The Importance of the Family
December 29, 2002 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Feast of the Holy Family
Reading I (Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14) Reading II (Colossians 3:12-21)
Gospel (St. Luke 2:22-40)
The feast that we celebrate today is one of the most important in all of the Church’s year, but particularly it is most important because of the situation in which we find ourselves today in society. The Church places the Feast of the Holy Family right in the Octave of Christmas, highlighting the importance because recall that, with an octave, what that means is that the feast of Christmas is celebrated for eight days (but it would be any feast with an octave that the feast itself is celebrated for eight days) In other words, in the way the Church sees things, today is Christmas, yesterday was Christmas, the day before was Christmas, and we will celebrating Christmas Day until next Wednesday. And so to place this feast intentionally right in the middle of the Octave of Christmas highlights just how important the Church sees the feast of the Holy Family. And by extension, from that feast it highlights how central the family is to the life of the Church.
But that only is at the heart of the Church. In fact, if you look at the actual teaching of the Church – not necessarily the way it is carried out in practice by some, but if you read what the Church teaches – what you will find is that everything in the Church is at the service of the family because the Church recognizes just how important the family is. The family is the place where the next generation is being formed. The consciences of the young people are being formed and developed. The persons themselves are growing in maturity, hopefully in age, grace, and wisdom as it is said of Our Lord. They are going to be the leaders of tomorrow. The Church knows fully well that the family, which is the foundation of both the Church and society – the domestic church as it is called, a microcosm of the universal Church – is the most important body in society. The family must be upheld, it must be supported, and that is precisely what the Church does and what the Church teaches regarding the family.
Now it is critically important in our day and age because in the society around us the family is not being supported, it is not being upheld. In fact, everything is directed to destroy it, whether it is from the laws that are passed to favor people who live together without being married, whether it is the various laws that are made to insure that couples will not have more than two children and if they do they will be punished, whether it is the societal attitude that what is really most important is one’s career and not one’s family, or whether it is just the general attitude in society at large that says, “What is most important is me, not the person whom I have vowed to love, not the little persons who have been conceived in that love, but what is most important is me and my selfish desires and my wants” – not the needs, but the wants. We have got everything backwards in this society. And even among Catholics, rather than looking to Jesus Christ and His Church, many of us have been influenced by the world, and the family has been seriously hurt by what has happened to it.
But the Lord Himself demonstrates to us the importance of the family not only by being born into a family consisting of a mother and a father and a child, but by also founding the Church which is a family where we have our Heavenly Father, we have our Blessed Mother, and we are all brothers and sisters of Christ. Eternity (provided we go to Heaven) is going to be a family; however, if we go the other direction, it is going to be exactly what our society is preaching to us: individualism, selfishness, hedonism, pleasure, everything about the self. And the results will be the same as well: the things we were after we will never get, there will be no fulfillment there, there will be no true joy, no true pleasure – it will only be empty selfishness. That is what we see going on in our society and we need to reject that.
Everything is there for us to be able to reject that and to live according to the way of Christ, but it requires making a choice to live in a way which is different from what our society lives. That should not be a difficult choice but there is a tremendous amount of pressure. The number of couples I have spoken to that have been very generous with the Lord and had a large family, it always takes me by surprise when speaking with these couples and saying something about their family that their immediate response is very quick, very curt, and defensive because they have been attacked so many times that they do not expect you are actually going to say something positive to them about their family. It is easy to understand why people have fallen prey to our societal norms, but we need to reject those and we need to choose Jesus Christ. Our society, as well as every other, preaches values. Values, you must understand, change with each society and each generation. The Church presents principles to us. Principles do not change; they are the same in every society, in every generation, and they will always remain the same. The values of our society are completely skewed and they must be rejected. The principles of Jesus Christ lay out for us the way to happiness, to fulfillment, to peace, to unity, and to eternity as well.
If we look very practically at what this means for us, how is a family to be ordered? We see this in the first two readings that we heard today from Sirach, the wise man of the Old Testament, and from Saint Paul in his Letter to the Colossians today. We see the same thing in his Letter to the Ephesians; we hear about the virtues in his other letters to the Corinthians; we see this in numerous places because it is so important. In a relationship with one another, Sirach points out the authority of parents over their children and the necessity of children to respect their parents, to be obedient to their parents. Now we have to understand also that beyond the worldly pressure that is going to be on children to treat their parents badly, to think that their parents are the two biggest idiots that have ever walked the face of the earth – and to tell all their friends that, while their friends tell them the same thing about their parents – we have to understand that where children, more than any place, are going to learn how to treat their parents, as well as their siblings and eventually their own spouse, is from their own parents. If, when your spouse says something to you, you roll your eyes and you sigh and you make a funny face, what your children learn is to treat your spouse the same way that you do. If there is little respect shown to one another in a marriage, is there any reason we should wonder why children show little respect to their parents? It is what their parents have taught them, after all.
So it begins, then, in the marriage, living the vows that have been made to love one another, to seek the good of one another, to build one another up, to help one another to grow in holiness. The family is the place where saints are made. Marriage is not a second-class form of life; it is a holy way of life and it is a way of saints. Saints are required for the married state, especially in our day. To try to raise children in this society requires a saint – it requires two saints! But just to be able to live with a person of the opposite sex who does not think the way you do, who does not act the way you do, who does not see things the same way you do, and to be able to live with that person, to serve that person, to build that person up, that requires a saint, which means that you must be praying more than one hour a week on Sunday morning. You must be praying everyday. You must have your own prayer life. You must pray with your spouse and you must pray with your children.
Saint Paul lays out for us in the second reading a whole list of the virtues that each one of us as Christian persons must strive for; but especially true within the family, these virtues must be developed to be kind, generous, forgiving, to put on love, which binds everything else together and makes it perfect. He shows us the way to grow in holiness, and that is by looking at the areas where we are weak and to develop them. He tells women that they are to be subordinate to their husbands, and he tells husbands that they are to love their wives. He is not giving you ammunition to hold over one another’s head, but rather what he is doing is to say, “Since women love their husbands rather easily but have trouble being subordinate to them, Ladies, learn to develop your weakness. And since men have little trouble being subordinate to their wives but they have a great deal of trouble loving them, Gentlemen, develop your weakness: love your wife. Do what is not natural to you – on both sides – so that both are loving one another and both are being subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ,’’ as he tells us in his Letter to the Ephesians. He is not asking of one anything that he is not asking of the other. There is a proper order within the family. The husband is the head and the wife is the heart and foundation of the family. That is not to say they are unequal because they are not. They are radically equal in everything and God takes those differences into consideration and sets up the proper order within the family. If that order gets out of balance, the family is going to be out of balance. And so it must be properly ordered within the family.
We see also in the Gospel reading the way that Our Lord lays out for us if we are elderly, if we are widowed: we must then turn to greater prayer. We hear about Anna, whom we are told never left the temple. She was there praying and fasting constantly. We hear about Simeon, who came to the temple inspired by the Holy Spirit, clearly a holy man who was seeking union with God to the point where even the slightest movement of the Holy Spirit he was obedient to, a man of great prayer. That is what each one of us should be striving for. But for those who are grandparents, those who are retired, those who are elderly, pray! Pray for your children, for your grandchildren, for your great-grandchildren. They need the prayer. And if you have the time and you have the ability to do so, offer your sufferings and pray for your family. You never cease being a parent from the first moment that your first child is conceived; for the rest of eternity, you will be a parent and you need to continue to live your parenthood. Even if all of your children are grown and have their own families, you must continue to live your vocation. It has changed but it is still very much intact, and it must continue to be lived out.
If your children have followed the path of the Prodigal Son, have been caught up in the worldly allurements and have fallen away from Christ and His Church, there are two things that must be done. Number one, pray your Rosary devoutly every single day for your children and give them to Our Lady. She will bring them back. Trust in that prayer. Trust in Our Lady’s maternal love for your children and she will bring them back. It may be on their deathbed; we do not know when it will happen or how it will happen. Just pray and trust. And the other thing is to give them to Our Lord. Honestly and earnestly, from the depths of your heart, you tell Our Lord, “Do whatever is going to be required to bring this child back and to save his soul.” We do not know what that is going to require – perhaps a traffic accident, perhaps financial catastrophe, perhaps various health difficulties – we do not know. It may be something very simple. You have laid the foundation in your children’s lives; they know what the truth is. Perhaps it will just simply take a small grace from God to bring them around. Other times, it takes something much more difficult. But if what will be required is serious difficulty in order to save this child’s soul (the child may well be an adult who is 50 or 60 years old at this point), whatever it is going to require, remember that God loves that person infinitely more than you do and desires only the best for that person. And what is best is that this person will have a conversion and will be able to go to Heaven and be with God for all eternity. Let go, give the person to God, and tell Him to do whatever will be required. And then trust. Leave it in God’s hands and continue to pray and let Him do whatever is going to be necessary. And do not try to tell Him how to do His job! Just pray and be faithful. That is what is required.
In the meantime, regardless of how we have lived our lives prior to today, we need to look at how we are doing now and we need to make the changes that will be required to live according to the way of Christ, the way that is laid out for us in the readings today: to grow in holiness, to become a truly holy family in imitation of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. We will not be able to be the Holy Family. None of us is without Original Sin; very few have achieved perfection like Saint Joseph; and none of us has a child who is God. So forget the idea that you are going to be exactly like the Holy Family; it is not going to happen. But that does not mean that we do not learn from the Holy Family. We must see the virtues they lived and we must understand the principles by which they lived. We must imitate those, learn from those, and put those into practice in our own lives and in our own families so that we will have a truly holy family united together in love and in ideals, in the principles which God has written in our hearts and in our minds, so that within our own families we will be raising saints and becoming saints in union with Jesus Christ and in imitation of His Holy Family.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.