Compassion and Forgiveness, Even When Things Go Wrong
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
December 31, 2018

Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the Feast of the Holy Family (Year C) on December 30, 2018, at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14; Psalm 84 or 128; Colossians 3:12-21; and Luke 2:41-52.

I say it every year: the Church is brilliant to designate the Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s as the Feast of the Holy Family. For any family with relatives spread throughout the country, this may be one of the few Sundays of the year where everyone can come to Mass together. With our readings from Sirach and Colossians today, the family member sitting next to you may be tempted to jab you in the ribs. So be grateful that you’ve built up the padding on your ribs by feasting this past week!

So, friends: every year, I beg of you: resist the temptation to think that the rest of your family needs to listen more than you do! In other words, husbands, concentrate on what the readings have to say to you, not on what they have to say to your wives. Wives, children, and everyone else: do likewise. Let us each listen for how the Word is trying to speak to us, not to the people sitting on either side of us.

Jesus the Christ came to teach us to relate to God as children relating to a caring parent. Let us take a moment to celebrate the care that God has shown us at every moment of our lives.

About 25 years ago, two high school friends and I decided to go see the movie Philadelpha on the spur of the moment. There’s an emotionally powerful scene, about halfway through the movie, when Tom Hanks’ character plays a recording of Maria Callas singing the aria “La Mamma Morta” for Denzel Washington’s character. Hanks’ character explains why he loves the song so much. Slowly dying of AIDS, he walks, trancelike, around the living room, trailing his IV bag on a pole. He points out the emotional nuances of the composition: “Oh, that solo cello,” he softly exclaims. He translates the next line as Callas sings it: “It was during this sorrow that love came to me.” And it was at this moment that I leaned over to my friends Beth and Chris in the movie theater and whispered, “I just remembered that I was supposed to pick up my sister at church half an hour ago.” Sadly, I’ve never seen the movie all the way through.

In my family, thank God, nobody ever left anyone behind for three days without realizing it, although I can remember a few incidents before I could drive when someone didn’t come to pick me up at the end of an event… and beside the time I forgot to pick up Kathy, I can remember a time as a seminarian when I forgot to pick up Fr. Paul Rospond.

Once, when I was on my annual retreat, my spiritual director asked me to pray with today’s gospel passage. I struggled. Jesus was God, Mary was sinless, and Joseph was a saint. And yet this gospel story tells of when something seems to have gone terribly wrong. When Mary and Joseph find Jesus, Mary asks, “Why have you done this to us?” Jesus replies, “Why were you looking for me?” Joseph, as is always the case in the Bible, says nothing. Nobody apologizes.  

When things like this happen in our families, we’re quick to point fingers and assign blame. But this is the Holy Family. If Mary and Jesus are sinless, what in the world are we supposed to make of their dialogue? Well, on that retreat, the Holy Spirit revealed that maybe I was being too hard on the other members of my own family. If Mary and Joseph, charged with the care of the Son of God, could accidentally lose track of him for three days, and if the 12-year-old Jesus, who is the ultimate embodiment of love, didn’t tell his parents that he was planning to stay behind in the big city alone, perhaps some of the things we consider “sinful” aren’t quite as bad as we think.

Life is complicated, and sometimes, things go wrong and people get hurt even when nobody means to do anything wrong or hurtful. (This is NOT by any means an excuse for when truly abusive behavior happens in our families, in our church, or in any other institution.) Why is it, when things aren’t going right, we so often concentrate on past hurts and finding someone to blame? Why don’t we roll with the punches and give our family members the benefit of the doubt about their motivations?

The Feast of the Holy Family is an awesome day in the Church year to have a baby baptized! (But you heard it here first: February 2 of 2020 is going to be an awesome day for a baptism, too. Plan ahead!) [Parents], you have pledged today to train [your children] in the practice of the faith. In that pledge, you’re promising to try to emulate Mary, Joseph, and Jesus… at least in some ways. But let this gospel passage remind you that even for this most saintly, holy family, traveling to church with extended family still was an occasion for problems, tensions, and anxieties.  

Just because [these children] are about to be baptized, it does not mean that God expects them to be perfect children, and it doesn’t mean that God expects you to be perfect parents. But because they are about to be knit into the Body of Christ in an irrevocable way, we expect you to bring them up as Christian disciples, and we expect you to model the proper behavior of Christian disciples for them. In other words, we hope you’ll be able live out the advice of Sirach and Colossians. Especially, when things go wrong – as they’re bound to go wrong from time to time – we hope that you can live out the first sentence of our Colossians passage today: “Put on, as God’s chosen ones… heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.” (You know, some couples choose to have that passage proclaimed at their weddings!)

Families are complicated. But life is complicated, too. Hopefully, if we first encounter complexities surrounded by the compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness of a loving family, we will be better prepared to handle the complexities of life in general.  

On this Feast of the Holy Family, let’s keep in mind some advice we usually offer on Marian feasts: we honor Mary – and in this case, Joseph and Jesus, too – for what they have in common with us. So, rather than focusing on Jesus’ divinity, Mary’s sinlessness, and Joseph’s unique role in salvation history, let’s pay attention to the call we share with them, to treat one another with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness.  

The four most authoritative documents that the Church has produced in the last 130 years are the four dogmatic constitutions of Vatican II. One of them, Gaudium et Spes, has an extended section on the importance of family. It challenges us to view the family as the smallest unit of the Church. The family is initially formed because of the love the parents have for one another. The various members of the family hopefully inspire one another to live lives of greater holiness, of greater discipleship.

So, [children], on behalf of everyone here at St. Austin Parish and the universal Church, I wish you a warm welcome to the Church family. We celebrate how God’s love has created you and brought you here to us. We pledge our love to you, and we pledge to help you grow in discipleship. We thank you now for the love you will show to us, and how you will challenge us to be better disciples, better members of this one body of Christ.