HOMILY – DECEMBER 27
Several years ago, a pair or mourning doves built a nest in, of all places, the space behind the address sign on top of the front door of the rectory across the street. I would be greeted by the cooing of papa and mama dove whenever I entered or left my house. But then the day came when eggs were laid. They became much more protective. And finally, when I heard peeping up there above the door, I knew that a blessed event had taken place, and papa and mama had indeed made a good choice of a secure place to build their little home. One day, I must have startled them when I came out of the house. There was a great flutter, and I looked up to see only one adult dove in the nest with the baby birds. As I started down the front steps, there I saw what the flutter had been. Sensing danger, the mother dove had flown out to the sidewalk, right in plain sight. There she staggered around in circles like a little inebriate. One wing hung rather helplessly at her side, as if it were broken. I instantly felt bad for her, but then realized what was going on. I calmly walked past her, and when I got over to the church, I looked back. She was flying back to the nest, obviously without a broken wing.
Different animals, birds, and even fish have vastly different ways they nurture, rear, and defend their young. Some even consume their own offspring, for a variety of reasons. We often make comparisons, noting with great interest the display of what we might call “human” qualities. The mother dove puts herself at great risk for her young, pretending to be wounded, making herself vulnerable, as bait to lure away any predator that would threaten her little family. She puts on a great act, but none of this is a matter of her exercising a free will. It is an instinct, planted within her by her Creator, which governs her behavior for the survival of her own species without her having to think about it or choose.
How different are genuine human qualities! We have reason and free will to assist us in making the proper choices. Those gifts are, indeed, what differentiate us from the animals. Ideally, they should help us in carrying out God’s plan as instinct does for animals. But God gives us the capacity to choose to do the right thing; and, of course to do the wrong thing, or nothing at all. Why did God make us so, if he could foresee that such reason and free will also enable us to do our very best to torpedo the family, abandon our spouses, and abort our young, if indeed we even choose to conceive any? Because it is precisely that capacity which gives us the power to LOVE, not just to respond to instinct; and it is love that images the God who made us in his own likeness. We must be FREE to love, even if it means we can freely choose to do the opposite.
The implications for family life are staggering. The family is no accident. We are structured in imitation of the divine Family which is God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The very best nurturing behaviors of the animals cannot compare with the love and warmth and security of a loving human family. But even our response to the conditions savored or endured in our own families is not a matter of instinct. It really IS a choice. There are very few who cannot at least describe what one might expect from a loving family. Even those who ultimately reject family values or who seem constitutionally incapable of putting them into practice would likely be able to describe the qualities they would objectively expect to find in a good mother or a good father. After all, we can all think of plenty of examples of BAD ones! How hard can it be to do, or at least to describe the opposite?
That, however, is a minimalist approach. We know we all ought to joyfully strive to be the very best family members we can be. The family is the basic school of humanity, hence the reason for God surrounding it with commandments about how to properly enter it, how to sustain it, and how to continue it. None of us is an island, and we have to put our free wills to work, either to enhance family life with our loving and joyful service, or to choose the self-absorption and secession from the family which we find rampant in the world around us. For the believer, it is an abomination to simply imitate the ways of the world. We are sent by Christ himself to invade and convert it with grace and love, and how is that transformation to take place if we do not act convincingly? And if we cannot act convincingly within our own families, however shall we do it in the world at large?
We don’t have to spend a lot of money on counseling and therapy in order to arrive at some answers. All we have to do first is choose to ask the right questions. What kind of a spouse am I? How would my spouse describe me? Do I even consider her feelings, his feelings, when I am making family decisions or am engaged in my own pursuits? Is he or she still No. 1 in my life, even before myself, as I promised on our wedding day? Do I take my time to teach my children about the world around them and within them, or do I let them find out about life from friends, or TV, or the Internet? What kind of image of marriage do we present to our children? If their parents’ marriage is a school for their own marriage and family life, what kind of school are WE?
As my parents’ child, do I take seriously the teaching and direction they have provided me? Do I write them off as hopelessly clueless? Do I ever stop to consider their strengths and talents, or do I choose to see them only as ineffective? Do I follow God’s command to honor them, whether they deserve it or not? What kind of a family member am I? Am I always seeking only my own advantage? Do I try to drive wedges between other members of the family for my own benefit? Am I thoughtful of the needs and feelings of other family members? Do I respond to others’ needs without being asked? Am I pro-active when it comes to helping out in the family, looking for opportunities to be of service without always having to be told or asked?
We could go on and on, but you get the picture. Don’t examine the consciences of others. Examining your own, and choosing to act upon what you find, will give you a life’s work — and will help you allow your own family to breathe the atmosphere of God’s love, mercy, and grace as involuntarily as they inhale oxygen. And with even