Today is the Feast of the Holy Family. The Christmas season is always a good time to reflect on our own families and the nature of the family in general.
If I ask you to tell me what makes a family, what would you say? A number of persons who live in the same house?
A group of persons who share a common ancestry?
Are any persons who share the same outlook on life or reason for being a member of a family?
How about people who share a common job or hobby?
Is it any one of those things or all of those things?
Is a Christian family any different from any other kind of family or are they all just “families”?
Do we really need families in order to attain our expected goal of eternity with God in heaven?
Let’s start there - “Do we really need families?”
I think I would answer that this way: It’s not a question of US “wanting” or “needing” families. It’s not something that is up to us to accept or reject. According to Scripture, (Gn. 2:18,21-24; Gn 1:27-28; Mk. 10:2-9) the family is something created by God, like the earth, or the stars or like mankind itself. No matter how much we try, either individually or as a society, to abolish it, we can’t escape from this divinely inspired framework for the human race that we call family
The natural family is the fundamental social unit. It is a microcosm of every other social unit - a miniature political and economic order, a cultural and educational organism and religious institution. And it seems to be hardwired into our brains to want family. No matter how bad or dysfunctional our birth families seem to be sometimes, it still seems to be the unit that we all seek. Why do some people get married again, and again, and again? Because they are seeking to satisfy that urge to find family.
I belong to a couple of car and motorcycle lists on the internet, and if I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it a hundred times where many of the people on the lists refer to the list and the other members as “family” and I’ve always wondered why. I always assumed that it was because many of the people on the lists were young adults who have moved away from their places of birth in search of a job or to satisfy their career and something is missing in their lives. I mean, why would they or how could they turn to a somewhat anonymous discussion group about the merits of a specific car or motorcycle and substitute it for family? These people let each other know when their going to a certain town so that they can get together. They organize large “family” get-togethers and reunions. Currently, on the one list, people are donating money to one individual who’s business went under so he won’t have to sell his car to pay some of his debt. Many of these people have never met in person.
It has occurred to me that what they seem to have found in the anonymity of the internet are the virtues of family life that Paul calls us to in today’s second reading. (1 Col. 3:12-21) If one loses a family member or (heaven forbid) wrecks his car or bike, he finds compassion. Kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with one another. Everyone is there to help one another. Now granted, I’ve heard of some other lists where more fighting goes on than anything else, but on my lists fighting’s not tolerated. Rules are set down just as in a family. Paul calls us to admonish one another, and believe me, if someone is out of line, he gets admonished, and fast.
My question is, why is it easier to do this with people we’ve never met, across a continent, than it is with the people we live with and see every day on the street? Aren’t we Christians supposed to be family? Sons and daughters of Abraham? Brothers and sisters in Christ? As Christians and as Catholics, we share a unique treasure. Faith in our Lord, Jesus Christ, and the eternal salvation that was won for us by his death and resurrection. Where are those virtues of compassion, kindness, gentleness, patience and forgiveness when it comes to dealing with our own families and our brothers and sisters in Christ that we meet every day?
Have you ever noticed how people who drive Jeep CJs and Wranglers wave to one another when they pass each other on the street? You don’t see that with drivers of Ford Tauruses and Toyota Camrys, right? The people who drive those Jeeps believe they share a unique treasure and it makes them part of a family.
Motorcyclists believe they share a unique treasure. There’s an unwritten rule that a cyclist will always stop to help another that might be stranded on the side of the road and offer assistance. They give a little wave when they pass each other with the unspoken understanding that they know something and feel something that anyone who has never ridden couldn’t possibly know or understand. Again, there’s that sense of heritage and family.
In the same way, all of us, as faithful members of the family of God, share a unique treasure. The treasure above all treasures. It’s that hope of resurrection from the dead and the everlasting life of the world to come. And like those other treasures, sometimes the world doesn’t understand. It will never understand the freedom that comes from, as Paul put it today, letting “the peace of Christ control your hearts.” It will never understand how suffering can unite us to Christ and bring us closer to God. It will never understand the freedom that comes from forgiveness and allowing the word of God to dwell in us. That’s why we need our family, our families at home and our family in faith that gathers here, and our family in faith that has gone before us, to support us and to help us achieve that goal. Because, in the final analysis, at the end of time as we know it, that’s all that’s really going to matter. That’s why the family is so important.
Our culture’s model of the family is as a temporary, unstructured grouping of self-actualized and equal individuals, looking out for themselves and striving to get what’s coming to them. The biblical image of family, especially the Christian family, is one that’s a microcosm of the relationship that exists within the Holy Trinity itself, or even more vividly, of Christ for his Church and his self-sacrificial love for it.
Now, the image we have of the Trinity does have a kind of hierarchical order to it, Father, Son, and Spirit, but despite some of the interpretations we’ve heard of Paul’s words to the Colossians in today’s second reading, the Bible in no way condones any kind of tyrannical domination of husband over wife. When Paul says for husbands to love their wives, he wants husbands to have the same unselfish, sacrificial love that Christ has for us, his Church. But equally abhorrent to the biblical family is the feminist domination of the man that is so common in our western society. Just look at how the father is presented in most of our TV shows. Usually as a bumbler, who takes the brunt of the children’s jokes. Notice in today’s Gospel that the angel didn’t appear to Mary, the Mother of God and our greatest saint, and tell her to make Joseph get her and her child out of town. It appeared to Joseph, the foster-father of Jesus.
Worse still is a family (or society) ruled by the whims of children. The Christian family should be ruled by the example of Christ’s unselfish, sacrificial love for one another. Today’s Gospel gives us an example of Joseph’s (and Mary’s) self-sacrificial love for his family. Other gospel stories show us the humble obedience of Jesus, the Son of God, to his human parents.
As I said before, the natural family is the fundamental social unit. And as our families go, so goes our society. If we are really concerned about the direction our society is headed, we might first take a look at the direction our families are headed. We should be aware of the attacks our culture makes on our families. We should look at the readings today and see how much we are letting the word of God dwell in our hearts. It might mean putting aside our own “agenda.” But that’s what allows us to humble ourselves as Christ did and let God work in our lives.
And lets not keep this unique treasure of our faith to ourselves, but share with our children and all the members of our family just what it means to us.
And don’t forget to pray, for our own families and for families everywhere, that they continue as God created them, to lead us to himself.