Diocese of Orlu in Nigeria,
Associate Editor of the Nigerian Journal of Theology (NJT)
It is not a coincidence that the Church follows the celebration of Christmas directly with the Solemnity the Holy Family. Christ came within the context of a family, the Holy Family of Joseph and Mary. This means that the family as the locus of human community both in its creation and redemption is valued by God. If our celebration of Christmas must have a meaning therefore, then this meaning must start in and from the family, the domestic Church and the bedrock of the human society. So today’s solemnity of the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary and Jesus is one that has added significance to us as Christians.
It is therefore no surprise that all the readings of the day revolve around the theme of family life. In the first reading, Jesus Ben Sirach, a pious Jew who lived in the 2nd century BC, in an amplified commentary on the 4th Commandment (Honour thy Father and thy Mother), presents that aspect of wisdom which includes filial reverence. Speaking precisely to children, he advocates respect and honour to parents, claiming that such filial respect has as its benefits the guarantee of future happiness. A line in his wise advice is worth bearing in mind in today’s context of conflicts among generations: “My son, support your father in his old age, do not grieve him during his life. Even if his mind should fail, show him sympathy…” Sometimes in our dealings with our parents and elders we tend to think that they are out of touch with our reality, and with the problems and challenges facing us. We tend to think that “their minds have failed.”
Even if this is the case, this wise author still maintains that such is not an excuse for refraining to show them reverence and respect. In the natural scheme of things, we are the ones who should try to understand our parents and attune our views to theirs, and not the other way round. Their world may be past and history, but it still has some inklings of wisdom that comes from experience. They may appear intrusive, but is an intrusion that is motivated by genuine love and concern, at least from their own understanding. And in this they deserve ‘sympathy’ and ‘kindness.’ Jesus Ben Sirach concludes that such filial reverence shown to even intrusive and ‘out of their minds’ parents and elders will not only not be forgotten; they also carry with them the potential of atoning for sins and meriting divine favours.
In the second reading, Paul expanded the instruction to include all the members of the Christian Family. Realist that he was, Paul knows that building a community, even the most nuclear of all communities, is not an easy task, since this implies the coming together of individuals who in themselves are unique and different. So before giving particular advice to each member of the family, Paul saw the need to address all of them as a group: “You are God’s chosen race, his saints; he loves you, and you should be clothed in sincere compassion, in kindness and humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with one another, forgive each other as soon as a quarrel begins.” Paul takes it as a given that there must be misunderstanding whenever more than one person live together. This is not strange and not bad at that. What is unusual and unfortunate is to allow such normal misunderstandings to spoil for ever or for long our relationship with each other as members of one family.
In the last part of his admonition, Paul takes each member of the family according to their roles, which, in my view, in no way is designed to imply the subordination of one over the other. To wives, who, as mothers, are the pendulum on which the Christian family rotates, Paul admonishes that they should give way to their husbands. This is another way of saying that they should not always insist on their rights or in telling their husbands their faults to their faces. None of us likes this, no matter how well intentioned they may seem. Rather, wives should always seek to please their husbands in everything, to bear with their failings and to compliment their good deeds. This, for me, is an instruction that is valid for all (husbands, wives and children); if we ever hope to build a harmonious family. To husbands, Paul says that they should love their wives and treat them with gentleness. They should not be harsh or demanding but rather be patient with their wives and show them how important they are for them and for their home. What Paul has to tell the children is similar to the wisdom of Ben Sirach: “Be obedient to your parents always, because that is what will please the Lord.” Paul would want children to follow their parents’ advice; because in the last analysis parents always mean well. Tomorrow these children will be parents; and they too would demand respect and obedience from others. Paul did not forget to say something to parents in their relationship with their children: “Never drive your children to resentment or you will make them feel frustrated.” In other words, be hard to them, yes! But not too hard! A shout or a scolding is not necessary when and where an understanding talking-together will do. Be a father/mother to them, but never be an accomplice to their evil deeds.
These, in sum, are the ABC of harmonious living-together in the family according to Paul; and they are worth giving a trial in our homes today if we hope to make our home happier, simpler and holier. Coincidentally, these are the same things that marked out the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary and Jesus that we celebrate today. Most often we think that since their son was God, family life for Joseph and Mary was a tale of harmony and peace. But this is not what we read in the scriptures. On the contrary, the Infancy Narratives contain ample evidences that Joseph and Mary, like all parents, also went through tensions, conflicts and crises like every other human family; from mutual suspicion of betrayal of trusts (Matthew 1: 18-25); through threats of physical insecurity (Matt 2:13-15, 19-23) to even generation conflicts involved in the raising up of children (Luke 2:41-52). In today’s Gospel story (Luke 2:22-40), we see them in the temple redeeming their God-child with “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons;” the minimum required by the law that they could afford. When simultaneously confronted with two ominous prophecies – first by the upright and devout Simeon, and then by 84 years old widow and prophetess Anna – about the destiny of their child, they could only wonder “at the things that were being said about him.” In the end, they had to return to Galilee and to their own town of Nazareth. And of their child Jesus, Luke reports that “he grew to maturity, and he was filled with wisdom; and God’s favour was with him.” So with the angel fanfares silent and the astrologers no longer present to confirm their special destiny, the couple could look forward now only to fear, worry, pain, drudgery and the unexpected. But it is in confronting this reality that they were able to contribute their own quota to the making of redemptive history; each in his/her position as husband/father, as wife/mother and as child.
As we celebrate the Solemnity of the Holy Family, let us look into our own individual families and make concrete resolutions on what we need to do as husband/father, as wife/mother and as children to make our own family happier, simpler and holier! Let us make a concerted effort to live out our resolutions! And let us always ask the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary and Jesus to be our help and our model! Amen.