Feast of the Holy Family
Luke, the story teller, tells the story of a God who loves each one of us so much and so enters fully into our world: dwelling among us, dining, rejoicing, crying, bleeding and triumphing with us. We hear today how Jesus is introduced to his parents’ faith community where private family intimacy is expanded into the larger Jewish world, and all of society. It is the story of a new creation - of a whole new family that we belong to. We know it will not end happily because the shadow of the cross already lies across the infant, as Simeon prophesies. It began badly for the children slaughtered at the time. And God cries with the distraught mothers.
God did not just visit us by remote control but stays amongst us - in the routine and the extraordinary, the victories and tragedies, especially in a world that is often dark and hostile whether because of the Covid pandemic and ongoing hostility between nations, arms trade and vilifying language.
Today’s feast confronts all forms of individualism. The present pandemic that the world is experiencing has done what this feast intends each year. It has taught us that each of has a stake in the well-being of everyone. That we are connected. It has challenged the individualism that pressures us from all sides. We also belong to the wider body of Christ. We cannot just care for our family members. The gospels push us beyond exclusive identity with birth family toward a broader and inclusive identity as brothers and sisters to whom we are responsible. Pope Francis emphasizes in Fratelli Tutti and Laudato si’ that we are all connected to each other. To tackle the many problems such as disease, war, poverty, abuse of human rights, uncontrolled consumerism, climate change, forced migration, Francis suggests that we ‘think of ourselves more and more as a single family, dwelling in a common home,’ remembering that our lives are interwoven and that ‘no one is saved alone.’ (.17, .54) Familial love is expressed in ever-widening circles of responsibility.
On Monday, the feast of the Holy Innocents (December 28), we acknowledge and cry out against the violence perpetrated against the human family. The Pope has pleaded for ‘all those children who are killed and ill-treated’ whether in the womb, displaced due to war and persecution, abused and taken advantage of before our very eyes and our complicit silence’. He said, ‘Their impotent silence cries out…’. ‘On their blood stands the shadow of contemporary Herods.’ There are vast numbers of children who are victims of violence, objects of trade and trafficking, forced to become soldiers, abused and kidnapped from their schools. We need to say to those in power, ‘You can’t have any more of our children, our sisters and brothers.’ We need to bring life where others plot death. For Francis, children and the elderly represent the most vulnerable and often most forgotten groups. It is a failed society that abandons, anyone especially children, or marginalises the elderly, who are the two poles of the most vulnerable and forgotten among us.
The least in society are God’s greatest concern and calls us to be attentive to. This is where God’s heart is: squarely in the midst of poor and rejected people whose lives continue to be uprooted. Many people struggle to see God amid the desolate headlines because we are not present.
Another world is being proclaimed and incarnated in the ruins of this world. Pope Francis constantly calls us to this and indicates that it is being born daily amid its labour pains, from struggle and tenderness, in the lives of so many care-givers. The baby in the manger tells us that the baby in the drain is worth rescuing; that the homeless alcoholic or drug addict whose life is in ruins deserves respect and care; that the life of the illiterate person is as valuable as university professor; that the asylum seeker is worthy of hospitality and protection; that the elderly person with dementia is owed care and attention.
For many people who are hurting, the notion of a ‘holy family’ can seem contradictory. Certainly, today’s feast becomes meaningless if we project ideas of an ideal family on it. There is no one kind of family. Families today are a blend of biological relatives, extended family, and people either bonded together in love or connected in some way. Some seem privileged, some are homeless and there is everything in-between. What we all share and need is a desire to be loved and to love. What we all share and need is a chance to learn how to do that one interaction at a time. This makes up the church. Our challenge is to love in all places. We cannot allow tighter boundaries be drawn around the universe of acceptable recipients of our love and justice. This feast is about us being responsible for one another. Jesus’s family is an ever wider circle. Jesus did not talk about family values but cut through some society’s most important relations to become people who hear and do God’s Word. So as John Muir wrote: ‘Everything is hitched to everything else.’ We need to recognise that we are all connected, all relatives. The challenge is to love in all places; to cross boundaries. We cannot allow tighter boundaries be drawn around the universe of acceptable recipients of our love and justice yet we do it with asylum seekers, the poor, the unemployed. In keeping with the missing sentences from today’s gospel, we need to continue to weep and shout against the violence today that is perpetrated against the human family. We must not allow ourselves be consoled whilst God’s children are sacrificed for the national interest.
On the threshold of 2021, let us ask how we might be in solidarity with those who need defending and work for policies that protect the rights and dignity of children, all people, and the planet. Let us put on heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience (Col 3:12).
We can each make our homes a haven of hospitality; our parishes a place where discrimination is not allowed; our pew a seat where the stranger feels welcome.
On this Feast of the Holy Family, let us remember that we are all part of God's Family, already beloved but still striving to grow in God's ways. Let us pray for the wisdom to treat everyone as a beloved child of God . Help us, Lord, find the right way to ask those who are harsher than they should be to us or others to remember our common bond and heritage. Let us remember Whose we all are. Let us celebrate this feast as one of ever-expanding community of loving relationships every day. Our love may not be perfect, but the love we share will outdo or outweigh whatever tears family, community, or relationships apart. The bottom line is that while Catholic leaders have to address all of the issues affecting the institutional church, including clericalism, the cover up of abuse, the diminishment of women, and insensitivity to LGBT issues, sooner or later they will also have to address the destructive, divisive reality of an outdated theology of sexuality. Pope Francis in his most recent book Let us dream speaks of discernment where we acknowledge the wrongs done in past history. He says ‘A free people is a people that remembers, is able to own its history rather than deny and learns it best lessons…’ Here we have to acknowledge church practices that have not always been conducive to receiving and welcoming people whether it be Indigenous people, women and LGBTIQ people. To truly celebrate this feast we might have acknowledge that church teaching has not been viable and that we need to own at least partial responsibility for the hate, the misogyny, the racism, homophobia, ignorance and pain that countless people have had to endure and overcome. We need to acknowledge that what we have taught and re-taught has not always enhanced or been consistent with Jesus’ message of love and inclusiveness. We might need to plead with our leaders to look how doctrine can be suffocating; how families can be split, how people have been harmed psychologically and physically, how hatred and ignorance had been fuelled. We cannot mouth love and respect for people while condemning them for whatever reason. The teaching is toxic. The teaching causes real pain. The teaching is not consistent with Jesus’ message of love and inclusiveness because the family we really celebrate today is the whole, holy family of humankind, bound together by the God who loves us into life every day.