The Bible is full of families. It begins with a couple, and mentions three of their children: Cain, Abel and Seth. The story of the people of Israel begins with Abraham and Sarah and their children. Genesis is all family histories. The Gospel of St Matthew begins with Jesus’ family tree. The Gospel of St Luke begins with an elderly couple, Elizabeth and Zechariah, and their child John. The whole New Testament story begins with Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
The Bible is full of genealogies, family trees. There are some 25 in the Old Testament and two in the New. Three of the Ten Commandments have to do with marriage and family life: ‘Honour your father and mother; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife.’
What’s true in the Bible is true of our own experience. Our own lives are full of family. How often do you dream of family members? Each of us here is a son or a daughter. Many here husbands or wives, mothers or fathers. Most of us are brothers or sisters. Much as we sometimes wish we could, we can’t get away from it!
First of all, I suppose, this Feast and its first two readings encourage us to reflect, to examine our conscience. What kind of son or daughter, husband or wife, mother or father, brother or sister or cousin, have I been, am I now? Have I done all that ‘the law of the Lord requires’? We all have ground to make up here. We all have to keep the kettle on and the tea warm, as it were. One of the lessons of family life, certainly, is the long view: to wait for things to come right or be all they could be. But there is usually some step we can take here and now. This year this Feast falls on the last day of the year. Perhaps, there is a resolution about our family relationships we could make?
There’s a first thing. But more, I think, we’re encouraged to think about Christ. At this time of year, we are contemplating the Incarnation. The Word was made flesh. The Son of God became a son of man. Jesus is one of us, completely so, body, soul and spirit. He was born, he grew to maturity, he worked, he took on a mission. He shared our suffering and death. He entered into our lot, our fate. He took it on, not as a game, but really and truly, from the inside. He’s solidarity in person. And part of that was family. He took on family life. He had an immediate family: a mother, and a father who really was his father in every sense except the biological. He had a wider family too, as we know from elsewhere in the New Testament. In Nazareth, they would all have lived in a cluster of tiny houses, in a kind of compound within the village, Jesus, Mary and Joseph having at most two rooms to themselves. Jesus’ first thirty years would have been full of uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces, cousins and the rest. Coming to us, he came in a family. That’s where ‘he grew to maturity and was filled with wisdom’, God’s favour resting on him.
That’s good of him, we might say. Yes, but there’s more here. When we think of our own families, do we laugh or cry? There’s so much goodness in the family ‘thing’. It’s such a basic. To marry and have a family is inscribed in our genes. ‘Your wife like a fruitful vine / in the heart of your house; / your children like shoots of the olive, / around your table.’ It’s a blessing we all long for. A lovely thing. But then events can so cut across it: illnesses, bereavements, tragedies and things going wrong humanly, morally. No need to list them. And sometimes, the only way forward is out.
Our Lord took on family life not because it’s always lovely, but, as he took on our whole humanity: to right it from within in, to heal it, redeem it, inject it with saving grace, to turn the water into wine. Even Mary and Joseph were left puzzled and anguished at times. Even more his wider family who, at the beginning anyway, were set against him. And what he did in his earthly life, he does in his risen life: through the Sacrament of Matrimony, through the prompting of the Holy Spirit, he injects saving grace into marriage, into family life. Grace can undermine the difficulties, turn them into opportunities. So today, a second thing could be to remember this grace, realise our need, ask for God’s help. Invite him into the family circle. Stir up the gift. God gives us our baptism every day. We can say too: God gives me my marriage every day, God gives us our family every day. The Incarnation is now. Jesus, Mary and Joseph are now. I’ve mentioned before a dramatic Italian lady who, when war broke out in the kitchen, would fling out her arms and cry, ‘Veni, Santo Spirito!’ Family life needs a constant epiclesis. So, let’s remember grace.
From 21st to 26th August next year, there is a World Meeting of Families, in Dublin. Perhaps the Holy Father will attend. It’s a moment for strengthening family life, celebrating it, learning more about it. ‘Everybody is invited to attend, says the website, including single people, couples with or without children, extended families and clergy. Thousands of families and individuals from all over Ireland and the world are expected to attend. Some may come as a family, others might come on their own, others as part of an organisation. Adults, youth and children are all invited to take part.’ Ireland isn’t far away, and many will go from Scotland. There is a national ‘pilgrimage’ being organised.
We may not be able to go. We may not care to go. But there is something for all of us in gestures like this. It’s about families supporting one another. There are Catholic associations that cater for this: the Catenians in their way, Couples for Christ, Teams of our Lady etc. Again, this isn’t everyone’s way. But here’s one last word from the Feast of the Holy Family: hospitality. A hospitable family is a beautiful thing. Its doors are open and its grace spreads out. A bishop is often blessed to experience this. When the shepherds came to the stable, Joseph and Mary didn’t say, ‘Sorry we’re having supper’ or, ‘Not now please, she’s feeding the baby’. The Holy Family welcomed the Jewish shepherds and the Gentile philosophers. The Church was born. And Mary, Joseph and their Child now shelter us all and await us in the home of heaven.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 31 December 2017)