Summary: Raising a family is like building an olive orchard, and it is hard work.

Feast of the Holy Family (Sunday after Christmas)

Thirteen Days of Christmas

Since the family is the basic unit of society, the Church, and her Scripture, has much to say about it. Our psalm today uses agricultural metaphors for the family: the husband will eat the fruit of his hands, the wife will be like a fruitful fine, bearing many children, the children themselves will be like olive shoots around the table. So let’s consider the olive tree, and its propagation.

The olive tree is surely the horticultural symbol of the Holy Land. Jesus and the disciples would have encountered them almost every day. In fact, there are olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane that date back about two thousand years. The olive is sturdy, productive if well tended, and long-lived. Just think of the wars and droughts that these old olives have withstood. But if they are hard to kill, they are also a challenge to propagate.

The picture in Psalm 128 here seems to suggest that olive trees have lateral roots that spread from the tree and send up shoots, little sprouts that then turn into trees. That is how live oaks, Mexican petunias and figs propagate. But not olives. You can grow them from seeds or cuttings. Both processes are very time-consuming and difficult.

Cuttings require proper timing, a good compost and sand propagation mixture, and taking the cuttings from the right sort of wood. You have to control the temperature and mist the foliage twice a day and water weekly. It takes three months for roots to develop. Starting from seed, you have to contend with less than 20% viability of the olive seeds. You must crack them with bolt cutters, then soak and drain them, put them in proper potting mix and keep them at the right temperature. Germination takes one to two months or longer. Moreover, you can’t put them in their permanent bed for about two years.

Something about all this work reminds me of raising a family. My wife and I raised three daughters. The experience was similar, even though the methods were different. If we weren’t people of patience, we grew some. If we didn’t expect suffering, we were quickly disabused of that notion. The setbacks were many, the disappointments profound, but the results were surely worth it all.

What is critically important, however, is spiritual nurture. A family has to be a seed-ground of faith, hope and love. The statistics bear this out, as well as the fact that anything other than a family with an involved mom and dad at the helm faces almost insuperable obstacles. If there is not faith, hope and love in the family, and the other virtues as well, the results can be horrible. Even in the Holy Family, as Simeon predicted, there were swords to cut the hearts of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Even as an infant, Jesus had to face the danger of execution, and only the swift action of Joseph by the power of God effected a rescue.

Pray for families–your own, your extended family, your parish families, and your community’s. Today there is more danger to families, from the culture and the government, than ever before. Prayer is essential, and mutual help. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, intercede for us!

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