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.