Christian love and family divisions
(Readings: Ecclesiasticus 3:2-6, 12-14; Colossians 3:12-21; Matthew: 2:13-15; 19-23.)
Introduction to Mass
The gospels don't give us a detailed picture of Jesus' parents or his early family life. The focus of today's feast is really the extent to which a distinctive Christian love should permeate our relationship with the members of our own family, most of all, perhaps, on those occasions when conflicts or divisions arise.
To begin Mass on today's feast we think especially of the times when we've set aside the demands of love within our families, pursued selfish ends or hurt those we are close to. We ask God for his pardon and healing.
Mary and Joseph: parents and followers of Christ
It's appropriate that the Feast of the Holy Family should fall within the Christmas Season because it's at the start of the gospel story, in Matthew's and Luke's accounts of Jesus' birth, that we hear most about Jesus' parents. Later on, during Christ's adult life, there's very little information about his family - nothing about Joseph, I think I'm right in saying, and only a few passing references to Our Lady.
So the few verses of the gospel which are concerned with Mary and Joseph are important. They're the basis for the picture we have of Jesus' start in life and the sort of upbringing he had.
To my mind one of the noticeable things about the opening chapters of the gospels is that Mary and Joseph say so little. Neither of them spoke a word, for example, in the passage we heard a moment ago. Both Matthew and Luke prefer to show us what they were like through their actions: their search for a safe place for Jesus to be born, their efforts to protect their child, even fleeing into Egypt while King Herod is looking for him to kill him; their efforts, later on, to bring Jesus up with a deep and sincere devotion to God.
As with the Nativity scene, the picture that we have of the Holy Family, in so many works of art is an accurate reflection of what the gospels tell us. Mary and Joseph are devoted to their Son. They protect him, with a lot of trouble and sacrifice on their own part. But they assume that task silently and without complaining. In a way they take second place to him.
I would go as far as saying that ther words even Christ's parents are presented by the gospel-writers as his followers, individuals carrying out God's will even although there must have been times - and the gospels say that their were times - when it wasn't all that clear to them exactly what God's will was, in relation to this son that they had.
In God's Kingdom family ties are not absolute
Traditionally, Mary and Joseph have been seen as examples of parental care and love, and the Holy Family is meant in some sense to be a prototype of every Christian family. But at the same time it has to be said that blood-relationships, the bonds of love that derive from marriage and family-membership, are things which belong to every time and every culture. There's nothing specifically Christian about them. As Jesus said himself, later on: "even the pagans do as much".
As a matter of fact there are two strains in Jesus' own teaching on the subject. On the one hand Jesus took a less liberal attitude than the Pharisees toward the permanence of the marriage bond, and he was far stricter than they were on the subject of divorce.
But on the other hand, he made it clear that under God's Reign, the ties of family life aren't absolute. "Those who do the will of my Father in heaven," he said, "are my mother and brother and sister".
So for Christ our ties to each other as individuals devoted to God have a priority over our family relations - and this is all the more true if perhaps our faith in God comes into conflict with our membership of our family.
The love revealed by Christ
What we have to remember, I think, is that the kind of love Jesus preached about, and revealed in his own life and ministry, wasn't identical with the ordinary bonds of affection and care and so on that we have for the members of our own family, or for our friends and the people we like.
The kind of love which was the heart of Christ's message was the love he showed when he was prepared to go to his death for the sake of the people who had plotted to kill him, and when he turned round and said that he forgave those people for their blindness and their murderous hostility.
And what St Paul is recommending to the people he's writing to, in the second reading for today's feast, is that they should imitate that love which Christ showed, in their relationships with everyone, perhaps most of all with their fellow-Christians:
"You should be clothed in sincere compassion," says St Paul, "in kindness, and humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with one another, forgive each other as soon as the quarrel begins. And over all those things, to keep them together, put on love".
Christian love and family divisions
It's a sad fact, but I think it's a fact of life just the same - perhaps even more so at the present time - that very often, for all sorts of complicated reasons, the people whom we end up seeing as our enemies, the people with whom we have the most bitter disagreements and who stir up the most violent emotions, are the members of our own family.
When divisions occur in families, they usually run deep. But my own belief is that, when these divisions arise, or when there's a breakdown in the relationships between members of a family, it's in those circumstances most of all that we need to appeal - not to conventional ideas of family bonds and affection - but to those aspects of Christian love that St Paul is talking about.
Very often in a situation of conflict we can't be responsible for other people's decisions and other people's behaviour. We can only be responsible for our own. And while we shouldn't feel obliged to allow ourselves to be treated as a doormat, or to remain totally passive in the face of unjust treatment or manipulation, what we often have to do is at least to keep a careful guard over our own motives and our own actions. So that if we are caught up in a bitter dispute, especially in our family, we're not reacting out of hatred and a desire to win at all costs.
It may turn out that it's precisely in situations of great stress or breakdown in our families that we come up against the challenge to respond with the values that we profess as Christians. And we're always doing the right thing if we try to look at the situation in a Christian perspective and try to act out of these motives of gentleness, patience, kindness, and love as far as we possibly can - regardless of the behaviour of the others who are involved, and even although it's very difficult and demands a lot of us.
Those are the kinds of reflection I would like to offer on the readings for today's feast. I don't think it's any good conjuring up a trite or sentimental picture of the Holy Family. We have to think of what it means to apply the idea of real holiness to the circumstances of family life in our own time, which is often very fraught. We have to try and see how the different aspects of Christian love that St Paul talks about are even more relevant to us if we're caught up in some argument or division with individuals who, in an ideal world, are the people we would be closest to.