Sunday, December 31, 2006

Sunday in the Octave of Christmas
Feast of the Holy Family
Deeper and Wider


Readings: Sirach 3:2-7, 12-14; Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5; Colossians 3:12-21; Luke 2:41-52

Sisters and brothers, today we pray for something that probably every one of us wants very much. We pray for peace in our families. But what is our idea of peace and how do we go about receiving God’s gift of peace in our families?

When I think of a peaceful family, the first thing that comes to mind is one with no troubles, where there are no arguments or disagreements. Everyone is nice to everyone else. And I may even find support for this in our readings today. For example, doesn’t the first reading advise us to honor our father and mother? Doesn’t it tell us to show our elderly father sympathy even if his mind should fail? And doesn’t the second reading paint a beautiful picture of a happy family when it tells us what each person in the family should do? Wives should give way to their husbands. Husbands should love their wives. Children should obey their parents. And parents should never drive their children to resentment. If every one of us follows this advice, there will be no trouble in our families at all, would there? There will be lasting peace, right?

But how many of us can truly say that our families, whether immediate or extended, natural or adopted, are really like that? Or is it not more likely that just as families come in many shapes and sizes, they will also face all sorts of different problems? Are there not families, for example, where Dad is struggling with a drinking problem, or where Mom is suffering from depression, or where Sis has run away from home? Or will there not at least be some other more mundane difficulties such as misunderstandings between siblings or in-laws? As a Cantonese saying goes, one family doesn’t know the problems of another.

And isn’t it striking that even the model that is presented to us today, the Holy Family itself, is not without its fair share of problems. In the gospel story, the 12-year-old Jesus quite literally gets lost. And we are told that it is only after three days of frantic searching that Mary and Joseph manage to find him in the Temple. What must have been going through their minds and hearts in those three days? We know they were worried. Mary admits as much to Jesus when they find him. But might they not also have been feeling guilty? After all they only noticed him missing after a full day of travel. Could they not also have perhaps been struggling with angry feelings, directed toward themselves, at one another, at their own son? How does this picture of the Holy Family compare with our own ideas of a peaceful family?

If, then, Jesus, Mary and Joseph are truly to be a model for us of what a peaceful family looks like, it is not because they didn’t have any troubles but because of how they faced their problems.

We must first acknowledge that each one of them tries to fulfill their responsibilities to one another as best they can. Mary and Joseph do their utmost to search for Jesus when they realize he is missing. And we are told that Jesus, rebellious teenager though he might seem to be at one point, actually goes back to Nazareth with his parents and lives under their authority.

But there is more to the Holy Family than this, something that is at once wider and deeper. Their attention is focused not only on one another but also especially on God. We are told, for example, that they undertake an arduous journey to Jerusalem every year for the festival. Why do they do this? Is it not because they are clearly the kind of people we heard about in the response to the psalm? They fear the Lord and walk in his ways. They try to put God first in their lives.

Still, interestingly enough, it is precisely because they try to do this that trouble starts. Not only does Jesus go missing in Jerusalem, but he also seems to answer his parents in a very rude way when they ask him for a reason. Why were you looking for me? he says, Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father’s affairs?

But Jesus is not trying to be rude. He is beginning to realize that the boundaries of his true family extend far beyond his earthly parents. He is beginning to see that as much as he loves and respects Mary and Joseph, the One who has first claim on his time and energy is his heavenly Father. He realizes that not just him but even Joseph and Mary are being called to look beyond their own little immediate family circle and its own concerns to the much wider circle of the whole human family, all those whom his heavenly Father wishes to save.

Of course, at this point in the story, we are told that Joseph and Mary did not understand what Jesus meant. There is probably much confusion in their minds and hearts. But here is where we see that there is not only something wider but also something deeper that we can learn from them.

What is it that helps them to maintain peace within and among themselves even in the midst of trouble, even when there are things about one another that they don’t quite understand? Notice what is said about Mary: she stored up all these things in her heart. This is not to say that when trouble starts we should simply bottle up all our feelings and not talk to anyone about them. That would be a recipe for disaster. Rather, Mary is merely doing what we heard in the second reading from the letter to the Colossians: let the message of Christ, in all its richness, find a home in you. She patiently ponders in her heart all her experiences, especially the things she doesn’t understand. She waits hopefully for the Spirit to reveal all to her in God’s own time. And in so doing she fosters for herself and for her family in Nazareth something that the world cannot give. If the peace of Christ comes to reign in her home, it is because the message of Christ has first found a home in her heart.

Sisters and brothers, there probably isn’t any one of us here who doesn’t wish peace for our own families and for our own homes. Even as we continue to ask God to grant us this grace in the coming New Year, how can we prepare ourselves to receive it? How can we continue to learn to look beyond our natural families to the family of God? How can we allow the message of Christ in all its richness to find a home in our hearts this day?

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