Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sunday in the Octave of Christmas
The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (C)
From Hiding Places to Holy Portals

Readings: 1Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28; Psalm 84:2-3, 5-6, 9-10; 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24; Luke 2:41-52

Dear sisters and brothers, are you familiar with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? As you know, the movie adaptation of this book by C.S. Lewis begins with the bombing of London during the Second World War, and the evacuation of the four Pevensie children to a house in the country. One day, little Lucy Pevensie is playing hide-and-seek with her three siblings, Edmund, Susan and Peter. She discovers a room where she finds a large wardrobe filled with winter coats. But the wardrobe is more than just a dusty old storage space. It is also a portal, a doorway to another world. Stumbling into it in search of a hiding place, Lucy finds herself in the magical land of Narnia, a wonderful but also perilous place, where animals speak, and where little children become kings and queens and mighty warriors.

Strangely enough this story of a wardrobe that is more a doorway to danger and adventure than a safe hiding place is what comes to mind today as we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family. For there are those among us who say that we live in a time when the family is increasingly coming under threat. And they are probably right. Aren’t divorces becoming ever more common? Aren’t we in danger of losing our children to various bad influences, ranging from drugs and alcohol to gang violence and Internet pornography? And are we not also hearing ever-louder cries for the acknowledgment of so-called alternative life-styles, whatever the forms these might take? All these developments can seem like so many deadly bombs falling upon our fragile families. Faced with such a lethal barrage, some of us choose to respond by emphasizing the importance of the nuclear family, consisting of father, mother and children. In the nuclear family, we seek something not unlike what Lucy thought she had found in the wardrobe: a safe hiding place, in an isolated room, out in the country, far from every possible danger. But how realistic is this approach? Is this really all there is to family life? Are holy families necessarily nuclear? Or might things be a little more complicated than that? What about those families who don’t quite fit the mold of a nuclear family?

Consider, for example, the two families that our readings present to us today. Neither of them would seem to conform to strict ideas of what a nuclear family should look like and how it should act. In the gospel, as we know, although Jesus is the son of Mary, Joseph is not his father. And, in the first reading, Hannah is actually only one of two wives of Elkanah. The other wife, Peninah, had children, but Hannah did not. And when God finally answers Hannah’s prayers by blessing her with a son, instead of keeping and raising him in her husband’s household, Hannah gives him to the priest Eli.

Not only is the stereotypical nuclear structure of the family missing, but there also seems to be more going on here than simply providing a safe hiding place. And yet both these families are models of holiness. In what does their holiness consist? The answer is found in a striking feature that they both share. Each family is closely associated with the House of God. Not only do they make an annual pilgrimage to worship at the temple, they also conduct themselves in such a way that, through them, their children are ushered into the service of God. I prayed for this child, and the LORD granted my request, says Hannah to Eli. Now I, in turn, give him to the LORD; as long as he lives, he shall be dedicated to the LORD.

We see something similar in the experience of Jesus too. In reply to the questions of his anxious parents, Jesus tells them that he must be in his Father’s house. And yet, soon after that, he returns with them to Nazareth. Clearly, his Father’s house is not just the Temple in Jerusalem, but wherever his heavenly Father wants him to be. Whether it be in a carpenter’s shop in Nazareth, or in a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee, or on a Cross on Calvary, in all these places, Jesus remains in the house of his Father’s will. And his family plays a crucial role in ushering him there.

Even though they are not strictly nuclear, each of the families in our readings today is holy because, like the wardrobe in the movie, they act as portals, doorways through which people are led into the House of the Lord. And not only that, but both Samuel and Jesus also themselves become portals ushering others into the service of God. Samuel grows up to be the great prophet who anoints first Saul, and then David, king. And, as we are told in the second reading, those who keep Jesus’ great commandment of love remain in him, and he in them, and so may be called the children of God, members of the Father's household.

If all this is true, then, for a family to be holy, it seems less important that it fit some predetermined structure, than that it somehow manage to usher people into the House of the Lord. I’m reminded, for example, of Agnes Awori, a 53 year-old widow living in a slum on the outskirts of Nairobi in Kenya, whose story is told in yesterday’s issue of the LA Times. Agnes’ family is far from nuclear. She lives in a shack with 12 children, the oldest of whom is 15. Only four of these kids are hers. Seven are the children of her dead sister. And the last one is a baby that Agnes picked up 16 months ago while on her way to market. It had been abandoned in a plastic bag on the railway track, with its umbilical cord still attached. Although ridiculed by onlookers, Agnes chose to save the baby. She named him Moses. Now Agnes makes about $2.65 a day and has accumulated about $132 in debts. Still, as she rocks Moses in her arms, she is able to say: I'm happy in my life. I'll bring him up well, like these other orphans. Everyone has their own talents in life.

Of course, whatever Agnes may say, these are far from ideal conditions in which to bring up a child, let alone 12. But then we might say the same about being born in a manger and then having to flee by night into Egypt. Of course, it’s important to stress that more needs to be done to help people like Agnes. That, after all, is the aim of the newspaper article. Still, perhaps it’s worth remembering that what we are celebrating today is not the Feast of the Ideal Family, but that of the Holy Family.

Sisters and brothers, isn’t it true that families come in different shapes and sizes? But whatever may be the shapes and sizes of our families today, how might we make them better portals leading others into the House of the Lord?


  1. Hey, you must be busy as your posts are not as regular as before. Anyway, I'd rather wait for a good one and I absolutely agree that families come in different shapes (i wrote to st forum and it was published - such a thrill; basically, i thought that the policy-makers should broaden their definition of "family unit").

    The family is under many pressures - divorce, work stress; children and parents can also contribute to marital discord if they are demanding.

    In affluent countries, children grow up without the "drive" as parents provide all and more. The challenge for me as a parent is to create a "hunger" and value in difficulty and hard work. I want them to be confident, determined, and compassionate adults.

    The challenge for me as a wife is to balance the needs of my husband, children, parents and myself. It's not easy when they clash!

    One of the hardest things is when hubby and i disagree on the children. Now the kids are older, I find that they are also able to assert themselves which is a good thing!

  2. A blessed Christmas (it's still X'mas until the Baptism of the Lord!) and a very happy New Year to you, Fr Chris!

    This Christmas is the most stressful one that I ever had, with an overdue submission pending and a mother who kept having giddy spells.

    Yet at the same time, it's kind of strange - it's the air of Christmas and the constant reminder of God's love that lifted my mood and kept me going.

    Mother Mary & St Joseph, please pray for our families to be holy like yours... especially in the midst of great stress/distress. Amen!


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