The Holy Family
May our families be holy families, filled with faith, love, humility and forgiveness.
This week, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family. It is an occasion for us to pause and reflect: Is my family a holy family modelled upon the Holy Family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus? Do members of my family strengthen each other in faith like Mary, Joseph and Jesus? My dear friends, how is your family?
Our Christian families are the domestic church. For most of us growing in Christian families, it is where we first learn about our faith. But faith is not knowledge that we can learned. Rather, faith can only be gained through experience. Hence, while our families are the first place our children learn about their faith, it should ideally also be the first place our children experience and grow in their faith. But alas, many families, including many Christian families, are in strife today. More so than ever, as prophesised by Jesus, “five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Lk 12:52-53) As a result, as parents, while we may speak about the beliefs of our faith in our families, our Christian families is often not the place our children can experience genuine faith. How can our children experience God in our families when family members are fighting all the time? How can our children experience and grow in their faith if there is no love, mercy and forgiveness among our family members? So, what do we do? Many of us look for a solution like any commercial situation – we outsource the faith formation of our children. We outsource faith formation to our Christian schools, our catechists, our pastors and priests.
If my family members are fighting, my family is not modelling well to the Holy Family. If there is constant disharmony, my family is not serving as the domestic church as it should. Then we must ask, what is the source of the division that causes my family to be so spiritually distanced from God?
Some families are divided because of money. We live in a highly materialistic and commercialised society. We are told on a daily basis what we need to live a comfortable life – a bigger house, an expensive car, exotic holidays, luxurious restaurants, exclusive schools, not to mention daily necessities such as groceries. Consequently, the financial pressures on many families are significant – mortgages, school fees, holidays and other expenses – some of these are essential needs, but in honesty, many are aspirational needs. Today, husbands and wives are working longer hours to meet these financial demands, often at the expense of quality family time with each other and with their children. As a result, there is little communication between husband and wife, parents and children, and among siblings. There are few opportunities for family members to love, to forgive, to pray, to worship, and to cherish each other. Over time, we become intimate strangers living under the same roof. There is an old saying that says we sow what we reap. If we parents put our material interests beyond our spiritual well-being, our children will learn to do the same. Our examples – whether positive or negative – are a powerful teaching tool. Often, no amount of catechism and theology can undo what our children learn from what they witness.
Often, family money issues also involve the extended families. Materialism leads to a utilitarian mindset in us, where we expect a payback to our every exertion of efforts. In our extended families, a utilitarian mindset may lead to disagreements among siblings on providing for aging parents, where divisions ensue from each sibling compares with the other how much effort or money each has expended on the parents. When our parents are old or are suffering from ill health, they need our love and care more than ever. As the prophet Sirach teaches us in the First Reading, “My child, help your father in his old age, and do not grieve him as long as he lives; even if his mind fails, be patient with him; because you have all your faculties do not despise him. For kindness to a father will not be forgotten, and will be credited to you against your sins” (verse 12-14) Where there is a healthy inheritance in waiting, then a different set of issues can emerge. Prompted by greed rather than love, each sibling curry favours, or worse, manipulated the parents in order to secure a larger proportion of the inheritance. Someone once asked Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” (Lk 12:13). Jesus replied, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Lk 12:15)
Where extended family members enter into business deals, the strains of business relationships can also sour family relationships. What started as a soured relationship between two family members can easily extend to whole family, as other family members get caught up in the disagreement; and gossips and suspicion take hold.
Then of course there is our sins of anger, lust, pride, greed, gluttony, envy and sloth that overshadow the family. These sins manifest themselves in destructive behaviours that destroy family relationships. My dear brothers and sisters, we must understand that an act of sin is never an isolation incident. It has offspring. For example, my greed may cause me to undertake a selfish act that hurt another family member. Anger soon takes hold in that person and he/she retaliates. Then out of pride, I refuse to apologise but undertake more vengeful actions that deteriorate the relationship further. Soon, other family members were dragged into the dispute. Meanwhile, our children watch the adults fight among themselves and learn from our bad examples. They in turn bring these acts of anger, pride, greed and envy into their schools, playgrounds and into future relationships with their spouses and children. As St Paul pointedly observed, “A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough.” (Gal 5:9) A divided family hurts every family member, now and into the future. And this includes myself and those dearest to me.
The Feast of the Holy Family calls us to model our families on the Holy Family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus. On husband-wife relationship, St Paul offers us this advice in the Second Reading, “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.” (verse 18-19) On parent-children relationship, St Paul continues, “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart.” (verse 20) Furthermore, the First Reading has this to add, “Those who honour their father atone for sins, and those who respect their mother are like those who lay up treasure. Those who honour their father will have joy in their own children, and when they pray they will be heard. Those who respect their father will have long life, and those who honour their mother obey the Lord” (verse 3-6).
The Gospel this week gives an account of the Presentation of the Lord. According to Jewish custom, the mother of a new born boy is considered unclean. Hence, she presents herself at the temple to be purified when the newborn baby is 40 days old. But in truth, Mary and Joseph need not adhere to this Jewish custom. Why? The angel has declared to Mary that Jesus is “the Son of the Most High” (Lk 1:32). Why would one who is God Himself need to be presented to God? Mary too, was declared by the angel to be “full of grace” (Lk 1:28, Aramaic Bible)? How could one who is “full of grace” be uncleaned having just given birth to “the Son of the Most High”? The truth is, the Holy Family presented itself to God not because Jesus need to be presented to God or Mary is unclean. As mentioned earlier, whether positive or negative, examples are a powerful teaching tool. Through the Presentation, the Holy Family is offering us an example to model our own actions.
The birth of Jesus is a traumatic event for the Holy Family. First there was the uncertainty associated with Mary’s virgin birth, an event that threatened to break up the family as Joseph contemplated quietly divorcing Mary (Mt 1:19). After Joseph accepted the will of God and took in Mary, as the news of the unwed pregnancy spread, there would have been gossips and insinuations that May and Joseph had to bear. Then, Emperor Augustus called a census which required the heavily pregnant Mary to travel to Joseph ancestry home of Bethlehem (Lk 2:3). When the time came for Mary to give birth, there was no room in the inn for the family. (Lk 2:7) The fact is, the Holy Family is not unlike our families. There were constant stresses and challenges. But in spite of the difficulties, they never wavered in their faith. They presented themselves in the temple as required by their faith, even though in their very unique circumstances, this is strictly unnecessary. And let us not forget that in doing so, they expose themselves to certain danger, as the angel has told them that King Herod was looking to harm the child (Mt 2:13).
My dear brothers and sisters. Our families are a gift of God. Yes, it is sometime not easy, with the aforementioned financial challenges, human conflicts and sins overshadowing our families. In amongst these challenges, let us follow the example of the Holy Family, that we may never lose faith and always keep our gaze on the Lord. Only then, can our family be a truly holy family. As parents, let us lead by examples so that we may raise our children to be faithful Christians, with faith, love, humility and forgiveness. May God bless our families. Amen.