Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14; Psalm 128; Colossians 3:12-21; Luke 2:22-40
Today we celebrate the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—the model family for Christian families. Admittedly, they’re a tough act to follow. None of us were immaculately conceived or conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin. However, they are the ideal not because their origination, but because of their example of obedience and holiness.
Our readings center on relationships in the family and the centrality of family in the formation of character. Sirach confirms the authority of father and mother but particularly emphasizes the father’s role as the source of authority in the family, as role modeled on our Heavenly Father. Sirach is one of the seven books in the Catholic bible that are not included in the Hebrew Tanakh or the Protestant Old Testament, which is a shame because it’s a tremendous source of wisdom.
St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians highlights the need to act with compassion, kindness, and patience with everyone in our faith community, but he sets particular emphasis on the relationships within the family. Many people don’t care for the language of submission that Paul uses here, but no one is getting off easy: wives should submit to husbands; husbands should love their wives and hold no bitterness; children should obey parents; husbands should act without provocation toward children. If we did act this way in our families, how different would our actions be toward those who are not in our families? We’re often the worst to the people with whom we’re closest. So Paul’s emphasis here on family is not by accident. The family is foundational for the proper raising of children to live in society.
Paul uses the language of self-sacrifice. He tells us to set aside our preferences and to do what is best spiritually for others. And his message is not a very popular one either—to set aside the self and to do for others first. Yet to live and thrive in community requires us to hold some things greater than our own personal desires and well being.
In Luke’s gospel, Joseph and Mary take Jesus to Jerusalem to present him at the temple, an event that we commemorate in the Feast of the Presentation on February 2nd. Jews were obligated to present first-born sons at the temple and to offer sacrifice. We know that this family is poor because of the sacrifice itself—two turtledoves or young pigeons. A wealthy family would be expected to sacrifice a lamb and a dove. We get a glimpse in this gospel of what it meant to be a Jewish family. They followed the prescribed feasts and fulfilled their obligations NOT because it was easy or because it helped them financially but because they believed that they owed it to God their creator—their Father—and they believed that it demonstrated their love for Him. It was one of the 613 mitzvot or commandments that Jews fulfilled not solely out of obligation but also out of love. Jesus castigated the Pharisees for stacking obligations on top of the commandments, but he never condemned the simple performance of these acts of love.
I want to focus on one person in this narrative, the foster father of Jesus, Joseph. Joseph utters not a single word in either infancy account in Luke or Matthew, but we can gather that he is a righteous man who does what is best for his family. When the angel tells him to set aside his fear and wed Mary, he does it without hesitation. When the angel instructs him to flee to Egypt with his family, he does it. Joseph is a man of action rather than words. He demonstrates his fidelity by what he does, not by making dramatic speeches. That should be a lesson for all of us fathers. Our actions do far more to shape the character of our children than our words.
The family is the brick from which the foundation of civilization in built. The Church calls the family, in paragraph 1656 of the Catechism, the ecclesia domestica—the domestic church. It is the primary place of faith formation for children— the primary place of faith formation for children. It is the oven in which the bricks of civilization are cured. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, and many popes prior to him have stressed the foundational importance of the family not only to civilization but also to the transmission of the faith. I don’t know why anyone should be surprised by that last bit—that the family is foundational for faith formation. And our culture is hell-bent on undermining it. Pope St. Paul VI predicted in Humanae Vitae that family life would be profoundly affected if sex and procreation were divorced from each other, and he was roundly condemned both by western society but also by many of the theologians of the time. Yet his predictions have all proven true. And far too many of us let our children be raised in this cultural village.
It may take a village to raise a child, but some villages are more sound than others.
Sadly many of us still act as if faith formation is only the responsibility of the official Church: that we personally don’t need to actively teach the faith to our children, that we don’t personally need to follow the doctrines of the faith and model devotional life, and that we don’t personally need to follow the very basic requirements of the Church—the precepts of the Catholic faith.
So as we Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers—who still happen miraculously to be in these pews—as we attend mass and watch our children walk out the door, we should be asking ourselves, have we created a domestic church in our homes? Do we act like we believe what the Church teaches? Do we try to teach it to our children?
I know this is difficult in our society, where every attempt to reign in personal choice is castigated as “oppressive” and “intolerant.” But we have got to be more courageous about our faith. Just look at what is happening in Iraq and the Middle East, where Christian traditions far older than ours are being purged by radical militants. Are they privatizing or hiding their faith? Not all. They are standing for the faith in which they—and we—profess to believe. The difference is that they are ready to die for it… and are already dying for it.
If we do not create a domestic church at home, our children will go out into a faithless culture and suck up what is there. Unless we found them on a belief in objective Christian truth, they will by default fall into a belief in relative truth—which is, in the end, a belief in nothing.
Do we truly believe what we espouse here? Do we believe in the transformation that happens here on our altar—that our God comes to feed us with Himself? Have we created that domestic church in our homes? Have we created a place for God in the hearts of our children?