Family: It’s heights, depths, and everything in between

A few observations On today’s feast of the Holy Family, in which we rejoice at the mystery of the family.  

First, how does family come to be called a mystery?  When did family become a mystery… akin to the mystery of redemption, or the mystery of the Eucharist?  Family has always existed, at the very least, as a natural institution.  For the propagation of the species, family has always existed.  Because it’s easier to survive in groups, family has always existed.  Even Scripture confirms this basic reality:

“Two are better than one: They get a good wage for their toil. If the one falls, the other will help the fallen one. But woe to the solitary person! If that one should fall, there is no other to help.  So also, if two sleep together, they keep each other warm. How can one alone keep warm?  Where one alone may be overcome, two together can resist. A three-ply cord is not easily broken.” (Ecc.es 4:9-12)

With the birth of Christ however, family – like all other earthly elements – becomes sanctified as the Lord clutches it to himself elevating it to the level of something mysterious, an instrument of salvation.  The particular avenue of this elevation leads straight to the heart of God Himself. 

When Jesus is born he begins immediately revealing to us the fullness of God.  Existing as the Holy Trinity, God is a communion of loving persons eternally bound together: God the Father loves God the Son… God the Son loves God the Father… The love between them is so strong that it takes on its own personality in the Holy Spirit.  By entering the world in the context of a family, Christ draws our attention to this reality.  Family is no longer just an earthly reality.  It becomes a living, breathing icon pointing us to the image of the Trinitarian God Himself.  

The Trinity!  It doesn’t get higher than that.  Truly, there’s not much more the Church can do to exalt the family.  At the same time, the very height of our honor for the family also draws attention to its converse: our mourning when family doesn’t work.  Here, we find our second observation: We need to acknowledge, that family rarely looks -today- as it did in the manger 2,018 years ago.  Some families get started along what seems like a good path, and then break up.  Sometimes death or tragic circumstance creates great difficulty in families.  And sometimes, family is never even given a chance: parents walk out on kids, men and women have a hard time meeting the right person… you name it, there are all sorts of reasons the family process short-circuits today.  When this happens, it puts me in mind of that wonderful moment in the Gospel:

“When [Jesus] disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” (Mk 6:34)

When you and I see families that have been so battered by the powers of the world, our hearts should be moved with pity.  All of us have the same yearnings for happiness, for fulfillment… and when a neighbor’s pursuit of those legitimate human goals is complicated by the world, our first response should be to aide our neighbors however we can.  I’ve seen so many examples of folks who, when the grace of (let’s call it “standard”) family life is challenged, find that grace anew through the extended family of the parish… a large group of persons bound together by love.  In the secular world too, we see this.  People find meaning through service of the community in government or civic organizations etc.

This brings us to our third observation: While I don’t know that we can truly say (if we’re using precise philosophical language) that there are many “kinds” of family.  I think we can say that there are various degrees of participation in the definition of family.  We’ve already noted one of them: the parish.  

It’s not quite what the Trinitarian definition of family points to in the manger scene, but it certainly participates in that mystery by extension.  Likewise, the many families I’ve encountered in the inner city where classical structure (mother, father, child) is missing, and replaced by grandmother, mother, children (often from different fathers).  This grandparent-centered structure is certainly a participation in the mystery of the Holy Family, but its members would be the first to tell you they wish it could’ve been otherwise, that the traditional structure of mother, father and child could’ve come together.  

Once I was approached by a couple.  I had just witnessed their marriage and they needed a favor.  Their tango instructor had died in a car accident, and the groom was asking if I would offer some words of comfort at a memorial service.  I was happy to… The instructor wasn’t of any particular religion.  His students came from backgrounds too numerous to count… and boy were they numerous.  This man, simply by being a great teacher had touched so many people.  They filled a local civic center hall for his memorial service.  They all knew, supported each other, and were there to comfort one another at the loss of a loved one.  Had you asked any of these folks, they would’ve affirmed in an instant that they were family to one another.  And in many ways they were right.  

But what guide do we have.  Surely we need more than merely the structure of traditional family if we’re going to talk about participation in its mystery.  Thankfully, St. Paul helps us out today in his Letter to the Colossians (3:12-21).  

Brothers and sisters:
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.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,
as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another,
singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs
with gratitude in your hearts to God.

He’s listing for us the virtues of family and reminding us to lift it all up to God, “over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.”  Insofar as we participate in these virtues, and come together in the “bond of perfection” we are engaging in some degree in the mystery of family. 

When it comes to preaching this in the world and to working with families, I think the Church faces many challenges of mis-perception from the outside world… and indeed from among her members.  

Far too often, Catholics fall into the old temptation (common to soooo many heresies) to adopt a strictly dualistic view: “It’s nuclear family or nothing!”  “If for some reason I can’t receive communion it must mean I’m out of the Church.”  “People are either good or bad.”  In most of Church life, there’s much more gray than these dualisms admit.  It’s not always easy to get that across in homilies, but one-on-one conversations with parishioners often allow for much deeper, more nuanced explorations of family situations.  

Outside the Church, the world usually applies this same dualistic vision to our teachings.  Lately though, another challenge has arisen.  One would think that our world would be happy to accept a Catholic understanding of the various degrees of family I’ve described.  But for popular culture it’s not enough.  The arbiters of culture seem to reject dualism (…Good…), but they also seem to reject what I’ve described.  They favor a sort of equal and universal celebration of every degree of family… or as they’d put it, “every type of family.”  The sincerity of each “family’s” belief in itself is the only criterion for its celebration.  

The challenge to this pan-familial celebration is that sometimes it celebrates as equal two things that are each other’s opposite.  A divorced family… a traditional married family… a polyamorous relationship… heterosexual families… homosexual families… open relationships… monogamy…all are to be treated the same even though they often outright contradict each other.  I’d propose that what society is exalting is not “family,” but rather sincerity, since that is the one common factor between the otherwise contradictory examples I’ve offered.  That’s another much more wide ranging philosophical discussion, for another time.  

For now, on this Feast of the Holy Family we’ll just wrap up noting how we’ve celebrated the heights to which family can ascend… We’ve grieved the depths to which it sometimes falls… and acknowledging the goods that can exist at every point in-between.  Pray for families!  Pray for them and support each other in seeking their many blessings wherever we find ourselves participating in this beautiful mystery.

Just Posted

On the homilies page (see above):

IV Sunday of Advent – Renewing our Worship by offering up our bodies… why the body matters to spiritual life.

Christmas – The unfinished work of building the manger: The Gospel of Christ vs. The Gospel of Caesar

Meditations in the Midst of Daily Life

advent week i – wednesday

Silence and Listening

Advent Week I – tuesday

The Sacred Act – How He Trusts Us!

In today’s Gospel, Jesus praises the Father:

“I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
for although you have hidden these things
from the wise and the learned
you have revealed them to the childlike.

And this is the crux of Fr. Guardini’s meditation on the nature of our sacred act.  Throughout natural history, man has responded to God action in the world.  In salvation history, more specifically, God takes initiative and invites man to build an altar of sacrifice after encountering him.  God has, throughout time, invited us to partake in covenants responding to him.  With the coming of Christ though, something changes.  The covenant tools he gives us, the sacraments, aren’t bound to a calendar date, but only to doing what we do in memory of him.  Jesus has given man the capacity to initiate a sacred act… He has made us, in the words of St. Paul, “stewards of the mysteries of God.” (I Cor 4).

Whether our role in these mysteries is as part of the ordained priesthood of the clergy or the royal priesthood of the faithful, what an awesome responsibility we have to engage in sacred actions well.  To use the words of the Second Vatican Council, we are called to engage in “full, active and conscious participation.” (“participatio actuoso”).  Now this does not mean being overly raucous or effusive in worship, but rather taking it seriously… engaging with our full selves, SEVEN DAYS-A-WEEK… since – after all – our sacred acts are not specifically bound by time any more…

Do I give worship my all?  Do I pray conscientiously, meditatively at home using Scripture and the lives of the saints to guide me?  Do I confess regularly to prepare myself for mass?  Do I attend mass fully engaged from my dress to my decorum to my attentive prayer and offering of the week’s work to the Lord?   Good questions as we engage in sacred action and renew our worship this Advent.

Advent Week I – Monday

Expectation as a starting point for renewing worship

Do I expect the Lord.  As Father Romano Guardini – a wonderful forerunner of the Second Vatican Council – points out in his excellent book Meditations Before Mass, expectation is a key component of worship.  Certainly, today’s Advent Scriptures bear this out (Is 2:1-5).  How often we hear Isaiah’s words, “In days to come…” or, “On that day…”. Throughout Advent, the prophets expect the coming of Jesus in time at Bethlehem.  We expect him in our prayer life, and in the sacraments.  BUT… do we look forward to and expect him at the end of our lives… at the end of time?  Jesus tells us the fullness of the Kingdom is coming… and that the Son of Man will return on that day, but do we really expect that?  The rapid fire Christian response is, “of course we do.”  But our lives don’t always bear this out.  

The first generation of Christians believed that Jesus would return in person, in their own lifetimes.  St. Paul’s letters testify to this imminent sense of expectation.  As time went on, our ancestors settled in for a longer haul.  Still, a deep sense of Jesus’ personal concern for us, and hope that he would be part of our future, deeply marked the experience of the early Church.  This sense was very much in display at the time of the Roman persecutions.  Only people who fully expect to see the Lord on the other side of death can readily walk into the arena and face the lions with hymns of praise.  Expectation was at the foundation of the Christian emotional experience when our ancestors worshipped.

As Fr. Guardini points out however, a subtle shift happened when Christianity became not only legal, but the official religion of the Empire after Constantine.  Suddenly, there was security… and the desperate need to look for Christ, the yearning to see him at the end of our lives and the end of time… it all began to cool.  To co-opt a contemporary ministry slogan: worship became a mater of daily maintenance instead of daily mission.  Going to mass became simply “what we do,” instead of a matter of life and death on which all hope rides.  

It’s a worthwhile question to explore: Do I expect Jesus… in my life? after my death? at the end of all time?  Looking to and renewing our worship this Advent can be a great way to check-in on this question, and begin to address is for the future.

Consider these words, the verses of the ancient Latin hymn for Monday Morning Prayer during Advent:

Hark, a herald voice is calling;
“Christ is nigh,” it seems to say;
“Cast away the dreams of darkness,
O ye children of the day.”

Startled at the solemn warning,
Let the earth-bound soul arise;
Christ, her sun, all sloth dispelling,

Shines upon the morning skies.

Lo, the Lamb, so long expected,
Comes with pardon down from heaven;

Let us haste, with tears of sorrow,
One and all to be forgiven.

So when next he comes with glory,
Wrapping all the earth in fear,
May he then as our defender
On the clouds of heaven appear.

Honour, glory, virtue, merit,
To the Father and the Son,
With the co-eternal Spirit,
While eternal ages run.

Amen.

Receptivity: The Beginning of Worship

 

During the season of Advent, the Church prepares to worship the Christ Child in the manger with Mary, Joseph and the shepherds.  It’s fitting then that the Church traditionally turns an eye toward her worship practices during this holy season.  And I’d propose, as a start to our considerations, that worship begins with receptivity.

On our own, human beings don’t have much that God wants.  Throughout the Psalms the Lord reminds us that he made everything, so our earthly activities -unto themselves- don’t mean much.  The meaningful gift that we give to God in sacred worship must come from him, grow to perfection in us under his guidance and then be rendered back to him as a gift.  Put another way, in the words of St. John, “The Love of God consists in this, not that we have loved him, but that he loved us first and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.” (I Jn. 4:10).

Certainly, receptivity marks Advent in a particular way.  On the coming feast of the Immaculate Conception, we recognize the gift of Christ received by Mary in anticipation of what he would do for us.  Throughout this month we’ll think about how Mary received the Word, the Son into her womb.  We might even hear a bit about Elizabeth and Zechariah who received John the Baptist in a miraculous conception during Elizabeth’s old age.  Aside from these births unto themselves, we also see in these figures people who were receptive of God’s plan, God’s timeline rather than their own.  …And by that receptivity they launched the New Covenant.

Our Lord himself, though he needed nothing, received loving kindness from God his Father all those times he “went off to a lonely place to pray.”  Receiving and doing the Father’s will was the Lord’s sustenance (Jn 4:34).  And as if to highlight this reality by contrast, at the height of his earthly ministry, the Passion, one of the most striking facets of the experience is precisely that Christ seemed to have lost all perception of the Father’s consolations, experiencing – as St. John of the Cross would name it – a dark night of the soul on the Cross.

Receptivity is the beginning of worship!

But here’s the challenge: Receptivity demands of us, has built into it, vulnerability.  In today’s first (EF) reading from Romans, St. Paul advises us to rise up and put on the armor of light (Rm 13:12).  He doesn’t tell us to put on the armor of steel or of silver, but of light.  What’s that supposed to do for us?  The armor of light is our ticket to Resurrection.  It means, like Jesus, we are called to be receptive to God’s grace… and to the nails, and to the thorns… and to the lance in our side.  Like Christ though, these wounds don’t have to stop us.  Resurrection isn’t just for the end of time.  We experience little deaths through life… we also experience little resurrections.  And with each new experience of the Cross, our confidence grows in the next resurrection… so that one day we’ll be ready to face physical death itself.  But we must let our hearts be vulnerable.  There’s the rub…

Human hearts, when wounded, tend to get hard, or “stony,” as the Gospel says.  Stony hearts are ok at fending off more wounds, but they never let in healing… and they never leave us open to wonderful new possibilities.  Overtime they end up hurting us more than protecting us.  We’ve all been there.  AND… thanks be to God , we have wonderful examples of the kind of hearts God wants for us: The Immaculate Heart of Mary, pierced by seven swords; and the Sacred Heart of Jesus, aflame with love, crowned with thorns.

In my own life I’ve experienced both a stony heart and a fleshy one.  Let me tell you, much as it hurts sometimes, the fleshy heart is better because it’s alive… it’s moving forward, pushing me on pilgrimage toward heaven.

So this first week of Advent, put a special emphasis on receptivity.  It asks a lot of us, but it promises a hundredfold reward.  Blessed Advent everyone!