The Cost of Family Love
December 29, 2002
During one of the worst snowstorms of the season a small business owner, who owned his own bakery, decided to close his store early. “I’m not going to get any customers tonight,” he thought, “in this kind of weather.” But just as he was ready to lock the door, a man came in, shivering and covered with snow.
“I’d like two sweet rolls” he said.
Now the owner was shocked that anyone would brave such bad weather for two sweet rolls. “Friend,” he said, “I don’t recognize your face. Are you new around here?”
“Yes” the man said. “I moved into the old Wagner place about two weeks ago.”
“Well, welcome,” said the bakery owner, handing him his sweet rolls.
“Are you married?”
“Of course I’m married,” said the man. “Do you think my mother would send me out on a night like this?”
Ah family! Who cares more for us? Who demands more from us? It is the people in our families who love us the most and also hurt us the most. This truth should not surprise us, because with a little reflection it is clear that love and hurt are connected.
C. S. Lewis in a famous essay on love says that if you want to protect your heart from pain, you must give it to no one. You must enter into no serious relationships, not even with an animal. If you can isolate yourself from all relationships, your heart will not feel pain. In time, however, it will become incapable of feeling anything. If we choose to withdraw ourselves from relationships, we also choose to isolate ourselves from love and from life. What C. S. Lewis makes clear is that in the movement by which we open ourselves to love is the same movement by which we open ourselves to pain. You can’t have one without the other. Both thrive in family.
Mary discovered this in today’s gospel, which we just heard on this feast of The Holy Family. She and Joseph bring the child Jesus to the temple and Simeon rejoices that he sees the Lord’s Messiah. He then says to Mary, “A sword will pierce your own soul.” Simeon is telling Mary, “This child will hurt you.” Why? Because Mary was a mother, and the same movement that opened her to a mother’s love, opened her to a mother’s pain.
Every deep relationship, every family relationship, has these two essential components: love and hurt. Although this is a sobering thought, it is also ways a freeing thought. It frees us from unrealistic expectations. If we think that we can love our parents, or our spouse, or our children, or anyone in our family and never be hurt, we are deluding ourselves. The only way we can save ourselves from hurt is to never love. Now I am not saying that we should accept abuse or destructive behavior in family life. We have every right and responsibility to decide against, to protect ourselves from, those who would continually manipulate us and harm us. God does not expect us to remain in relationships that would destroy us. But given that, if we somehow expect to love the people in our family without any hurt, we are kidding ourselves. Love and pain come together.
So then how do we live family? How do we make our way through these essential human relationships? Only with realistic generosity. Because we are all flawed, because hurt will come, we need to be realistically generous. We need to make allowances. Happiness in families depends upon our ability to overlook: to overlook some of the mistakes, to overlook some of the insensitivities, to overlook some of the hurt. It is only with this realistic generosity that we can move beyond the hurt and enjoy the real blessings of family life.
The word “family” comes from the Latin word famulus which means slave or servant. This word tells us that in successful families each member must assume an attitude of service toward the other. Each much be generous enough to move beyond the pain that can and will come. On this Feast of the Holy Family, the gospel says that those who live in family must have realistic generosity. We must reject the hurt that can destroy us, but we must be willing to accept the hurt that is an inescapable part of family life. No family—not even the Holy Family—can live without pain. Every happy family understands that, if we can be generous enough to push beyond the hurt, family remains the primary place to experience love and to celebrate life.
A Promise to Simeon and Us
December 28, 2014
Today’s gospel tells us that God made a specific promise to Simeon. The text reads: “And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he saw the Christ of the Lord.” But that’s all the text says. It is short on details. The text does not tell us how it was revealed to Simeon. Did he receive a vision? Did he hear it in a dream? Or was there a sudden, emphatic confidence in his gut? The text does not tell us when it was revealed to Simeon. Did he receive this promise a few months before he met the Holy Family in the temple? Or was this promise given to him decades earlier while he was still a teenager?
If we accept the latter possibility—and there is no reason why we should not—it means that Simeon waited his entire life for the promise to be fulfilled. That is a lifetime of getting up each day saying, “Maybe today is going to be the day,” and finding that it is not. That is so many occasions to doubt, “Did I hear it correctly? Did God really promise me? Has God changed his mind?” That is years of frustration, asking, “What’s the holdup? Why is this taking so long?”
Because Simeon waited his entire life for the promise, he is an example for us on how to wait. Simeon waited with faith and with patience. In faith, he continued to believe that what was said to him was true. In patience, he held on because he knew that God might choose to take time to deliver.
All of us wait for good things in our lives, things we desire, things that we need. God promises us in the same way he promised Simeon. God does not promise us within a time frame. God does not say, “You will find someone to love and marry by your next birthday. You will find a job by next week. Your granddaughter or grandson will quit abusing drugs by this summer.” God does not promise us with a timeline, but God promises us nevertheless. And God promises us at the highest level. God promises us fullness of life, eternal joy, and his constant presence. And Jesus is our guarantee that the promises are real. You see, what we celebrate this Christmas season is that God was serious enough about his promises that he became one of us. The gift of Jesus is the guarantee that God can be trusted.
But even with that guarantee, we must still wait, and that is why the example of Simeon’s faith and patience is important. In faith, we believe that what God has done is real, that Christ has come and that God has given us life. In patience, we hold on because we understand that God can take time. Even if the promise is delayed, it can still come. Even if the promise is not fulfilled immediately, it does not mean we are forgotten.
We stand then with Simeon in faith and patience. In faith believing that Christ has come and the promise has been made. In patience because we understand that although salvation is coming, it may not arrive today.
Simeon’s Bucket List
December 27, 2020
It’s become commonplace nowadays for people to put together a bucket list. This is a list of things that they wish to experience or accomplish before they die. Even people in their thirties and forties are putting together bucket lists. Each person is able to choose what will be on his or her list. One person might desire to travel to Europe. Another to learn how to play the piano. Someone else might decide that they want to read all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays. Whatever is on your list, the intent is to check off each item one by one as you are able to fulfill it.
In today’s gospel, Simeon has a bucket list, and there’s only one thing on it. He wants to see the Messiah of God before he dies. When Joseph and Mary bring the child Jesus to the temple, his wish is fulfilled. Simeon’s bucket list is instructive to us, because it includes two characteristics that are important. Simeon wishes big, and Simeon wishes selflessly.
Simeon is not afraid to think big. What he wants is nothing less than to see the Messiah of God with his own eyes. This is the desire that generation after generation wished for without success. People who were much more important than Simeon died without seeing God’s anointed. Moses, King David, and Isaiah all went to their graves without a glimpse. But Simeon was not afraid of size. He knew what he wanted, and he dared to ask God for it. The second characteristic of Simeon’s approach is selflessness. Simeon’s desire is not primarily for himself, but for the entire world. He knows that he will not live long enough to see Jesus teach, heal, and win our salvation. But he takes his joy in knowing that others will benefit from Jesus’s ministry and sacrifice.
So, when we look around our lives for what we want, it is important to remember Simeon and to wish for things that are big and selfless. Perhaps you might wish that someone in your family, a grandchild or sibling, might decide to commit themselves to a life of service. The service might be to the church or some international agency addressing world hunger or poverty. That’s not a choice that many young people make. But Simeon would say to us “Don’t be afraid to think big. Ask what you want from God. Then place your wish in God’s hands.” Perhaps we might wish for a country that was healed, a country in which Americans would once again trust one another, where Democrats and Republicans would work together for the common good. Simeon would say, “Well, that’s thinking big alright. But go for it. A lot of things would have to change before that could happen. But you might be able to see at least the first steps towards healing.” Maybe we would like to see a world-wide commitment to our environment, an international agreement to protect our air, our water, and our earth. Simeon would say, “That’s a work for many generations, but choose it. You might be able to see a beginning.”
As we put our bucket lists together, it is important to remember Simeon. We should wish big and selflessly and then place our list in God’s hands. If we’re lucky, we, like Simeon, might see the fulfillment of our desires. But even if we don’t, even if we die before God can give that gift to us, at least we will know that we wished for something significant that will benefit the entire world.