St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302
I heard a presenter on radio over the weekend, insisting that they would not be playing any more Christmas music, for the simple reason that Christmas was over. And, for the secular world, Christmas was December 25th, with whatever level of celebration we could muster. But from a faith perspective, there are 12 Days of Christmas leading up to the feast of the Epiphany. Yesterday, we celebrated the death of the first martyr Stephen and tomorrow we remember the death of the Holy Innocents. So, today's Feast of the Holy Family is just one part of the rich tapestry of themes that underline how the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
Firstly, it would be dangerous merely to over-idealise the little family of Nazareth. If Jesus grew up in an ideal family, he would not have really taken on the human condition. Life in committed relationships is difficult. We know the Gospel story that tells of the incomprehension between Jesus and his parents when he is lost in the Temple. Thus, the core of this feast is not merely that we seek to model ourselves on the impossibly perfect family of Nazareth but that we accept that Jesus took on himself the model of our imperfect human family life. Simeon foretells that a sword will pierce Mary's heart just as her Son will be rejected. St Paul would later write that Jesus emptied himself, taking on the condition of a servant and becoming as we are (Cf. Phil 2:7). We all carry pain to different degrees because of the families in which we grew up. There are the huge areas of betrayal and loss or abuse and illness. There are the smaller scars that all of us carry because of situations badly handled, often leading to a lifetime of regrets. That is the human condition that Jesus takes upon himself. And that may well be why he had so much compassion for those who were excluded or marginalised.
But, secondly, the Christian message is not merely one of solidarity with us in our frailty. By his personal example, Jesus calls his followers to heroism, despite our circumstances. Just because life is difficult does not mean that we shrug our shoulders and lower our expectations. Jesus came to meet us where we were in order to bring us to somewhere else. He calls his disciples to heroic levels of generosity and trust. That involves belonging and accountability because it calls us to love. Our modern culture tends to say that we should not expect much from human beings and then we won't be disappointed. The philosophy is that, if I am only here for a short number of years, I should merely enjoy things and not think of anyone but myself. That leads to a widespread reluctance to take on open-ended commitments to another person who might limit my satisfaction, if and when someone else takes my fancy. A social structure based on often passing feelings and short-term benefits is guaranteed to fail. It is true that a strict society can be harsh and cold for many people. But a society where 'man', 'woman' and 'marriage' mean only whatever I might want them to mean, when I become the infallible centre of a self-defining universe, then we damage the bonds and blessings that come from belonging. The Word made flesh challenges us not to be afraid of belonging. The greatest joy in life comes not from having fun but from being loved. A self-centred society is a lonely one. A society without a call to generosity and heroism is a sad one. Jesus took on our human nature that we might share in his divinity. The Feast of the Holy Family invites us to believe that we are all called to greatness and holiness, wherever we are in life – married, separated, single, parents or without children.
Thirdly, our second reading talks of Abraham and Sarah as the founders of the Jewish race and ultimately as parents of the New Israel, the Church. They are described as people who had to walk in faith, unsure where God's call and promise were going to lead them. Pope Francis has invited us to make this a year for reflection on a comparable figure, St Joseph. Over the last century, much has changed in regard to the position of fathers in families. We have moved from a patriarchal emphasis to a place where many fathers question their identity, responsibility and value. Pope Francis is not seeking to bring us back to anything of that past that was marred by sin. But he invites us to be enriched by the role of St Joseph whom the Pope describes as 'a beloved, tender obedient father' who welcomed the will of God. Joseph was a creatively courageous father, an example of love. He teaches the value, dignity and joy of work. Finally, Pope Francis speaks about Joseph's fatherhood of Jesus as 'the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father'. The Feast of the Holy Family is a call to go beyond gender wars and ideological victimhood to a rich understanding of human complementarity. Pope Francis calls us to journey with Jesus, Mary and Joseph, uncovering the depths of our humanity that is revealed in the family of Nazareth that we celebrate today.
We journey on, through the 12 days of Christmas, into the mystery of Emmanuel, God with us in the very mixed bag that all our family circles are. God walks with us, calling us out from the places where we hide, into his own wonderful light. God calls us to leave behind ideological battles and focus on what enriches our eternal salvation, human life and society – for these three are intimately linked. God calls us to believe that we can move beyond the scars that we bear and that we have inflicted, trusting that mercy and forgiveness alone can help the lame to walk, and the blind to see that there is a future and not just a past. Like Jesus in the Temple, we have all been consecrated to the God in Baptism. That is a call to become holy in our day and our way. Following in Jesus' footsteps, we too can grow to maturity, filled with divine wisdom. And we gather here in Church for Mass, under the Fatherhood of God, with Jesus our brother and saviour, and in the power of the Spirit. Here the Liturgy calls us the family that God has summoned here before him. And as that family we move forward, trusting in the God who leads us. No, Christmas is not over, for it is a central part of our ongoing faith journey. Let us not be embarrassed to celebrate its rich message in the days that lie ahead.