Immersed in Christ: December 27, 2020
The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph
The Family Aware of God
Blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways. (Psalm 128)
Whether you are married or not, have children or not, what does “posterity” mean to you? Is it important that God should say to you, “Blessed is the fruit of your womb” or “the fruit of your life”? What do you want your life to leave behind?
The Feast of the Holy Family focuses on married life. But we should remember that the first, essential and everlasting marriage in our lives is the marriage every Christian has with Jesus. In Scripture Jesus is called the “bridegroom” and the Church his “bride.” Just as there is only one Son of the Father, and the baptized are all “sons and daughters in the Son,” so there is only one Bride of Christ—the Church—and all members of the Church are “brides in the Bride.” The image used for heaven is the “wedding banquet of the Lamb.”1
The highest level of mystical experience, and of Christian life as such, is described by St. Teresa of Avila as the “spiritual marriage.” To enter into this level of relationship with Jesus Christ is the goal of every Christian spiritual life. It is the “perfection of love.” 2
Our purpose on earth, that makes blessed the “fruit of our life,” is to arrive at this level of relationship with Jesus ourselves and to help others to arrive at it. This is the ultimate guiding goal of all relationships (that is, of all interactions) within the family and within every other community of faith and love. 3
That is why, in the Opening Prayer, we ask that we might “live as the holy family, united in respect and love” — not just with our blood relatives, but with every member of the human race on earth. We are asking to be deeply united in the “communion of the Holy Spirit,” and to experience the love between us as “the love of God” poured out in our hearts, expressed by us to one another.
So we ask that our homes might be previews of heaven, homes in which we experience the “joy and peace of our eternal home” with God. This is the sign that we are living by the Spirit of God: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5: 22-23). Where these are the Spirit is, and we are united in Christ. If these are in our home, we will reveal and find Christ in one another.
“Blessed is the fruit…”
In Genesis 15:1-6 and 21:1-3 we see Abraham telling God that he counts his blessings as nullified because he is childless: “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”
Abraham’s culture had little, if any, knowledge of the after-life. One’s value, or at least one’s significance for the human race, was continued in one’s children. So far as this world is concerned, without a posterity one simply ceased to exist.
Even we, who know about eternal life and happiness in heaven, would like our lives on this earth—our “having lived”—to count for something. And God promises us they will. If we believe in his word, his message is, “Blessed is the fruit of your life.”
For parents the promise is: “Blessed is the fruit of your womb.” The children God gives us are destined to live forever, to be our joy forever.
Provided they do not renounce the second birth, birth into eternal life, to which their parents brought them at Baptism. Eternal life depends on their continuing to acknowledge God as their Father by remaining “sons and daughters in the Son,” not silencing the voice of the Spirit in their hearts crying, “Abba! Father!” You cannot share the life of your family if you turn your back on your family. And your heritage.
A distressing characteristic of our times is that a shocking percentage of families in our day, in spite of their best efforts, have not been able to pass on the faith to their children. And their children, having renounced their heritage themselves, will not pass it on to the grandchildren. There is no human (repeat: human) evidence to tell us that their children or their children’s children will “live forever” with the Father, Son and Spirit, and with all who are united to them in the family of God. Only with insistent faith and “hoping against hope,” can we continue to say, “Blessed is the fruit of our womb.” But Abraham held to this kind of hope when he thought God was making him sacrifice Isaac, the only son he would ever have. The bottom line is the principle announced by an angel to be the encouragement of every Christian parent: “Nothing is impossible for God.”4
“My eyes have seen”
In Luke 2: 22-40 Simeon’s response when he saw the child Jesus in the Temple tells us how God has blessed us all: “My eyes have seen your salvation... a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
This is a mystery we have experienced. All those who find Jesus in family life recognize at some point that they have experienced the mystery of divine enlightenment. It is important to recognize and to own this. Christian family life is not just human: it is living in the mystery of divine truth, expressed and experienced in the home. It is the parents’ task to make this happen.
The enlightenment we are talking about is not some ecstatic emotional moment of “mystical illumination.” It comes like the dawn, gradually. We are sitting in the early morning darkness, and at some point we realize we are able to see — but we cannot pinpoint the particular moment when that happened. We just know there was a “before” when we could not see, and an “after” when we could. The experience of divine enlightenment is like that.
We have been hearing the truth of God, living the truth of God and experiencing the fruits of living that truth for years in our family while hardly noticing it. Then one day we realize we “see” God’s truth more clearly and appreciate it more than those whose family life is not explicitly focused on it.. Then we say, like Simeon, “My eyes have seen your salvation. I have seen it at home.”
Hopefully, we have also experienced this within the “assembly” (congregation) at Mass, and among our believing friends and co-workers, wherever “communion in the Holy Spirit” is made visible.
This is the reward of explicit efforts to live our lives together on the level of mystery. Just learning our religion at church or in school will not do it. Nor will just keeping the rules and following the practices of our religious culture: going to Mass, receiving the sacraments, putting up a Christmas crib, getting ashes at Lent. All these help, but they can be more cultural than mystical experiences. Our lifestyle at home, above all, has to help us experience God. And that depends, first of all, on the level of conscious awareness the parents are able to maintain in themselves and stimulate in their children.
Many ways of doing this are suggested in these Reflections. Here we just zoom in on the importance of being aware of the deeper truth embodied in words and actions we take for granted: divine truth, revealed truth, truth only accessible through the divine gift of faith.
For example, we see in each other the same human nature, human characteristics and qualities Jesus had. Jesus smiled, cooked, lent a helping hand, felt compassion, spoke with insight, got tired and, yes, showed impatience (Matthew 17:17). When we see these realities in one another we need to remind ourselves they were also visible in Jesus, God-made-flesh; and when they are visible in us, his body on earth, Jesus is visibly acting.
Especially when we recognize the action of grace in one another: a word or deed, an attitude, stance or choice that cannot be explained by human reason or motivation alone. Then we realize we are in living contact with Jesus in the flesh. In our family. Among our friends.
In the sacraments we need to make ourselves and our children aware that Jesus himself is present and acting: consecrating us in Baptism as “prophets, priests and stewards of his kingship,” forgiving our sins, giving himself to us in Communion, strengthening us in sickness, saying “yes” over and over again with us, in us and through us in the marriage vows. And especially that at Mass we are present to Jesus offering himself for us in love, asking us to offer ourselves with him and in him as his body, our “flesh for the life of the world.”
Obviously, there is no such thing as a Christian family life in a family that does not gather daily to pray together. The prayer has to be so short and so appealing that it is not a turn-off for children. Ideally it should include, at some time during the week, a tiny bit of Scripture reading, with private follow-up encouraged for those who are able. This is not commonplace in our country. That may explain why defections are.
Hebrews 11: 8-19 exhorts us to live out our faith by recalling the example of our ancestors, especially Abraham, whom we call in the Mass our “father in faith.”
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.
Our religion, as experienced in family life, should be a conscious journey into something yet unknown. Into deeper experience of God. Into clearer understanding of the Scriptures. An experience of continual changes in lifestyle as different members get insights into how to embody the values of Jesus more evidently. Of growth into greater appreciation of each other, especially through sharing experiences of faith and prayer. Into more responsible involvement in the work of transforming society, even in miniscule ways at home and at school, in social life. sports and church.
And, yes, we can and must experience our family life as something different from American culture. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, even in the land promised to them, were there “as in a foreign land, living in tents.” They “ looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Christian parents should impress upon their children that, even while we accept all that is good in our culture and try to improve it, we know that “here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” While we do our civic duty, work and vote for better government, we are very aware that “our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” 5
Christians are by definition counter-cultural. If we just encourage our children to “fit in,” we will see them follow the culture right out of the Church. Jesus said to his disciples:
If we are totally accepted in our society, we may have something to worry about.
Those whom Hebrews proposes for imitation “confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth.” They made it clear they were “seeking a homeland,” that they saw and sought something greater than the benefits offered by their society, or any society. This should be evident in the lifestyle of every Christian family.
We are the “pilgrim Church,” on the way to somewhere. We “left” this world, and “all its empty promises” at Baptism. Hebrews says that if our ancestors “had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return.” The opportunity to give up the quest for the Promised Land and settle for what this world offers is available to our children. And many do turn back to it—and away from the Church and the pledges they made at Baptism. Families need to nurture in themselves and their children a conscious “desire for a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”
“By faith Abraham... was ready to offer up his only son.” It should be clear that Christian parents would rather see their children failures by society’s standards than mediocre in their faith. They make this clear through their priorities in spending time, money and energy?
To live for God’s promises is the definition of Wisdom. And the “beginning of Wisdom is Fear of the Lord. This fear is not fright, but perspective. It is seeing this world and everything in it in relationship to the all-inclusive goodness of God. God who is All.
If parents are able to build a family life in which all things are kept consciously in perspective, they will nurture eternal life in their children. Blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways.
It has been said that a monastery is a created environment designed to reflect back the faith-vision in the heart. This applies to homes as well. It is not exactly the same vision—a home should not look like a monastery. But living in a Christian home should be the experience of life in an environment that through sights and sounds (and the absence of some sights and sounds), through all that is seen, heard, used, eaten, drunk and enjoyed, keeps everyone joyfully aware of God and of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
That is a project to invite creativity!
Happy is everyone who fears the LORD, who walks in his ways.
You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you. Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table.
Thus shall those be blessed who fear the LORD.
The LORD bless you from Zion. May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life. May you see your children’s children.
Peace be upon Israel!
What new ideas has this reflection given me about family life? Did it upset me or inspire me? How does hope factor into this?
Sit down with your spouse and older children and discuss how you might make your family life foster a deeper, more constant experience of divine life in you all.
1 Matthew 22:1-14; 25:1; Mark 2:19; John 2:1-11; 3:29; Ephesians 5:21-32; Revelation 19:6-9; 21:2-24; 22:17. 2 See The Interior Castle, tr. E Allison Peers, Introduction, pp. 11, 13, and “Seventh Dwelling Places”; Vatican II, The Church no. 40. 3 A key teaching of Vatican II is that the laity are called to perfection and to help bring the whole Church to perfection. “Every Catholic must therefore aim at Christian perfection (cf James 1:4; Romans 12:1-2) and each... play a part so that the Church... may daily be more purified and renewed... Decree on Ecumenism no. 4. 4 Romans 4:18; Luke 1:18; 18:27; Hebrews 6:9-20. 5 Hebrews 13:34; Philippians 3:20. 6 John 15:18-21.