Summary: When families stay together, and pray together, and sing together and learn together, all of society is enriched and strengthened.
Feast of the Holy Family 2018
The wisdom writer Jesus ben Sira is the author of the Book of Sirach, where we get our first reading today. I recall early in my life reading the ten commandments, and also remember that my early sacramental confessions were headlined pretty much the same every couple of weeks: I disobeyed my parents X times. Now I was considered to be a good child–an only child, in addition–but as a firstborn I had a pretty sensitive conscience. My parents were learning how to be parents in their forties and fifties, because of the age they were when they adopted me. And I was learning how to be a good Catholic boy, which meant doing what I was told.
The problem with this is that we hear the commandment “Honor your father and your mother” but even in adulthood we think it’s for little children. Sirach reminds us that these rules are mostly for adult children. The fourth commandment is a family commandment, and is the first and only of the ten commandments that is a “shall” rather than a “shall not” rule. Moreover, as the Apostle tells us, it’s the only commandment that comes with a promise: “so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” There’s human wisdom in this command. If you as an adult demonstrate caring love for your parents, your children will see you doing that, and they are more likely to imitate your example when you are old and they are challenged to demonstrate caring love for you. But what is true in the order of nature is even more true in the supernatural realm. Taking care of your parents, loving and honoring them is not just an obligation, it is also a channel of grace for all three generations.
This is also for you young Catholics a lesson in why it’s important to have children early in your marriage, rather than putting them off until your late thirties or forties. My mom and dad turned 42 in the year they adopted me. Two of my grandparents were dead before I was born; my paternal grandfather died when I was a year old, and my maternal grandmother is then the only one I ever knew. We visited her every so often, but when she got sick, my mother put her into a nursing home, and she was dead soon after that. So I had no example of how to honor or care for parents.
St. Paul gives us excellent advice for our intergenerational relationships. How can “compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience” do anything other than strengthen family interaction? He tells us to be mutually forbearing, mutually forgiving. He doesn’t forbid sibling rivalry. Brothers and sisters are naturally competitive with each other. But there is a Christian way to rival your sibling. You don’t have to like your big brother or sister, but you do have to love your big brother or sister. You do have to forgive whatever has hurt you, but you don’t have to forget it and blunder into the same relationship struggles over and over again.
I suggest that whether you are relating to a child, a spouse or a parent, make every day, every interaction something you can be thankful for. St. Paul gives practical advice, too. Your family should make music together–more than just singing “Happy Birthday to you” a few times a year. One of the families I most admired when I was growing up had a family orchestra. Everyone played a musical instrument. When I dated one of the young girls, they played for me when I came by their house. Believe me, it’s very hard to play or sing with someone you hate.
Families in North America are in a crisis situation in our time. They are under assault as never before. The very definition of family is being changed by force. People in disordered relationships are claiming to be married. Husbands and wives are–sometimes without both even knowing about it–murdering their children before they are born. As a culture, we made such problems inevitable when back even before the Pill, we began to stop regarding husband and wife as one, and they started acting as individuals, only interested in their personal welfare.
Contrast this with the scene in today’s Gospel. Mary and Joseph are bringing Jesus to the Temple for the ritual of purification after childbirth. The prophet Simeon is inspired by the Holy Spirit to come and they meet. He declares Jesus to be the promised Messiah, and tells Mary that “this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign of contradiction (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.” Anna, too, always in the Temple, tells everyone that this child is the Messiah. Isn’t this a family scene? Simeon and Anna are standing in for the men and women of Israel who have been looking for redemption, and they are even acting like the grandparents of Jesus, telling everyone that this child would be a wonderful person. It’s like a family Christening–the first family Christening.