Christmas and the Cross
December 28, 2003
Only two of the four Gospels tell us anything about the life of Jesus between the time of his birth and his baptism. Only the Gospels of Matthew and Luke describe his infancy and of his childhood. It is therefore, in these two Gospels that we find all the Christmas stories and all the descriptions of the Holy Family, whose feast we celebrate today. What is distinctive about these stories is that along with all the incidents of love and joy, there are clearly other incidents that involve trouble and pain. In these stories, we hear of a wicked king, who slaughters innocent children. We see Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt to protect the newly born child. We hear a prophecy which says that a sword of sorrow will pierce Mary’s heart. In today’s Gospel, we see the parents of Jesus in great anxiety, searching Jerusalem for three days to find their lost son.
What these stories are telling us is that wherever we have people, we will also have stress and difficulty. Wherever we have relationships, along with the love and joy, there will also be difficulty and pain. Wherever we have family, you can be sure that a cross of one kind or another will be close at hand.
The truth that we celebrate on Christmas is that God became human, that the Word became Flesh. In that truth, we recognize that Jesus, as He takes up our humanity, takes up our suffering and pain as well. The story of Christmas leads to the story of Easter. The birth that we celebrate at Christmas leads to the death that takes place on the cross. Therefore, although the poinsettias are still at the altar and your Christmas trees are still standing in your homes, it is not inappropriate for us today to reflect upon the reality of suffering, to reflect upon the mystery of the cross.
When we speak of the cross, it is important to remember that not all crosses are the same, because not all suffering is the same. There is redemptive suffering and then there is destructive suffering. Our ability to live the gospel depends upon us knowing the difference between the two.
As Christians, we believe that there is value in redemptive suffering. We believe that Jesus’ suffering on the cross led to our salvation. We also believe that there are kinds of human suffering that are also redemptive. They are redemptive if they lead to life. So the anxiety and stress that parents feel towards their children can be redemptive if that leads them to express love and to give guidance to their children. The misunderstanding and hurt that takes place in a marriage can be redemptive if it leads to reconciliation and recommitment. The pain and disturbance that flow from our failures in life can be redemptive if it allows us to learn and to live differently. Redemptive pain is real pain. It hurts. Yet because it leads to life, because it leads to growth, it has value. In speaking of redemptive suffering we are called to imitate Jesus, to take up our cross and follow him.
Christians believe in the value of redemptive suffering. We do not, however, believe that there is value to destructive suffering, for destructive suffering does not lead to life. Destructive suffering results from violence or abuse, from irresponsibility or addiction or injustice. The Gospel does not call us to accept destructive suffering, but rather to avoid it. Whenever suffering is destructive, we should escape it, reject it. Destructive suffering is not a cross which Christ is asking us to carry.
Redemptive suffering is a cross that we are called to take up.
Destructive suffering is a cross that we are called to refuse.
The suffering we find in the stories of Jesus’ birth is redemptive, because through the love and faith of Mary and Joseph it led to the maturation of Jesus and ultimately to our salvation. Accepting such suffering is part of the gospel. But whenever suffering is destructive, when it leads only to alienation and death, we should never believe that accepting such pain is doing God’s will.
Therefore, today, on this Feast of the Holy Family, let us pray for the faith to accept redemptive suffering, the courage to reject destructive suffering and the wisdom to know the difference.
Being a Holy Family
December 31, 2006
No family is perfect but every family is holy. We must appreciate both parts of this statement if we are to understand the meaning of today’s feast, The Feast of the Holy Family.
No family is perfect. Family life is often a challenge and sometimes a burden. This was even true of Jesus’ family. Look at the mess that they made on their family vacation to Jerusalem. Misunderstanding, harsh words, anxiety, characterized the trip. It is no different in our families. It does not take us long to become involved in hurt, misunderstanding, and stress. Our families are challenged by divorce, by heartbreak, by envy. Simply looking at the relationships in which we live reminds us that flaws are present. We often wish that things could be different. No family is perfect.
But every family is holy. This is the harder part of the sentence to appreciate, but it is true. Every family is holy because God dwells in every family. Where God is present, there is holiness. God calls us to live in family. Because of that call it is in family that we discover God’s will and that we encounter God’s presence. After communion today, I have asked Marianne Slattery, our Director of Religious Formation, to share with us some of her reflections upon family life. But as we proceed in this Eucharist to the table of the Lord, it is important to embrace both the imperfections and the holiness of our families and to realize that one does not negate the other.
No matter what kind of flaws we experience in our relationships of family, family is still the place where God dwells. It is in the interactions of the relationships of family that we experience God’s presence and we become the people that God calls us to be.
A Teenager in the Holy Family
December 30, 2012
Luke 2: 41 – 52
Today’s gospel is the only place in the New Testament where we see Jesus as a teenager. It should not surprise us, then, that in this passage we find the holy family in turmoil. Now, I am not picking on teenagers. Teenagers deserve our respect. It is hard being a teenager. So many things are changing. There are new expectations, new fears, new feelings, and oh so many hormones! Many of us here wish that we were younger, but few of us wish that we were fifteen. It is hard being a teenager, and that is why the teenagers in our community deserve our support and our love. Now having said that, living in a house with a teenager can be challenging—challenging for both parent and child. On both sides it is difficult to communicate. It is difficult to understand. On both sides emotions can explode and feelings can be hurt.
All of this is reflected in today’s gospel, as Mary and Joseph attempt to relate to their teenage son. There is poor communication. Mary and Joseph do not even know that Jesus was staying in Jerusalem. There is hurt and anxiety. Mary says to her son, “How could you have done this to us?” And, of course, there is the confident belief that it is never my fault. Jesus says, “Why were you looking for me. I was in my father’s house.” It’s not my problem.
We see in this passage something very important: the stresses in family life should not be considered sinful. How can they be? Jesus was the Son of God. Mary was born without sin. Yet they still misunderstood one another and ended up hurting one another. This Gospel is telling us it does us no good to tear ourselves apart because of family stress. Our failure to connect with one another is less a sin and more the price we pay for living with one another.
Having said that, all of us want to hurt one another less. How do we do that? Today’s first reading from the book of Sirach shows us a way. Sirach says that families need to relate to one another with honor and kindness. This is especially true when things become difficult. A number of years ago there was a television special about the Babemba tribe in South Africa. This tribe had a particular way of dealing with people who were out of order. When someone did something wrong or was antisocial, the tribe would place that member in the middle of the village and form a circle around him or her. Then one by one each member of the tribe would shout out something that was good about the person, some way in which the person brought honor to the tribe. Each person took their turn, and no one said anything negative or even referred to the negative behavior. This process would take several hours. But, when everyone had spoken their piece, they considered the person in the middle of the circle to be “corrected,” and they began a celebration. The African tribe was convinced that when someone is out of order, it is more useful to treat that person with honor and kindness than with anger and criticism. There must be some truth to this practice, because it is said that they needed to use this “correction” very seldom.
Now I do not know if we could take this ritual from Africa and apply it to twenty-first century America. But if we tried, it might look something like this. Your teenage son has been sitting in front of the computer screen for two hours. You’ve asked him four times to take out the garbage and as of yet there is no movement. Now you could go into his room and explode. Or you could go into his room and say this, “Dominic, here are a few things I know to be true about you. You are a good student. You work hard for your grades. You are a good athlete. Other people look up to you. You are a loyal friend, generous and caring. I remember last month when your friend Mary’s uncle died how you found the time to be with her and to support her. You bring honor to this family, and I am proud of you.” You could say that and then walk out.
Now, would this work? Is it practical? I am not sure. But I am sure of this. What holds a family together is love and respect. Therefore, we should not abandon those qualities when things become difficult. We cannot go far wrong by telling the other members of our family what is best about them. It is always good to speak to one another with honor and with kindness. And—if we are lucky—it might even move someone to take out the garbage.
A Place to Learn
December 27, 2015
A woman was sitting on her front porch when a young boy from the neighborhood came furiously riding down the sidewalk on his tricycle. He passed her house, went to the corner of the block, turned the corner and was out of sight. A few moments later, he turned the corner at the other end of the block and rode again past her house as fast as he could. This happened several times. Finally, as he was passing the house yet again, the woman called out, “Tommy, where are you riding to in such a rush?”
The boy answered, “I’m running away from home. My family hates me.”
“I see,” said the woman. “But, if you’re running away from home, why do you keep riding around the block?”
Turning the corner again, the boy called back, “My mother won’t let me cross the street by myself.”
Family: You can’t live with them, and you can’t live without them. And that’s just the way that it is. If I were to ask you who are the people you love most in life, the answer would often be family. If I were to ask you who has hurt you most in your life, family could also be the answer. The people in our family are the people who we care for and are proud of. They are also the people who worry us and disappoint us. It is clear that family is a mixed bag.
This is true of the holy family. Even though we tend to idealize Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—picturing them the way that they appear on holy cards—today’s gospel makes clear that they had their moments. In this visit to Jerusalem at Passover when Jesus remains behind, the holy family fails to communicate with one another, misunderstands and hurts one another. Mary says to Jesus, “Son, why have you done this to us?” And Jesus answers, “It’s not my problem. You should have known.” That’s rather typical of a family argument. But the important thing about this story is what happens after the argument. The text tells us that Jesus went down with them and came to Nazareth and remained obedient to them. In other words, Jesus learned something from living in his family. We easily imagine that Jesus learned from Joseph and Mary how to pray and love. But it is also true that Jesus learned how to bite his lip and forgive.
The same is true for us. We learn in our families how to love and serve others. We also learn how to adjust and to say we are sorry. So instead of setting up some idealized picture of family that makes us feel guilty every time we argue or hurt one another, it might be better to see family as a place to learn: a place to learn how to live. In family we learn what is easy and joyful. We also learn what is difficult and painful. All of this is what makes family important.
Last January, Pope Francis gave an address on the family. In that address, he said, “In family, sometimes the plates fly. But after the storm has passed, it is time to work things out.” So we should not be discouraged if the plates fly in our family. It is all part of the learning. We should just recommit ourselves to work things out.
Holding Our Whole Story
December 30, 2018
The important line in today’s gospel takes place towards the end where it says that Jesus’ mother “kept all of these things in her heart.” The things that the gospel has just reported to us comprise a very difficult and painful episode in the life of The Holy Family. For three days Joseph and Mary could not find their son. When they finally find him in the temple Mary says, “Son, your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” Great anxiety to be sure! We can only imagine what was going through Joseph’ and Mary’s minds as they looked for Jesus: Had he been kidnapped? Was he hurt—or worse? Finding him was certainly a relief, but the whole experience was a disaster, a frightening and painful ordeal.
So, why does the text tell us that Mary kept this painful episode in her heart? Would it not make more sense for Mary to simply forget that it happened and move on. This gospel says, no. Using the example of Mary, this gospel tells us that there is a value in remembering all the events of our lives, even the painful ones. Why is this the case? Because whatever happens to us becomes part of our story, and it is only when we can embrace our whole story that we understand who we are and how God is loving us.
All of us have parts of our lives that we wish could be different, that we wish could be changed. But when things happen to us, they become part of us, a part of our story. Then we must try to learn how to keep them in our heart. Alcoholics know this truth well. There are many parts of their lives that they wish could be different: people that they hurt or disappointed, harm that they caused to themselves and others. But recovering alcoholics understand that the way forward is to claim the past mistakes as they happened, because it is only by doing so that an alcoholic can remain sober and live life again.
Anyone who deals with an aging parent or spouse in the last part of life knows what a struggle that can be: worry, impatience, anger, dismay over the suffering of the person we love. When death comes, of course, it makes sense to focus on the good times, when health was robust and life was joyous. But this gospel tells us there is an advantage in remembering those dark days of struggle, because the presence and commitment that are displayed there have their own important things to say about love.
We all like to remember the good times. Today’s gospel asks us to remember the difficult days as well. Using the example of Mary, who kept all of the experiences of her life in her heart, this gospel calls us to see that it is better to accept our mistakes and limitations than to deny them. It is wise to own our painful days rather than forget them, because every day, good or bad, easy or difficult, is a part of our story. And it is only when we embrace our whole story that we realize who we are and that we come to see the unique way that God is loving us.