HOLY FAMILY HOMILY YEAR B 2023
HERE’S HOPING FOR A BETTER YEAR IN 2024 IN A COMPLICATED WORLD
Lk 2.22-40 Ecc 3.2-6,12-14 Col 3.12-21
Speaking of family life, I was fortunate to be able to spend some time with some of my closest friends and their family last Tuesday, having had to miss their 50th anniversary celebration the Sunday week before, given that I was on duty here with Masses, 6 Baptisms and 2 interments of ashes in our memorial garden.
I’ve known Michael since grade 6 in 1963. He married Jan in December 1973, and they had 6 children, now with 7 grandchildren, growing up fast. They suffered a terrible tragedy with the loss of Elizabeth, their 5th child, at the age of 2, in 1985. Jan emailed me a moving reflection she presented, on their 50 years of marriage, with all of the challenges that come with the unpredictables of married life, the ups and downs and the twists and turns, as in life for all of us, and how they had endured as loving partners, supporting each other through it all, with a deep and firm faith dimension underpinning their commitment.
And now for the Feast of the Holy Family, which I always say is hardly the model to follow, given the reality of family life in the world in which we live. The portrayals of Joseph and Mary as ideal parents, and Jesus as the perfect child, in both literature and art, are all very well, with Joseph holding the child Jesus in one arm and a lily in the other, while Mary is often depicted in her medieval best attire. These images hardly reflect the scriptural portrayal, given the simplicity and poverty of the Nativity scene, and Luke’s description of there being no room at the inn, in the first place, arriving weary and isolated.
Yet the welcome does come from outside, the unexpected, with the shepherds as locals and the wise men from afar, so that Luke’s intentions are clear in providing emphasis on the universal nature of God’s revelation through the arrival of this child in a very human way. The message of the angels is symbolic too, of the call to humanity of peace and good will to all, through the presence of this child coming among us. If only this message was taken to heart and applied in the world in which we live and love and move. The faithful seniors get a mention here too, with Simeon and Anna (a bit of gender balance for Luke) welcoming the child Jesus in the Temple.
In family life, this feast always has me thinking about diversity, of personalities, interests and backgrounds. The common ground for us is the law of love, in all of its dimensions, while we acknowledge we do need more formal rules, regulations and structures, for an ordered society and so for our Church too. Then again, the fundamental principle is the good of the people, the common good, so that there are times when there is need for the external laws to be stretched or interpreted liberally.
I like to mention some of my old 1960’s comedy favourites, the Addams Family and the Munsters, where often enough, serious issues were raised in day-to-day family life, and the qualities of love, diversity and tolerance are to the fore, with the generations accepting each other for who they are, each with their own idiosyncrasies and characteristics, from Grandmama to Uncle Fester to Morticia and Gomez, to Pugsley and Wednesday, to Lurch and Cousin Itt, to Eddie to Herman and Lily to Grandpa. They might be different, with bizarre and amusing interests and habits, but the love is always there, and forgiveness and a welcome back, where things have gone wrong.
As for families, in all their complexity, there’s a need for tolerance, understanding and forgiveness, given the imperfections of all of us. Jesus warns of the fact that divisions and hostility is going to occur at times, not that he condones it, but that we need to contend with each other in a loving way.
And, having dealt with many good and sincere people where things have not worked out in marriage, I’ve been very happy to judge literally thousands of annulments affirmatively for over 37 years, helping them to get on with their lives in the church, often enough in a new relationship. There’s mothing sacred about a dysfunctional marriage, whatever the good intentions in the first place.
The images provided in today’s readings are in some ways dated, but give some basic principles from which to operate. Whilst it was a very different time, the fundamentals are expressed in the wisdom of Ecclesiasticus, of respect for parents, providing understanding and responsibility for good care in old age, with a reference to dementia as a possibility to be dealt with too. The circle of life goes on, with generations coming and going, facing up to mortality, and the responsibility of living a productive life meanwhile.
The second reading is one I often use at Baptisms, as it has Paul, a man of his time, giving practical advice to the Colossians, in terms of applying Christian principles to family life. No-one can question the importance of the virtues he outlines, with compassion kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, gratitude and forgiveness, reminiscent of the fruits of the Spirit he describes elsewhere in Ephesians.
Then again, I always raise a few questions about his understanding of women, where he tells wives to ‘give way’ to their husbands (I don’t think so!), a highly questionable and unacceptable directive, where we see marriage and partnership as a relationship of equals, with dialogue, compromise and effective communication being essential in any family scenario.
Similarly, it could be said of children growing up, that blind obedience is not so much the way to go, as for discussion and reasoning being given for directions given, with their welfare at heart. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions about reasons why.
And it’s good to remember Paul’s lack of experience with actually living family life with a partner and having children, makes him something of an armchair expert, so I tread carefully in these areas myself! It’s always easier to make pronouncements in theory, rather than in practice.
So, let’s get on happily with family life in all of its dimensions and complications.
It’s a Happy, healthy and safe New Year in 2024 to all.
john hannon 31st December 2023