In the Gospel today we heard Saint Luke’s narrative on the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple. Forty days after the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph journey from Bethlehem to the Temple in Jerusalem, to present Mary’s firstborn son in accord with the Law. This scene we have of Joseph, Mary, and the Baby Jesus in the Temple shows us the devout faith of the Holy Family. Even though they knew that they were holding the very Son of God, they still understood their duty as parents to raise the child in their Faith. The Presentation of the Lord recalls for us the duties that every Christian parent and godparent take on at the baptism of their child.
For this reason, the Holy Family is an ideal image of what we call the “domestic church.” I’ve spoken about the domestic church before. It is, in a word, the family. It’s a term that means the first church is in the home. It is in our families that we are first taught who God is, and the faith is passed on. Parents have a great responsibility in passing on the faith.
I remember learning the Hail Mary, the Our Father and the Glory Be at my mother’s knee. I couldn’t have been older than 5. I remember exactly the room we were in, the rocking chair she sat in, the feel of the green carpet under me. I remember learning one phrase at a time, repeating after her until I had memorized it. I remember my father leading us in grace every evening at supper time. And he never let us miss a single Sunday Mass, unless of course, I was too ill to go. On those occasions, he would stay home with me while the family went to Mass, and then he would go to Mass that evening wherever he could find one. Even as a young child, I saw that my father was dedicated to his faith, because he believed it. This is how the family passes on the faith.
If any family had no need to hand on the Faith to their child, it would have been the Holy Family. I mean, Jesus is the Son of God after all. Yet, they did hand on their Faith to him, so to be an example to all of us. It is the responsibility of every parent, especially the father, to show his children how to be Catholic. How to pray, how to speak, how to act, both inside and outside of Mass. And if you think I’m pointing the finger at you dads, there’s three fingers pointing back at me. This responsibility of handing on the faith is even more imperative for spiritual fathers. No spiritual father I know did a more excellent job of handing on the Faith thank my good friend and patron, Saint Paul.
In the second reading, Saint Paul gives a long list of advice to the Christians of Colossae. It is helpful here to imagine the occasion for which Saint Paul chose to write such a letter. You see, after his conversion, Saint Paul travelled all around the Near East, in present-day Greece, Turkey and Italy, founding churches and building up communities of new converts to Christ. He was bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to those who had never heard it before. Now, for the first time, ordinary folks had access to the Most High God in a new way—they were to be called God’s sons and daughters. What’s more, they even dared to call God “our Father.” This was a new thing. For centuries, the Gentiles had always believed in many gods, and these gods lived together on another plane of existence. They quarreled with each other and plotted revenge against one another, behaving as if they were celebrities in the latest issue of a supermarket tabloid. These gods had little care for humans, and it was the humans’ duty to pray to them and make their sacrifices to them. But the idea that a god would want a personal, familial relationship with humans was a totally foreign concept to them.
Then comes Saint Paul, preaching and teaching that there are not many gods, but one true God, who has one Son, who became a man and died to take away the sins of mankind. Furthermore, this God-man, Jesus Christ, actually called disciples to himself and lived in a fraternal relationship with them. He even taught them to pray to his Father, and that they should even dare to call him “our Father.”
Imagine what a shock this must have been, and what truly Good News this is. That the Creator of all things has also created us, and he knows us and calls us his sons and daughters. This is not an arrogant, self-interested god who is aloof and distant, but a tender, loving Father who stooped down to pick up his crying child who had fallen and hurt himself. This God who we call “Father” invites us to become part of his family.
And this family has two dimensions, like length and width. I am going to call these dimensions the “vertical” and the “horizontal” dimensions of the family.
First, let’s consider the vertical dimension: our relationship with God. Have you ever considered that God himself is like a family? The Holy Trinity is, in fact, a family of persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The three persons of the Trinity are bound together in love, just like our human families. The Father loves his Son so much, and the Son loves the Father so much, that the love between them actually becomes a third person—the Holy Spirit. And through this second person, the Son who became man, Jesus Christ, we are invited to live in the infinite love of that family forever. By uniting ourselves to Jesus our brother, we gain the inheritance of eternal life from the Father. Furthermore, we receive the gift of that love even now in this life, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in each of us.
Secondly, there is the horizontal dimension: our relationship with one another. In the prayers of the Holy Mass, the priest often addresses the faithful using the words, “brethren,” or “brothers and sisters.” This is because God’s family is not just a collection of individual relationships between God each person. Yes, it is that, but it is more. The horizontal dimension is the relationships that exist between us and every other Christian. We are no longer strangers to one another, but true brothers and sisters. We can call one another, “brother” or “sister” because we all have the same brother: Jesus Christ. We are called to share with one another the love we have received from God, our Father.
Now, we all know that there can be breakdowns in these relationships, both vertical and horizontal. And it seems that this is the situation Saint Paul encountered with these newly formed churches. After the initial excitement of hearing the Good News had faded, the people of these churches needed guidance on how they were to live as new Christians. They did not exist in a vacuum before Paul arrived—they had normal relationships with one another. So of course, there would have been lingering bitterness, resentment, contention, backbiting, gossip, anger, and all the remnants of their former way of life. To this community of Colossian Christians, who were striving to live out a new life in Christ, Saint Paul writes this letter.
He urges them to put on humility and patience, to bear with one another and to forgive one another. How they must have needed to hear these words, and how much more do we need to hear them today! Our families are not perfect, and our parish is not perfect. We have contentions with one another within the walls of our homes and among one another. We harbor resentments and we convince ourselves of our own righteousness. The only way to heal these divisions within our families and in our parish is thru humility.
I was once humbled in a very embarrassing way. It happened when I was in the university marching band. It was parents’ weekend, and my whole family came up for the football game. It was a tradition for the band to gather on Saturday morning and hold one last practice for the halftime show, then march from the practice lot to the stadium. I was eager to perform before my family, and I had a special guest in town that day—my junior high band director, who had taught me how to play my instrument. I wanted to make her proud. There we were, in the final formation of the show, in a massive double-T that spanned from sideline to sideline. And I was there at the top of the crossbar, right on the 50-yard line. We practiced marching off the field over and over, and it was difficult to keep 350 people in one large formation without making the whole thing bend and melt into a formless blob. All we had to do was stay in step with the music and all take the same size step: 22 ½ inches. If we all did that, the shape would hold. But I noticed what our problem was—our steps became shorter and shorter, as the crowd bunched up on the west sideline. So I decided that I would set the example and take the proper size step, and surely, everyone would follow my example and we’d have a perfectly straight line. Boy, was I wrong. The line tore apart even worse than before, and the band director shouted down from the tower, “Joe Keating, look at the line next to you!” I was so embarrassed to be called out in front of everyone, and on our very last run-thru. I slinked over to greet my family and my former band director, and I tried to explain my reasoning for what I did. I was right! I guided off the lines on the field! Everyone else was wrong! Just then, my former director looked at me and said, “What was the first thing I taught you in 8th grade? Always assume that you’re the one who is out of line.” She was right. I had forgotten that lesson. By trying to be the only one who was right, I was the one who got it the most wrong. That was a hard lesson in humility.
But it was a good lesson, because it has held true for so many of life’s situations. In disagreements with family members, with supervisors, with professors, with classmates, and even with brother priests, it’s a lesson I have to constantly go back to. Humility undoes the pride that tears relationships apart. That’s why it’s an essential virtue for every member of every family.
Next, Saint Paul exhorts the Colossians to be thankful—three times he says it! As I’ve mentioned before, thankfulness undoes so many other sins, especially envy. Thankfulness refocuses us on what we have instead of what we don’t have. It opens our hearts to receive graces from others, and most especially from God. What better example do we have than the Holy Eucharist, the ultimate offering of thanksgiving?
And over all things, put on love, that is the bond of perfection. If Christians are to be united with one another, we need a bond that is stronger than sharing a favorite football team. We need a bond that is stronger sharing a political platform. We need a bond that is much stronger than being from the same race, class, or sex. We need the bond of perfection, and that bond is love. Recall that love is not merely an emotion that passes with time, it is an enduring resolve to do the best thing for someone else, regardless of the cost to us. This is the essence of true love, and true love conquers all differences.
Today, the family is under attack from the Evil One and his accomplices. Most of his accomplices, the enemies of the family, have no idea what they are trying to destroy, or the consequences of doing so. They are blind followers of a twisted ideology. These accomplices of evil try to divide us from one another by placing us in categories and pitting us against one another. They sow seeds of discord and confusion about the definition of man and woman, of the definition of a human life, and the definitions of love and of marriage.
The Evil One and his followers are hard at work to destroy human families. And here’s the reason why: They want to destroy God, but they can’t. So instead, they try to destroy the image of God—the family.
We must acknowledge the reality of the enemy, but we also must not despair of the ground we have lost. The Evil One always leaves a void in his wake, because he can never create—he can only destroy. And we Christians know how to fill that void. We will it with unity, love, patience, humility, and forgiveness. We fill the sorrow of death with the joy of new life. We bridge the political categories that would divide us with the unifying love of Jesus Christ.
We, the Church, are a holy family. The fruits of this family are saints. We see their statues and images all around us, and indeed there are “living saints” among us. Especially when confronted with strife and division, we must remember that we are a family. And the family is the primary place where we learn to love and be loved. It is out of love that a family comes into being. Love creates a family, love produces sons and daughters, and love binds that family together.
Today we rejoice in the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. It seems strange to rejoice in the midst of such times, and yet we do, because this is Christmas, and we know that Christ has been born to save God’s people! Let us welcome him into our families, especially in this blessed season of Christmas. Let’s welcome the life and love of the Holy Trinity into our families, so that we too may be a holy family.