HOMILY – DECEMBER 27-28
Many years ago, when I was just a baby priest, I visited an elderly man who was very ill. He was well known in the parish. He had come from a large family and had a large family himself. He was telling me a little about his life, not with sadness or nostalgia, but with a profound sense of thanksgiving that he had been able to be a participant in God’s marvelous gifts, both as a receiver and as a transmitter. One part of his story struck me. “My father was killed in an accident at work when I was ten,” he recalled. “I had four older brothers and sisters and four younger, including my baby sister just three months old. What a terrible tragedy for my mother! All those children, and she had to bury her husband, the love of her life! What a remarkable woman she was, Father,” he went on. “She became both mother and father for all of us. She and Dad had always taught us how to pitch in and help, to do things without being asked, and she continued bravely on. We all knew that when Mom had to spend extra time with one or more of us, when we were sick, or when we’d been bad–and that happened often enough with nine kids!–the rest of us had to pick up the slack and fill in the vacancy. Mom wasn’t afraid to accept charity. She knew that not having Dad around was a definite handicap. She took in sewing jobs to make a little extra money, and when she finally had us all in school, she’d clean houses. We had uncles and aunts and neighbors who would take us to games or on outings when Mom couldn’t. I never saw her shed a tear for the past, although she shed many tears of pride for our accomplishments. She’d always laugh and say Daddy was helping her cry to show how happy he was for us. We knew our family was different, that we needed special help and had to help each other, but we never felt like we were owed anything. More often than not, Mom had made so much food that we had some left over, and she’d have us take it to this or that neighbor to share. We all went to church together every Sunday, filling a whole pew except for those who might be serving or singing in the choir. We’d swell with pride when we’d hear someone saying, ‘I don’t know how she does it alone with all those kids,’ but when we’d catch Mom praying her rosary late at night or see her shedding some of ‘Dad’s tears,’ we knew she wasn’t doing it alone. And any time someone in the parish died, she’d remind us to stop by the funeral home and say a prayer. ‘You all know how hard it is,’ she’d say, without a trace of self-pity. And more often than not, we’d find out she’d been at the funeral, or we boys would see her there if we were serving.”
This remarkable family was really un-remarkable for that day and age. So many families were minus a parent, or even minus both parents. Accidents and illness left many children orphaned, or living in what today we call single-parent households. Children were sometimes farmed out to grandparents, uncles and aunts. Many were raised in circumstances that were highly unusual, whether in an orphanage or informally taken in by circus people or sailors. So in a way, society hasn’t changed all that much. It’s just the reasons and the motives for our behaviors that are different. One of the most familiar complaints we hear when someone gets into trouble is, “I was raised in a dysfunctional family.” That excuse is used so often that it’s lost its meaning. One big difference today is that many people seem to think that their circumstances, whatever they might be, entitle them to depend on others to build a life for them. They prefer to wait for someone else to step in, rather than taking the bull by the horns and doing what they need to do to grow up and make their contribution to the human race.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were not the last Holy Family. Holy families continue to abound, like the mother raising nine kids after her husband’s death. We have to look at the common elements. The exercises of faith and prayer play a large part. We easily become rootless without them. Learning to do for ourselves and to make our contributions to both the family and the community are critically important. Care and respect shown within the family is the best training for people to be caring and respectful when they leave the doors of the family home. Learning that our family is an integral part of a LARGER family–relatives, the neighborhood, the parish, the school, the community, the country, the world–helps us to get the concentration off ourselves and onto the big picture. We might have needs for which we depend on others, but they also depend on US. The good order of society depends on our families, YOUR family–with all its sins and dysfunctions, warts and wrinkles–to be the Holy Family. The various configurations which we are being expected to call “family” these days might be a bit overwhelming, but these basic principles remain. Holiness is ultimately the absence of self-interest, and the joy that comes from two or more people joining together before God to learn and express that selflessness in a common life together. The family home is both a school and a solution for what ails our society today, provided we allow God to give it the proper foundation and then build on it.