Today we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family – that is Jesus, Mary, and Joseph – rightly called holy as two of their members never sinned! I think it’s interesting that we celebrate this feast today, given that many of us have had lots of family time these last few weeks.
Families of course are the most basic social unit of our society and of any society. And so it follows that as goes the family, so goes society. If families are strong and healthy, society will be strong and healthy. If families are disunited and dysfunctional, so too will our society be. I think we could also flip this saying around and say: as society goes, so goes the family. Families influence society as a whole, but the reverse is also true: society influences the family. The societal environment that we live in influences and affects us just like the air we breathe: like it or not, we are influenced by it.
I think it’s a pretty safe bet to say that our society is not the healthiest, and so the same can be said for our families. There’s a lot of dysfunction in our society and so also in our families. A lot of dysfunction in our families, and so likewise in our society as a whole. They are mutually reinforcing. And families of course can be a source of great comfort and joy, but also a source of angst and frustration! Our family – our parents, children, spouses, brothers and sisters – are usually the people in life who we love the most and to whom we are the closest and as such are the usually greatest source of love and joy we experience from other people. But at the same time, they can be the greatest source of pain and sorrow, and for a couple reasons: one is when a family member is suffering. Seeing a family member suffer – whether a parent, a child, a spouse, a brother or sister – we too suffer, and the more we love them, the more we suffer. Many people say they would rather suffer themselves than see a loved one suffer. That is love. It is a beautiful thing, but also painful.
Family can also be a great source of pain and sorrow when we are hurt in some way by a family member: and the more we love them, the greater the pain when they hurt us. The closer they are to us, the greater the sense of betrayal. The wounds can go very deep and can take a lifetime to recover from. In fact, so hurt have some people been by a family member that they have negative associations with words like family, father, mother, and so on. Does this mean that family is a bad thing? Of course not. When something doesn’t work the way it is intended to, does it mean that it’s a bad thing in general? The human heart is an incredible organ and an amazing machine. If it malfunctions, does that mean there is something inherently wrong with all hearts in general? Of course not. Likewise family is a good thing; marriage is a good thing; children are a good thing, even though families, marriages, children and so on often fall short of the ideal.
And the ideal of the family is the one we celebrate today, the Holy Family. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph together give us the most perfect example of the family to have ever lived. That is because Jesus, the Son of God Himself, was at the center of this family. And Mary was likewise free from sin. And Joseph, the only one of the three to have been born with original sin, strove to be a righteous man and to do what the Lord asked of him. It is he and not Jesus or Mary who is the protagonist of our Gospel reading today. Like the Joseph of the Old Testament, he was the recipient of dreams with a divine origin. The Lord made His will known to him from time to time by sending an angel to him in a dream. In the dream we hear about in this reading, the angel instructs Joseph to flee with Jesus and Mary to Egypt because the life of Jesus is in danger. Herod has learned from the Magi that a great king has been born in his land and, being a tyrant, feels threatened by this and responds the way tyrants do: through violence. He orders that all boys under age two in his land be killed, thinking that by doing this his hold on power will remain secure.
From the very beginning of his life, Jesus, who came to bring peace into our troubled world, was in danger. The forces of sin and evil tried to kill him from the very start. Jesus was a threat to the evil in the world. And in the end, Jesus did surrender his life. It seemed at the time that the power of evil had triumphed – until Jesus rose from the dead three days later.
So we have in the Holy Family the perfect model of the family. And in our first two readings, we hear two lessons about what makes a family strong. If we listen to these readings and seek to put them into action in our lives and in our own families, we will imitate the Holy Family and become more like them. The first reading is from the book of Sirach. This book of the Old Testament was like a summation or collection of the whole of the Israelite wisdom tradition. Biblical scholar John Bergsma writes, “Sirach excels in giving practical advice – teaching people the application of natural virtues in daily life. Early on, the Church realized that it was difficult to catechize pagan cultures that did not practice the natural virtues well. Theological virtues – faith, hope, and love – rest upon and perfect the natural virtues – prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. The book of Sirach was employed to form people in basic Judaeo-Christian morality and family life.” So in Sirach we have are given these instructions on how to have a strong and happy family life.
In this reading, as in our second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, there are a couple general principles that I would like to note. One is that each member of the family has a role. In order for a family to be a strong and loving one, every member has to do his or her part. The burden cannot be carried by one person alone: it cannot just be the father, or the mother, or one of the children. And it takes just one person to bring chaos to any family. The two big things that are so destructive to families are pride and selfishness. Putting oneself and one’s perceived needs and desires ahead of everyone else in the family is a surefire way to introduce unhappiness into one’s family. Conversely, the opposite is true: the more each member of the family seeks to put the needs of the other members ahead of his or her own out of a spirit of humility, generosity, and love, the greater the peace and the joy experienced by that family.
Another general principle I would like to mention is the importance of forgiveness. Each one of us has been affected by original sin. We are all both victims of sin and perpetrators of it. We can be wounded by others through their sins, and we can wound others with our own sins. First, we ought to strive to be the best versions of ourselves. In doing so, we will be a source of happiness and not a source of pain to our family members. But if we have sinned against them, as we all do from time to time, we must humble ourselves and seek to make it right by saying sorry, by striving to rebuild the trust we may have broken, by asking their forgiveness. And if we have been sinned against by a family member, we ought to strive to forgive. Forgiveness does not necessarily mean forgetting what happened. Sure, if it’s something small, it can be easy to forget, and so by all means, forget it. But forgiveness, if it does not entail forgetting and pretending something never happened, does mean letting go of the anger, the bitterness, the resentment that we hold in our hearts towards the person who has hurt us. It means desiring that the person accept the responsibility of what he or she has done and has a conversion of heart. At some point, every family member will have to seek to forgive and / or be forgiven.
I would like to repeat the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians, because I think it is so important to hear them more than once: “Put on, as God’s chosen ones…heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another…as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love.” Let us strive to live out these words in our own families as best we can, and forgive each other when we fall short. Let us call upon the Holy Family to help us imitate them, so our families too will be sources of peace and of love.