On listening to today’s Gospel and the comings and goings of the Holy Family from Nazareth to Bethlehem, from Israel to Egypt and back again, it’s almost as if you can hear the strains of “the Grand Old Duke of York” in the background!
Poor Joseph! He is planning a simple, straightforward life with Mary as his wife, when the message of an angel to Mary leaves her pregnant and Joseph incredulous. Then another angel tells him still to take her as his wife, mother of the Messiah as she now was. Then it is the Emperor Augustus who disturbs Joseph’s peace, and the Holy Family have to go to Bethlehem. Bad enough as it is for his wife to give birth in a stable, no sooner is the child born than a bunch of shepherds turn up sent by … a chorus of angels! They are soon followed by three kings guided by a star. Short on the back of that intrusion, yet another angel has Joseph take his family to Egypt to protect the life of the child. Another one sends him back to Israel and, finally, another points him to Nazareth.
Given all this, you or I might be inclined to think that Joseph was a weak-minded and weak-willed sort of man, letting himself be bossed around. Why did he not dismiss his dreams and do his own thing? The same with Mary. She did not have to let her life be ruled by someone else.
We are not, of course, in the presence of weak-minded or weak-willed people in Mary and Joseph. Mary was not shy about questioning Gabriel. Joseph had resolutely made up his mind freely to divorce Mary. The fact is that God prefers to work with the strong-minded and strong-willed. There is not a lot he can do with people who won’t think for themselves or come to firm decisions. But, when the human mind and will, which are strong, combine and marry with the mind and will of God, anything is possible. Obedience is not the renunciation of thinking or of freedom, but their fulfilment. The freedom of God incarnates itself in the freedom of the person who obeys God. Our freedom takes on divine proportions, our mind is invested with the truth of God. Look at what the obedience of Mary and Joseph allowed! The salvation of the world!
The Holy Family’s life was grounded on and guided by obedience to the Lord. If you look through all the readings in today’s Mass, they make repeated reference to true and blessed family life depending on what pleases the Lord, on the fear of the Lord, on obedience to the Lord, in the name of the Lord. Now you might say that it was all very well for Mary and Joseph: they got angels to tell them what the Lord wanted. What do we have? I will answer that we have exactly the same as they did. For what did the angels tell Mary and Joseph if not the word of the Lord? And what is it that we hear every Sunday and can read at any moment of the day if not the word of the Lord?
You might still object: yes, but the bible isn’t exactly a guide to family life, an A-Z of how to live it as God wants. While it is true that it’s not a systematic layout of do’s and don’ts, a little effort is all that is needed to read and apply the Word to your life. Speaking of do’s and don’ts, let me take as an example the classic text of do’s and don’ts from the bible and apply it to family life. I refer to the Ten Commandments. They can be applied to your personal life and to the life of society, so they can also speak volumes about family life.
Let me divide the ten into three groups: 1-2-3; 4-5-6; 7-8-9-10. I will start with 4-5-6 because these three speak more directly to marriage and family. Before I start, though, remember that I am not speaking here about individual cases, exceptions or personal circumstances. I am speaking in general terms about the principles and truths which the Word of God gives us to direct our steps. There will always be situations which cannot simply be described or solved in terms of a general principle. However, that does not mean that general principles are impossible. Otherwise, we would each live in our own exceptions, something that would give rise to moral and social chaos and make any statement of the truth laughable. The old adage still holds: the exception proves the rule. It does not delegitimize it but needs it, otherwise the exception would not be the exception but the rule!
Let’s begin, then, with 4-5-6, but in reverse order.
The sixth commandment, “thou shalt not commit adultery” is not the biblical justification for what some call the “Catholic obsession with sex.” That’s nonsense. What the commandment does is draw a line, set a limit, put up a stop sign. Within that limit it points implicitly to a vast array of positive and lifegiving truths proper to marriage. The foundation of them all is fidelity. Fidelity does not just refer to conjugal relations, but to the deeper foundation of those relations which is the exclusive surrender of heart and soul by each spouse to the other. Fidelity points to that unique and precious bond of the whole being of each spouse to the other. Fidelity creates an exclusive spiritual and physical space which becomes the foundation of the family, a secure and impenetrable wall of fire which gives warmth and light to those who witness it from outside and is a “benign furnace” of tender and exclusive love for those within it. Fidelity creates an exclusive corridor of time stretching forward to the point when “death doth us part”, although only until such times as the death of the one left behind reunites eternally what was parted for a time.
The sixth commandment, understood positively, leads inevitably to the fifth: “thou shalt not kill.” Once again, the negative is the outside limit of a huge positive. The prohibition on abortion and on euthanasia, and on any other murder of the innocent, is in fact a magnificent yes to life, to all life, from the moment of conception to natural death. It is the commandment to stretch open wide the arms of our hearts to welcome and cherish and nurture whatever life God will give to the married. And once that life is given, no matter how tiny or titanic, no matter how fragile or strong, no matter how sick or sane: it is welcomed and loved.
Having children naturally leads to the fourth commandment, “honour your father and your mother.” To honour means to respect the authority of your parents, and by extension all other legitimate authority. Although the commandment does not say “love your mother and father”, it would be wrong to think this was not implied. As in the other commandments, honour is intended as the minimum to be shown to parents. If we are commanded to love our neighbour, the first among them will be our parents and family members. Sometimes, of course, family situations complicate life. Parents are told by St. Paul in the second reading today not to drive their children to resentment or they will make them feel frustrated. Elsewhere the Apostle explains more positively that parents must correct and guide their children. Frustration is caused by the lack of correction and guidance. A parent who does not discipline a child will receive no thanks from that child. To correct and guide is to discipline and to love. Children are nevertheless admonished by the commandment, even if they do not get that exercise of loving authority from their parents, to still honour them. If nothing else, their parents have given them life.
The fourth commandment also implies the correct attitude in inter-generational relations: to grandparents and great grandparents and even to the generation not yet born.
Yet even if commandments 4-5-6 are observed, their foundation is not in themselves but in commandments 1-2-3. The reason why there must be respect for authority, life and fidelity is because all these things come ultimately from God.
“Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” First things first. If we do not get right our relationship with God, the rest will fail. God alone is God. Not our parents nor our children and even less any other person, thing, ideology or homeland. To deny God first place, not just in theory but in the throes of life, is to deny who we ourselves are. Jesus tells us that without him we can do nothing. In fact, without him we are nothing, we are nobodies. That will jar with our sense of self-respect, but only if that sense is itself exaggerated. A family must ask itself, and the parents foremost, whether it reveres God or resents him. And that question cannot be answered in the abstract. A good and hard look at the way the family is actually living its life, deciding its priorities and making its choices will reveal whether our claimed reverence for God is actually true or not.
The second commandment, “thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”, is a good test of whether we live the first commandment. If we are careless and heedless in using the name of “God”, “Jesus”, “Christ” and even the names of Our Lady and the saints in ways that are uncouth and irreverent, it means that our real attitude towards the Sacred is off-centre. If someone who says they loved you and honoured you were then to take your name and use it to curse or swear, how would you feel? What would it reveal to you about their alleged love? Similarly, to swear oaths unthinkingly in the name of God is to invoke his truth and his power in an unthinking fashion. As Jesus says elsewhere, if you mean yes, say yes; if you mean no, say no. There is no need to call heaven to witness to the truthfulness of your word if you are speaking the truth. Even less so, if you knowingly lie. God has given us the gift of speech to praise and adore, to speak words of love and truth, to encourage, to admonish, to correct. What comes out of them should not be material for the sewer. A family atmosphere can be polluted by careless swearing. Whatever anger or annoyance is being expressed in cursing needs to find other outlets worthy of human dignity and family life, and worthy of God.
The third commandment, too, is the test of our genuine honour for God: “keep holy the sabbath day.” For Christians, the sabbath is now Sunday. Keep Sunday holy. Why? Because Sunday is the day of Resurrection. It is the day on which our faith is founded. It is the day which gives us the hope of passing through death to eternal life. It is the day which culminates the work of salvation which the love of the Trinity in Jesus has obtained for us. It is the day of the new creation, the beginning of the end of not just sin and death but also of the decay of the universe set in motion by sin. The Mass gathers all these truths and more together in a simple ritual of sacrament and sign. To celebrate Sunday is to remember and to give thanks to Christ for all he has done, is doing and will do for us. The early Christian martyrs were killed because they went to Mass in defiance of the Emperor’s prohibition because, they said, “without Sunday we cannot live.”
I have had occasion to ask children if they go to Mass every Sunday. Many respond, “sometimes.” When I ask why not all the time, a common answer is, “we are busy on Sundays.” When I ask what that means, I am told, “we have to go shopping; I have to go to the football; we were watching catch-up TV …” I invariably experience a great and deep sadness when I hear this. It is either the result of ignorance, because no-one has actually explained to parents what Sunday means; or it is the result of indifference, which is not only tragic but is ungrateful and can potentially lead to consequences I dare not think about. As in so many other things, it is the children who will suffer from this apathy. I can only pray that the Lord will understand that minds and hearts have been poisoned by the prevailing climate of self-absorption. I think of the parable of the sower in which seed falls on the path and which the birds of the air, the devil, come and steal away. It’s as if people are saying today the opposite of what the martyrs of old said. “Sunday? We can only live with that as long as we don’t have to go to Mass.” Hopefully, no-one thinks this way, but if a Christian family’s week does not revolve around Sunday worship it is in serious danger of corroding its own foundations. The Word of God and the Sacrament of the Eucharist allow the Creator and Redeemer God to instil his strength and power into family life. Like the Holy Family, obedience to the Sunday precept will give the insight of God to a family’s mind and the liberty of God to its freedom.
To observe 4-5-6 is good, but to observe them under 1-2-3 is supremely better.
Very quickly, commandments 7-10 teach a family how to live and how not to live in its daily dealings. “Thou shalt not steal”: respect one another’s legitimate property and rejoice at what others have. Encourage them to use it well, for the glory of God and the good of neighbour. “Thou shalt not lie”: speak the truth to one another at home. Lies come from the Evil One, who is their father. But God is our Father and he speaks only the truth. The father of a family should be the first to speak the truth, encourage honesty, abjure deceitfulness of any kind in himself or in his family. Far better to suffer for speaking the truth than to experience that morose kind of self-flattery that comes from lying and making you think you are superior to those you deceive just because you deceive them. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s goods” and “Thou shalt not covet they neighbour’s wife” are two commandments which enjoin on us to avoid jealousy and greed. Whether it be another’s property or relationships, the correct attitude is to rejoice in God’s gifts to the other and not to turn black as thunder with self-pity and rage.
We hear a lot today about ecology and the protection of the environment. It is of course very important that we engage with these things. We are told how everything is interlinked in the environment and so we must each in our own way help to heal the imbalance and disorder caused by the “human footprint.”
Well, in the same way, we must promote and protect the moral and spiritual environment, the moral and spiritual ecology. Chances are that, if we break one commandment, we will end up breaking them all. Indeed, perhaps if we spend more time and money on promoting the Ten Commandments in humanity, the environment would as a result begin to heal (less greed, less injustice, less power and money grabbing, etc.).
The Holy Family is also the holistic Family. Every Cat-hol[ist]ic Family will find its way to the holiness of God and to its own fulfilment by obeying the commandments of God. No angels, visitations or dreams are required, just strong minds and strong wills ready to cooperate with the loving plan of the living God.
So, I wish you happy families and holy families and I ask you to pray for me, a Catholic celibate man with no family of his own, that I, too, may live the Ten Commandments in a way that will bring me to wholeness, holiness and grace.