Because of the importance of Christmas, the Church extends the celebration of this solemnity to cover a period of eight days.
The Feast of the Holy Family is celebrated on the first Sunday after Christmas. It seems to be sandwiched between the greater feasts of Christmas and Epiphany – but it is much more than a simple filler.
When we read the gospel accounts of Christmas, it might seem surprising, but we are not given answers to normal questions that might be asked shortly after the birth of a baby. For example, we might ask how much did he weigh? What did he look like? Did he cry much? Did he feed well? Did he sleep well? How did he react to his odd visitors? Did he have a full head of hair? What colour were his eyes, etc.? We know none of these details. He was just a baby. We know how God prepared Mary and Joseph for the birth, but the central moment of Christmas eve is over in one sentence in St. Luke’s Gospel, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
On Christmas morning, like St. Luke, St. John hardly mentions the birth of the child, but he leaves us no doubt about what is going on. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… And the Word became flesh…”
The extraordinary power that enabled the whole universe is suddenly contained in a human baby. John starts with the big picture – the creative life of God. We believe that at Christmas God starts with the small picture. A child is something we can understand. A human baby is a symbol of life and hope. Each new human life is special, indeed unique and miraculous. God is always life-giving, and the birth of Jesus is God’s offer of new life. In Jesus, God offers us the chance to start a new life, as though we were born again as babies. We can be born into the family of God and learn from this family environment.
In Helena’s Epiphany meditation, author, Evelyn Waugh talks to the wise men as those who represent all of us who trust in human wisdom alone.
“How laboriously you came, taking sights and calculating, where the shepherds had run barefoot! How odd you looked on the road, attended by what outlandish liveries, laden with such preposterous gifts! …Yet you came, and were not turned away. You too found room before the manger. Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought with love. In that new order of charity that had just come to life, there was room for you, too. You were not lower in the eyes of the holy family than the ox or the ass. You are… patrons of all latecomers, of all who have a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.”
At the crib of Jesus all are welcome, and that is what the wise men tell us. Over the centuries, they have come increasingly to represent everybody. Jesus is not just the possession of people who already know him or of people who are already pure in heart. He draws around the crib, of his new kingdom, all kinds of people with all kinds of talents. Whatever our lives have been up until now, as we look at the baby lying in the straw we can see in him the loving activity of God. We are invited to know him, accept his gift of life, and finally, to tell his story.
The Feast of the Holy Family reminds to contemplate two different meaningful realities:
First of all, that no one is excluded from God’s closeness. Pope Francis in his Angelus Message said: “Joseph, Mary and Jesus experienced the tragic fate of refugees, which is marked by fear, uncertainty, and unease [cf Mt 2:13-15; 19-23]. Unfortunately, in our own time, millions of families can identify with this sad reality. Almost every day, television and papers carry news about refugees fleeing hunger, war, and other grave dangers, in search of security and a dignified life for themselves and their families.
In distant lands, even when they find work, refugees and immigrants do no always find a true welcome, respect and appreciation for the values they bring. Their legitimate expectations collide with complex situations and problems that at times appear insurmountable.
...The flight into Egypt caused by Herod’s threat shows us that God is present where man is in danger, where man is suffering, where he is fleeing, where he experiences rejection and abandonment; but God is also present where man dreams, where he hopes to return in freedom to his homeland and plans and chooses life for his family and dignity for himself and his loved ones.”
Secondly, our gaze must encompass the simplicity of life in Nazareth. Jesus grew up in the normal busyness of family life, and he was taught and counselled by both Mary and Joseph.
The family is the fundamental cell of society, where we learn to live with others despite our differences and to belong to one another. The family is where we learn how to talk, and listen to each other. It is where we first learn to support and heal, forgive and love. If we don’t learn to do this in family, it will be hard to do it among races and countries, in neighbourhoods, all of which include wildly distinct individuals. It is also the place where parents pass on the faith to their children.
Pope Francis continued in the Angelus Message to say, “Let us remember the three key words for living in peace and joy in the family: “may I,” “thank you,” and “sorry.”
When we explain that we do not want to be intrusive, we ask “may I?” When we are not selfish, but aware and grateful, we say “thank you.” When we make mistakes and apologize, we say “sorry,” then there is peace.
PRAYER TO THE HOLY FAMILY
Angelus Message, December 29, 2013
Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
In you we contemplate
the splendour of true love,
to you we turn with trust.
Holy Family of Nazareth,
grant that our families too
may be places of communion and prayer,
authentic schools of the Gospel
and small domestic Churches.
Holy Family of Nazareth,
may families never again
experience violence, rejection and division:
may all who have been hurt or scandalized
find ready comfort and healing.
Holy Family of Nazareth,
may the approaching Synod of Bishops
make us once more mindful
of the sacredness and inviolability of the family
and its beauty in God’s plan.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph, graciously hear our prayer.
☩ Frederick Henry
A recurring theme of the feasts, stories, and songs of Christmas is reconciliation - vertical and horizontal reconciliation. We experience being forgiven by God and others. We are also empowered to forgive others, ourselves, and even God. The alienated and the estranged are united. No one developed this theme more thoroughly than Charles Dickens, who turned every lonely, "Bah, humbug!" into a communitarian "God bless everyone, one and all."
"Who can be insensible to the outpourings of good feeling, and the honest interchange of affectionate attachment which abound at this season of the year. A Christmas family party! We know nothing in nature more delightful! There seems a magic in the very name of Christmas. Petty jealousies and discords are forgotten; social feelings are awakened, in bosoms to which they have long been strangers; father and son, or brother and sister, who have met and passed with averted gaze, or a look of cold recognition, for months before, proffer and return the cordial embrace, and bury their past animosities in their present happiness. Kindly hearts that have yearned toward each other but have been withheld by false notions of pride and self-dignity, are again reunited, and all is kindness and benevolence! Would that Christmas lasted the whole year through (as it ought) and that the prejudices and passions which deform our better nature were never called into action among those to whom they should ever be strangers" (Dickens, A Christmas Dinner).
For all the rhetorical overkill, Dickens is praising Christmas for overcoming what "deforms our better nature' and brings us together. Dickens does not explore exactly what the "magic in the very name of Christmas" is that performs this feat. But we know it starts with God's free initiative and gift - "Do not be afraid; for see - I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger." (Lk.2:10-12)
Dickens focussed on the family, but the Christmas call to relationship goes beyond family. Strangers are welcome, the poor are fed, every child has a toy. Political leaders plead for peace. In the Slavonic churches, at the end of Christmas Mass, the people kiss one another on both cheeks and say, "Christ is born." the response is "Truly he is born," and the kisses are repeated. This goes on until everyone in the church has been kissed by everyone else. This may take a little time, but there is no doubt in people's mind that this is the appropriate action to celebrate Christmas.
Life is a wonderful gift from God. At times, however, life can seem anything but wonderful. Like death and taxes, suffering is inevitable; it's simply part of the human condition. We fallen human beings hurt one another, and we hurt ourselves. Some more, some less, but we all do. It's for good reason that an ancient Catholic prayer, the Salve Regina, describes our journey through this world as through a "valley of tears."
Christmas calls us to add love to this tear-stained world, especially in those places where love seems most absent. We are to be the "light of the world" in the midst of its darkness. We all want this world to be a more loving place, but sometimes it's up to us to make it so. As St. John of the Cross taught, "Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love."
Such love involves forgiveness. The truth is, we all have someone to forgive: from the rude driver who cut us off in traffic to the spouse who abandoned us. There's the parent who neglected us or always put us down; the friends who vanished when we needed them most; the confidant we trusted who betrayed our secret; the boss who took credit for our idea; the bully who made our school years miserable; the stern religious leader who snapped at us when we were vulnerable; the contractor who took our money but never finished the job; the teacher who shamed us before our classmates; the back-stabbing coworker; the lover who used us; the gossiping neighbour; the lying or corrupt politician; the greedy business executive whose decisions impacted our livelihood or our environment; the ungrateful child who never calls; the racist or sexist bigot; the hypercritical mother-in-law; a violent criminal; a war-time enemy. . . . needless to say, this is only a suggestive and very incomplete list.
Without exception, we've all been hurt by others; without exception, Christmas faith invites us to forgive those who hurt us. For whatever they've done. For however many times they've done it. Even if they refuse to apologize or admit that they did anything wrong. Even if we'll never see them again, but especially if we will.
Forgiveness is a gesture of love we offer to God's glory, as a blessing to others, and for the sake of our own health, happiness, and holiness.
Forgiveness isn't deserved. It's a free gift; others don't have to earn it. Consider the words on a wall of Mother Teresa's Calcutta home for children:
"People are unreasonable, illogical, self-centred ... love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives ... do good anyway.
If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies ... be successful anyway.
The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow ... do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness will make you vulnerable ... be honest and frank anyway.
People love underdogs but follow only top dogs ... follow some underdog anyway.
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight ... build anyway.
People really need help but may attack you if you try to help ... help people anyway.
If you give the world the best you have, you may get kicked in the teeth ... but give the world the best you have ... Anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway!"
"God so loved the world that he gave his only Son." (Jn.3:16)
☩ Frederick Henry