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Homily - Marking 40 years of the Church of the Holy Family Parish - Bishop McKeown


This is the 7th day of Christmas, which means that there are still five more to go. The 12 days of Christmas song refers to seven swans a-swimming as the gift that my true love gave to me on this day. We can treat this as a silly song that we sing at this time of the year. But historians believe that each day - and its number - was actually a code for core teachings of the church. The partridge on a pear tree was Jesus on the cross. The three in French hens referred to the Trinity. And the seven swans a-swimming were the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Similarly, it is easy to treat the Christmas story as a nice little event for children. They can dress up for a Christmas play and parents love it when the innkeeper feels sorry for Mary and Joseph, forgets his lines – and tells them that he does have a room where they can sleep! But all the characters in the Christmas story are adults, trying to make sense of strange events that burst into their lives. Mary and Joseph at the crib may seem sweet and prayerful. But they are a couple, far from home and dealing with a newborn baby – and wondering what is happening to them, as normal people in the town ignore them. And they would like to rest. But the shepherds arrive with a crazy story about a message that they got. Later on, the visitors from the East would arrive with a story about a star. The little family is recognised in the temple, not by the religious authorities but by unimportant Simeon and Anna. For the characters in the Bethlehem – except the sheep and the cattle - life is difficult. But that is precisely where God is revealed.

We get fed a message from our culture that life should not be difficult. If something goes wrong, either a solution should be found in the shops - or somebody is to blame. I shouldn't have to put up with difficulties or pain. Life is about having fun; it is all about me because I am worth it – and my plans ought to work out. But then we end up spending out lives complaining about the things that have gone wrong. The characters in the Holy Family knew that life is difficult. If we are able to accept this as our starting point, then we do less complaining about difficulties and ask where God is at work in the middle of the mess that life often turns out to be.

This church is celebrating 40 years since it was built. Those were difficult years in Derry. In the early 70s, houses for the nationalist community were being built in Shantallow, Carnhill and Galliagh. That meant three new churches. Then, as we moved into the 80s, more were being added on this side of the Buncrana Road and the Cathedral parish was divided, in order to provide a place to worship for the new populations. But the Troubles were in full swing. Death, injuries, imprisonment were features of daily life. And the intercession of the Holy Family was associated with this building. For like Mary and Joseph, people knew that family life was tough. At a time when people were often under threat of violence or death, they remembered that the Holy Family had to flee when Herod set out to kill the Child Jesus. This church got its name, not because there is some ideal model of family life that everybody should have. Rather, the title of the Holy Family reflected the reality that life is messy and complicated. But people of faith know that God is in the middle of the mess – just as God was present from Bethlehem to Calvary, at work even when people assumed that God was completely absent.Jesus met people where they were, not just where the Pharisees insisted that they should be.

Everyone starts off with big dreams about how their life should work out. But many relationships are scarred by drugs, alcohol, violence and illness. Some young people do not have the best role models for how people can be great. On the one hand Jesus meets us where we are. On the other hand, he loves us to too much to leave us where we are. Thus, whatever the circumstances of our lives, no matter how much we have had to cope with failure and disappointment, we are still called to be saints wherever we find ourselves. In our second reading, St Paul talked about putting on sincere compassion, kindness and humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with one another; forgive each other as soon as a quarrel begins. The Lord has forgiven you; now you must do the same.

That is not easy but is possible. We are made for greatness, not for low expectations.

The Vatican recently brought out a document about blessings – and on not confusing the sacred marriage of a man and woman with other relationships. But, to me, the core message of the document was that Christ wants us to start where we are and to move towards a situation where we can become more like what he wants us to be. And everyone who wishes the have the grace of God in their lives has the right to prayerful accompaniment on the journey. For all sorts of reasons – often not of their own making – people find themselves in irregular relationships. Prayer is not a statement that anything goes – but a commitment from Christ and his people that he will walk with us, whatever our starting point. He called forward the awkward leper whom everyone else wanted to keep hidden, he called down Zacchaeus from the tree where he was hiding, he spent time with the Samaritan woman. Those on the edges are those who most need to know divine mercy and not human scorn.

This church was built 40 years ago to enable the community to meet Christ and to journey with one another, it has seen happy times and many sad occasions. This anniversary is a call, not merely to make the church attractive but to reach out to the community, saying not just that the building is warm, but that Jesus is welcoming. Give thanks for all who worked here in this parish. Work afresh because so many people need to hear Good News. Model healthy life-giving, grace-filled relationships, be a community that listens to one another and to Christ. As St Paul writes Let the message of Christ, in all its richness, find a home with you. Teach each other, and advise each other, in all wisdom. That is how parish families are built up – and how we look forward to a thriving parish here for the 50th anniversary in 2033.

+ Donal McKeown

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