and that children should honor and respect their parents, just as parents should honor and respect their children. We knew that if each member of the family looked to the example of Christ Jesus, family life would be beautiful, joyous, and lifegiving.
But something happened along the way and we decided it was acceptable and good to ignore centuries of wisdom. Rather than continuing to protect and safeguard the family because of its importance to the common good, we decided it was acceptable to redefine and to refashion the family because of our selfish desires.
We first decided that no longer should children be received and welcomed as gifts and blessings from God, but that we should instead be able to determine when and how many were accepted. When contraception was widely used and considered good, despite its clear violation of the law of nature and of God, husbands and wives decided they could separate the two aims of the marital act; they changed its primary focus from that of a complete gift of self to each other and turned it into the satisfaction of individual desires. No longer would marriage be about the mutual well-being and unity of the spouses that increased their love and made it fruitful; marriage would no longer be about each other, but about what others can do for me. From here, a second decision that children could be done away with if they were not wanted seemed an obvious – even if grotesque and deplorable - consequence.
Once marriage was no longer seen as the full sharing of life and love between the spouses, it was an easy jump to say that marriage was also no longer permanent. First we decided that marriages could be dissolved in difficult and tragic circumstances. Then, quite against the very clear words of the Lord Jesus, we decided that marriages could be ended for any reason, or even no reason at all, if one or both of the spouses wanted to end it. We continued to make marriage about individual wants and desires and not about the mutual sharing of life and love.
As these changes to the long-standing and accepted definition of marriage were made over the course of just a few decades, most Christians regrettably and scandalously went along with them and even welcomed them gladly. From this, as many rightly warned, the family received a very great wound from which it has not recovered. Family life began to fall apart and, with it, society, as well. These are not popular words today, but the truth is not always very popular.
Christians accepted these changes, and even pioneered them, because we largely forgot that
The Bible is full of families, births, love stories and family crises. This is true from its very first page, with the appearance of Adam and Eve’s family with all its burden of violence but also its enduring strength (cf. Gen 4) to its very last page, where we behold the wedding feast of the Bride and the Lamb (Rev 21:2, 9).
We forgot that family life – and even life generally – is not necessarily meant to be easy, but rewarding. We forgot that marriage and the family is to be the school of love and selflessness. We forgot that the family is not about me, but about us.
It is a curious reality of the inner workings of the mind of God that he continually chooses to allow us – weak and sinful as we are - to be instruments of his grace.
The ability of human couples to beget life is the path along which the history of salvation progresses. Seen this way, the couple’s fruitful relationship becomes an image for understanding and describing the mystery of God himself, for in the Christian vision of the Trinity, God is contemplated as Father, Son and Spirit of love. The triune God is a communion of love, and the family is its living reflection. Saint John Paul II shed light on this when he said, “Our God in his deepest mystery is not solitude, but a family, for he has within himself fatherhood, sonship and the essence of the family, which is love. That love, in the divine family, is the Holy Spirit”. The family is thus not unrelated to God’s very being.
We came to reshape marriage according to our own desires because we forgot that we are made in the image and likeness of God and that marriage is meant to reflect the inner life of God, to make his love the foundation of our lives.
This is, in part, why the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity chose to be born of a woman to take on our flesh at Bethlehem.
In the Gospel we do not find discourses on the family but an event which is worth more than any words: God wanted to be born and to grow up in a human family. In this way he consecrated the family as the first and ordinary means of his encounter with humanity.
The importance of the family is intimately involved with the mystery of Christmas and gives us good reason to ask how well our families reflect the love of the Triune God.
Husbands and wives, strive to love each other well and freely, not because of what your spouse gives you, or does for you, or brings to you, but simply for the sake of your spouse; love your spouse because of your spouse. If you do, you will imitate the love of God who loves us not because of what we can do for him, but because we are his. Follow the counsel of Saint Paul and
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 must you 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 (Colossians 3:12-15).
Allow your marriage to be marked by gratitude, forgiveness, and love so that you may always reflect the merciful love of the Christ Child to a hurting world. Let your marriage always shine out as a beacon of hope to the suffering. Teach your children how to forgive one another and how to let go of grudges. Teach them, through your own example, the beauty of a life lived for God and for others. Teach them to trust in God and not in themselves. Teach them to open their hearts to God and to allow him to dwell in them richly.
If you do this, if you make your marriage a full sharing of life and love and a true and complete self-gift to your spouse, your marriage will be happy, successful, and, more importantly, a reflection of God’s own love. You and your children, by the grace of God, will be able to begin slowly rebuilding and refashioning society by restoring a recognition of the beauty of marriage and of the family.
Standing today at the threshold of a new year, we can look forward in gloom or we can look forward in hope; we can look at the wound that we have inflicted on the family and on society, or we can look at the remedy. Some sixteen hundred years ago, Saint Augustine said, “Bad times! Troublesome times! This men are saying. Let our lives be good; and the times are good. We make our times; such as we are, such are the times.”
Let families, then, be again schools of love and selflessness. Let them place the Child Jesus in the center of their hearts! Let us always give thanks to the Father for the gift of his Son and, like the prophetess Anna, speak of him to all who will listen, both in our words and in the manner of our lives (cf. Luke 2:38). Let us strive to conform our lives to him and so change the times in which we live that we may all come to dwell in the joy of the Father’s house. Amen.