Sir 3:2-6, 12-14 + Ps 128 + Col 3:12-21 + Matt 2:13-15, 19-23
Saint Francis of Assisi Parish, Castle Rock, CO
There is a couple in the last parish I served as pastor who have been married nearly 70 years. They sit together in the front pew on the right side, and there is always some traffic in front of them before Mass as musicians, sacristans, and servers pass back and forth from one end of the church to another. On occasion I do the same. This couple speaks no english, so whenever I pass, I always pause and nod or bow slightly to acknowledge them with a smile. This custom continued for more than ten years on my part, but about five years into it, the servers were assembled at the entrance. We were about to begin the entrance procession when one of them said to me: “Why are you always bowing to those people?” I said: “See that golden box over there with that red candle always burning?” They said, “Yes, the Tabernacle.” I said: “Why do you always genuflect or bow when you pass in front of it?” “Because the Body of Christ is present there. It’s where God is.” I looked at them and said, “Let me tell you something, after 68 years of Holy Marriage, sacrifice, and suffering, those two old people are just as holy as that Tabernacle, and they are the presence of Christ too. There is no red candle burning, but every time I see them, I am reminded that God is always present where there is love, and that God never leaves us. That’s why I bow. They are a Holy Sacrament too. Now, let’s get started.” So the procession began, and from then on every time one of the servers passed in front of that couple, they bowed, and the couple grinned and bowed back. The whole scene began to look like a coco clocks striking the hour!
When Syrach wrote his wise instructions two hundred years before Christ, “family” meant what we would today call a tribe or clan, and it was a large one. Children were all mixed together. Their relationship to the leader of the tribe was stronger than to their biological parent. Their identity came not from the biological parent but from the leader of the clan. By the time Paul wrote the Epistle from which we read today, things had changed in terms of family unit, and the “family” Paul thinks of is the family of the Church. He is addressing internal problems that arise when a one married person moved by faith presents themselves for Baptism. What happens to the spouse or the children? This is the context from which Paul writes the words we have heard today.
Our concept of “family” continues to change. It is certainly different from when Syrach shared his wisdom. It is certainly different from the time of Christ when probably 50% of women died in childbirth and only 50% of children survived to the age of five. Families then were not easily identified through biological relationships. They were created by a need to survive not often by love. Today statistics tell us that 50% of American households are “single parent families”. If that statistic is not enough, then the challenge raised for us by gay and lesbian people is reason enough to listen, think, and gather the wisdom of God’s word and prayerfully look again at what matters and what makes a family in our Christian tradition.
As a pastor, I can not begin to count how often I have sat to listen and comfort children after they have been told that Mom and Dad are no longer going to live together. Their fear is always that they are going to be left alone, or that they somehow caused the problem. To me this experience in itself confirms the church’s teaching that a family is a sign of God’s presence and commitment to us just as Eucharist is such a sign. Much more than the elements of Bread and Wine, Eucharist is Com-union which establishes and sustains the family of God, the Church. By its very nature the Church must be a sign of God’s presence, love, and commitment to this world. The wisdom we can collect from all of this is that there is a constant thread of commitment and fidelity made possible by compassion, kindness, patience, mercy, and forgiveness. With these tools every human relationship begins to reveal something of God and of God’s presence and action in this world.
The story in Matthew’s Gospel has nothing at all to do with a young family except to tell the story of how openness to God’s plan safeguarded a baby and liberated those three people from violent tyranny. It is however a story of liberation deliberately told in such a way that Moses and Jesus would share the common mission of liberation leading a people from slavery to the promised land. That experience of escaping violent tyranny and slavery continues today in the story of every refugee whose protection and liberation is still the mission of Christ in his Church. Opening our minds to a vision and experience of the Church as Family as Paul saw it may well be the best way to celebrate Holy Family Sunday. It will restore to us our sense of mission as Pope Francis continues to teach. It may also strengthen and nourish the relationships shared within the Church nurturing and strengthening them with the gifts of the Spirit, by compassion, kindness, patience, and forgiveness. Making this vision a reality was the mission of Jesus Christ who included everyone and turned no one away. Family is an idea that must be inclusive and never exclusive. Drawing people into the family is the work of Evangelization. This is the mission and the best image of our Church. Making our Church a family that welcomes the single person, those who have suffered the pain of a divorce, gay people, immigrants, lonely, hurt, and broken people is the what we are called to become in the spirit of renewal sweeping from Rome to the ends of the earth these days.
We pray today that God’s will for the human family may continue to be our mission, may become a reason for peace, and hope for a future when compassion, kindness, mercy, patience, and forgiveness are the way we respond to anyone who is alone, afraid to be alone, or without an experience of God’s Love.