In today’s account, Luke presents the faithfulness of Mary and Joseph. They followed the prescripts of the law by bringing Jesus to the Temple to have him consecrated to the Lord. We read of the prophecy of Simeon that Jesus is the promised hope of Israel and the light to the Gentiles, and also that he will lead to, “the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted – and you yourself a sword will pierce – so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Lk 2:34-35). The prophetess Anna gives thanks to God and shares how the long-awaited redemption of Israel has come with the presence of this child. The scene closes with Joseph, Mary, and Jesus heading back home.
Mary and Joseph have had a lot to take in, from being told about Jesus’ miraculous birth to having to relocate for the census, the coming of the shepherds and the magi from the East and now Simeon’s and Anna’s prophecy. Though they did not fully comprehend the fullness of all they were presented with, what the Holy Family, whose feast we celebrate today, model for us is that they are open to the process of God’s leading. They ultimately placed their trust in and remained faithful to following God’s will.
We are invited to do the same. The family is called to be the domestic Church. It is the place where we learn our faith, where we learn about God, learn to pray, to worship, to serve, to trust in God, and to learn how to be in relationship God and one another. This is especially true in our fallen world. We romanticize the early life of the Holy Family at our own peril. In the midst of the joy of new birth, and a birth that will bring about the redemption of Israel, there is the gift of myrrh, an oil used to anoint the bodies of the dead, and there are Simeon’s haunting words to Mary, “and you yourself a sword will pierce” (Lk 2:35). In the midst of the words of wonder about this child being the prince of peace is the reality that he will die a brutal death.
The reason we hold up the Holy Family as a model is not just Mary’s willingness to bear Jesus and Joseph’s willingness to protect and provide for his their care. They were willing to continue to follow the will of God no matter what challenge arose before them and they stuck together and supported one another.
There are no guarantees for families in this life other than that there will be conflict and growing pains. Any true relationships that are authentic will come to crossroads which will demand a choice. One or both individuals can either not face the conflict, in which case the relationship will weaken or they can work together to resolve the conflict and grow stronger together. What will also help in our familial relationships is an understanding of the love that God calls each of us to embrace which is unconditional love. What is important to realize is that unconditional love is more than mere sentimentality or emotion. This love is what St. Thomas Aquinas defines as “willing the good of the other as other.”
This understanding of unconditional love allows us to be authentic to ourselves and who we are in the richness of our diversity while respecting the other to do the same. That means we will see life differently and we will disagree even quite emotionally and passionately. While doing so, we also need to commit to respecting one another and have the presence of mind to listen to each other’s perspective and point of view and bring God into the conversation so we can be influenced beyond our own limited view. Then when all is said and done, with love and respect , and hopefully in our openness to God working through us, we will have learned a bit more because our limited view points have been expanded.
There is this wonderful scene from the 1989 film “Lean on Me.” Morgan Freeman plays a principal that is brought in to save a failing school in New Jersey by Robert Guillaume who plays the school superintendent. Both of the characters have the same goal of seeing this school succeed. Then one meeting comes about because of some of the principal’s questionable practices. For a couple of minutes they engage in a heated, emotionally charged argument. When it ends, the principal matter of factly asks, “Do you want to get some lunch.”
That is an expression of the beauty of love. Each are fully transparent and honest with one another, both have the same goal yet vehemently disagree on some of the ways this principal is going at bringing about change. The bottom line is that they are friends and dedicated to their school and one another. They passionately disagree about particular points while at the same time hear each other and work through their conflict together.
There has been a lot going on in the world, our own country, as well as our own personal lives. We have been pulled and stretched in so many directions over the last few years. To say many of us are anxious, stressed, and/or worn out is an understatement. What helped Mary and Joseph face the challenges they had can help us as well. We will grow together and remain united by resisting the urge to curve in upon ourselves and be willing to face our challenges together with God.
Let us follow the lead of the Holy Family this Christmas Season by sharing with one other the gifts of understanding, patience, presence, kindness, respect, caring, and love. We will be most effective when we are committed to God and one another first and foremost. Instead of fearing the wonderful gift of diversity, we can embrace it in all its messiness and chaos. When we are committed to listening to one another even when speaking passionately, instead of shouting past each other, then when the emotions subside the respect and care for each other will remain.
What can help each of us from slipping into a defensive posture and instead remain more open and willing to grow in relationships beyond the limitations of our biases and prejudices is to spend some time each day breathing slowly and meditating about who this season is all about.
Close your eyes and imagine yourself coming upon Joseph and Mary as they leave the Temple. You see cradled in the crook of Mary’s arms the infant Jesus. Smell the dust in the air from people walking by. As a few more people pass by their speech begins to fade. All about you becomes still. Recall the wonder of this moment that the Son of God came into the midst of our chaos in such a humble and vulnerable way. Your eyes are then drawn to Mary.
Mary invites you with a welcoming smile. Imagine yourself stepping closer and reaching out your hand to Jesus and watch as he reaches out to you. Feel the gentle grasp of his tiny fingers as they wrap around your finger. Allow your breath to slow as you feel his grace, love, and peace fill your whole being. Then raise your head ever so slightly and allow your eyes to be drawn deep into his tiny dark eyes. In that gaze, see the face of God looking back with the assurance that you are not alone, you are not defined by your worst mistakes, you are loved more than you can mess up, and more than you can ever imagine. Rest in the closeness of his unconditional love for you, just as you are with all your imperfections. Also allow yourself to experience the fullness of who God is calling you to be.
As your time of intimate stillness comes to a close, embrace the gift that each person you will meet from now on will be like this encounter with the infant Jesus. For in each person we encounter, we encounter Jesus. We will see each other as God sees us as the beloved children of his family. When this becomes our starting point of encounter, we will relate to each other a little better and grow in love from there.
Painting: Kissing the Face of God by Liz Lemon Swindle