“Whoever honors his father atones for sins, and preserves himself from them. When he prays, he is heard; he stores up riches who reveres his mother.”
Sirach uses these words to extol the family and to emphasize its importance in the life of Israel. The family is a gift from God.
Today, in the liturgy, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The feast commemorates the loving relationships that existed in the home of Nazareth; the relationship between Mary and Joseph, the relationship between Mary and Jesus and between Joseph and Jesus; and the relationship among the three members of the Holy Family together. While we commemorate this loving family we also celebrate the “family” and our families, as a gift from God.
The passage from Sirach, used as today’s first reading, describes the honor due to parents from their children. Honor, reverence, obedience, care, joy and kindness are the characteristics that should mark the relationship of son or daughter to mother or father. Parents’ relationships with their children begin to develop as soon as a child is conceived by them. When a child is conceived a man becomes a father, a woman becomes a mother. These are new roles that will now be with them for their entire life. As the child forms in its mother’s womb she provides, through her body, a home, protection and nourishment. The father first exercises his parental love through loving his wife and caring for her.
When children are born they learn love and mercy, kindness and compassion, gentleness and humility from their parents. The parents provide for the children. They protect them, feed them, cloth them, teach them and educate them. Children in return love, honor and respect their parents.
At the core of these relationships is love; love in the sense of self-giving for the good of another and the willing reception of the gift from another.
Unfortunately and sadly, loving relationships are not always found in families. Absentee fathers is a particular challenge today along with the breakdown of the family or its substitution with other relationships. Yet the call to have strong familial relationships and the bonds they create remains.
St. Paul’s words to the Colossians can give us guidance as we reflect on ways to build the bonds among a husband and wife and their children; the bonds with grandparents and their grandchildren and among siblings and the extended family. The relationships require: “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another … and over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection … and be[ing] thankful.”
While St. Paul is speaking about relationships within the Church, the words also apply to that most fundamental manifestation of the Church, the family or as it has often been referred, the “domestic church.”
Mary, Joseph and Jesus faced many challenges in their life as family; right from the beginning. The Gospel account for today’s liturgy recalls one of these. Jesus’ life is in danger from Herod. Upon hearing the news from an angel, Joseph has to gather his wife and son and flee to Egypt. They were already away from their home in Nazareth; now they have to leave their native soil to go as strangers in a foreign land. Yet they go; and they go with each other.
The challenges for families today are wide and varied. Distance, work, business, broken marriages, dysfunctional relationships, lack of commitment and/or fidelity, problems resulting from substance abuse and so forth pose serious challenges to living family life as it is intended to be lived. Yet with the power of God’s love these challenges can be faced and overcome.
Family life is a wonderful gift. When lived well, as God ordains it to be lived, love is found. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Protestant minister and writer, who was killed in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, once wrote: “Most people have forgotten nowadays what a home can mean, though some of us have come to realize it as never before. It is a kingdom of its own in the midst of the world, a haven of refuge amid the turmoil of our age, nay more, a sanctuary. It is not founded on the shifting sands of private and public life, but has its peace in God. For it is God who gave it its special meaning and dignity, its nature and privilege, its destiny and worth. It is an ordinance God has established in the world, the place where peace, quietness, joy, love, purity, continence, respect, obedience, tradition, and, to crown them all, happiness may dwell, whatever else may pass away in the world.”
Today we offer thanks for the family, and for our families; and we pray that through the example and intercession of the Holy Family, our families may ever be strengthened in and through God’s love so that they become an ever more vibrant witness to that love.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.