January 1, 2018
Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the Feast of the Holy Family (Year B) on December 31, 2017, at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. There are several options for the readings on this feast day. This homily is based on Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14; Colossians 3:12-21; and Luke 2:22-40.
The Church, in its great wisdom, has designated the Sunday after Christmas to be the Feast of the Holy Family. This is brilliant for two reasons. First, this is probably the weekend of the year when the most families attend church together. Second, we’ll be hearing readings that instruct family members how to interact with one another. So friends, if the family member sitting next to you tries to jab you with his or her elbow, be grateful that you ate as much as you did these past few days!
But let’s listen in a different way than we usually do: how about if the husbands pay attention to what the husbands are supposed to do, and the wives pay attention to what the wives are supposed to do, instead of vice versa?
[At Mass with a baptism:] Our gospel today is about when Mary and Joseph first brought the baby Jesus to the Temple, and how they were greeted by two people who witnessed the glory to be revealed through this child. What better passage could one choose for a baptism? [Begin initial baptismal rites.]
[At Masses without a baptism:] We are all one in the family of God. Let’s take a moment to celebrate God’s merciful love for each and every one of us.
Since the beginning of time, the experience of being human has been intertwined with the experience of being in a family. Humans are an interdependent species. Even people who no longer live in a family unit often find some sort of “home” with a small group of people – a study group, a book club, a religious community, a group of friends.
And for thousands of years, human beings have recognized the importance of having rituals and holidays. When we gather for special events – whether they be occasions of joy or of sorrow – we acknowledge that something has happened, is happening, or will be happening that has the potential to change us.
But when families gather for these occasions, the most memorable things, the parts we recall, often have little to do with the ritual itself. When my dad’s best friend got married in 1953, the story everyone tells is about seeing my dad, the best man, all dressed up, washing the car at the gas station on their way to the wedding. Regarding my baptism in 1980, my godmother always recalled me, at the age 6, asking after the deacon poured the water, “Is my head wet?” In the year 2000, on the night before my sister and brother-in-law’s wedding in Columbus, Ohio, I recall being in a motel room with a bunch of family friends as we brainstormed what to do about my parents leaving their wedding clothes back in Pittsburgh.
There are people today who scoff at rituals and traditions – why do the same thing, over and over again? Because it’s never the same. Rituals and traditions give us enough shared expectations that we can be present to one another – and present to God – in the most authentic ways.
When Mary and Joseph fulfilled the ancient tradition of presenting their first-born child in the Temple, they had no way of knowing what they would recall about that day. And they certainly weren’t expecting Anna and Simeon.
Anna was a prophetess, but perhaps most of the Temple officials thought she was a crazy homeless person. She was an 84-year-old widow with no one to care for her. She was from the tribe of Asher – the stretch of Israelite land farthest from Judah – and yet she was in the Jerusalem Temple, night and day.
Simeon is often depicted in religious art as an elderly man, but we know nothing about his age. Perhaps he was a young man when he received his revelation from God, and the joy of encountering the Messiah was combined with a sadness that his life could soon be at an end.
St. Joseph never says a word in the Bible, so it’s hard to know what he thought about what was going on. He certainly had gotten himself into a lot more than he bargained for when he betrothed Mary of Nazareth: now he was the step-father to God’s own son. The Jewish Law had no instructions on how to do that!
The angel Gabriel had told Mary that she was to be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and give birth to the Son of God the Most High, and that he would receive the throne of David. But as one Christmas song asks, what did Mary know? Did she know that her baby would one day walk on water, give sight to the blind, make the dumb speak, and save the world? Despite Mary’s sinlessness and despite some snarky Catholic internet memes to the contrary, Mary was human. Surely, raising God’s son was a lifetime filled with surprises at least as big as what happened in the Temple that day.
The point is: the Holy Family constantly faced the unexpected, even though Joseph was a saint, Mary was sinless, and Jesus was God. Families are continually rocked by the unexpected.
Pope Francis has repeatedly articulated that one of the biggest threats to the 21st-century Church is the challenges to the family unit. In 2014, he called an extraordinary synod, bringing together bishops and lay people from around the world to talk about the challenges facing families. This was to give the ordinary synod of 2015 a whole year of preparation, so it wasn’t just the usual month-long conference that most synods have been since Vatican II. One of Pope Francis’ major documents, Amoris Laetitia, is the main result of the synods of 2014 and 2015. In it, he chronicles the many challenges facing families today and encourages all of us within the Church to do all we can to assist families.
Every family has its challenges, but most families also have gifts and strengths. I’d like to challenge each of us: what can we do in 2018 to help strengthen families? There are already many ways to get involved at St. Austin, but I encourage each of you to pray about your individual gifts, and then contact the parish, and we’ll figure out a way to use your gifts to contribute to the flourishing of families in Central Texas.
This past week, I flew to Pennsylvania to participate in another family ritual. Alberta Yokimcus – the bride in that 1953 wedding, my godmother at that 1980 baptism, and one of my parents’ friends in the motel room at that 2000 wedding – died a few days before Christmas. It was my honor to preside at her funeral on Thursday; she was a woman of towering faith, and I am sure that she has led many people to the gates of heaven. Aunt Alberta is being buried at the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies, not far from where my parents are buried. Even in death, Alberta brought my family together, giving my sister and me a moment to stand at Mom and Dad’s grave… on the very day that would have been their 50th wedding anniversary. A moment of great sorrow became a moment of celebrating what had been and the glorious future now awaiting our deceased family members.
Jesus may be the light of the world, but we are each called to be light in the darkness, like Anna, Simeon, Joseph, Mary, and my beloved godmother. They seem so different from us – they apparently each received a distinct revelation from God – but are they really that different? They simply proclaimed God’s promises that had already been revealed in Scripture. This weekend at the 8:45 am Sunday Mass, we have five people who will re-enact the drama of the Presentation of the Lord: a husband and wife are bringing their child into the Church, and two godparents will attest to the promises God has already made to that child.
No matter our age, no matter our spiritual circumstances, no matter our family circumstances – we, like this child, have been baptized into the Body of Christ to be the light of the world, to assist one another on our spiritual journeys, and to proclaim God’s promises with joy.