Homily for Mass for the Feast of the Holy Family
On 19 and 20 July 1916 the 5th Australian Division was in Fromelles, France. With Allied troops from Britain they launched an attack on the German army later described as “operationally and tactically senseless”. The Aussie troops were poorly prepared, poorly led, expected by their enemy and exposed to machine gun fire on their flank. More than 5,000 were killed or injured in a day.
Yet a hundred years later these men have not been forgotten. There is some corner of a foreign field that is forever… Australia. When a mass grave of 250 allied soldiers was found in 2009, Australian researchers worked on identifying every one of them, taking DNA samples from known relatives of the deceased. Generations later people found closure and peace in learning the fate of their great-great uncles.
Who am I and where do I come from? As we grow in self-awareness, such questions press upon us with growing urgency. Astronomers and astronauts look in outer space. Biologists and genetics search inner space, all the way down to our genes. Historians rummage in archives and cemeteries. Ordinary people watch biographical TV shows like This is Your Life, Australian Story and Who do you think you are? or search websites like ancestry.com. In other countries they’d be looking for proof they were royalty; but Aussies go searching for convicts or bushrangers in their family tree!
Our familial identity matters to us. We have biological and cultural links to our ancestors and pass them on to our descendants with our own little additions. Each generation is indelibly marked by the stories of those who’ve gone before. We grow up knowing our roots or at least taking them for granted; or else we are genealogically bewildered and curious to discover more. Our first reading today emphasizes honour, respect and piety between generations (Eccl 3:3-14). It’s often when they are missing, as we recently witnessed in the Herod-like killing of innocents in Pakistan, that we most appreciate how humanly important these virtues are to us, how foundational to our sense of identity, belonging, security.
Genealogy is religiously important too. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God (Jn 1:1). He was Son of God “in the beginning”, that is, beyond all time and space. Yet He entered time and space, intervening in human history to give the world something, Someone, altogether new, a new beginning. The Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth (Jn 1:18). And so the Gospels delight in recalling the generations from Adam to Abraham to David to Joseph to Jesus Christ (Mt 1:1-17; Lk 3:23-38), insisting that in being made man the Son of God assumed a genuinely human history, tribe, lineage, identity. His ancestors and family did what we do: they were born and nurtured in families, they grew up to form families of their own, they worked to contribute to their communities, they left their mark upon others in one way or another.
To celebrate the feast of the Holy Family is to contemplate with gratitude that human family into which Jesus was born and so the line of His ancestors, protectors, nurturers and guides. As Pope Francis recently observed, God’s choice to be born in a human family was a choice to offer the world reconciliation “through the medium of a family”, even if it is was an obscure family on the edge of the Roman Empire (Pope Francis, 17 December 2014). As we heard in our Gospel today, it was in the context of His human family that the boy grew in maturity and wisdom, and it was in recognition of his place in their genealogy that he was dedicated in the Temple as their first-born son (Lk 2:22-40). Jesus learned His mother’s long-pondered wisdom and His stepfather’s long-practised trade, all the while preparing for His own mission.
Of course, as Simeon and Anna made clear, this was no ordinary Child. He would divide people. As He invited people to join His family, to be adopted into the family of God by Word and sacrament, some would say YES but others decidedly NO. Though He would be the enduring light of human history, the darkness that continually tried to overcome Him is still here in human history, genealogy, even family life. Nowadays fewer and fewer people get married at all. Those who do, tend to marry much later, often after long periods of cohabitating and practising non-commitment. Marital sticking power is much reduced and divorce now commonplace. People have fewer, if any, children and later. Many children miss out on a stable Mum and Dad. We all know and love people who, with the best will in the world, have found their families falling apart. Our economy puts many pressures on families. Our culture adds to the confusion about what marriage is and how to live it. Commitment and self-sacrifice are not valued as they should be. So many factors seem to conspire against the family in today’s world.
Indeed, you might say that we’ve forgotten how to love well. Of course we know how to be lovey-dove: the heart-shaped, Valentine’s card, sort of loving. But the harder, more dedicated, more enduring, Cross-shaped kind of loving, the love of Christ and His saints, is the love we need to learn again. This is the love of which Simeon spoke, that makes us vulnerable to a sword through the heart but also able to be light to the nations (Lk 2:22-40).
We’ve lately been shocked by awful stories of the killing of children. In Syria and Iraq children are being beheaded for saying they love Yeshua, Jesus. In other places children are abandoned or enslaved. Earlier this year the headlines were full of the case of Baby Gammy, a baby abandoned by his Australian commissioning parents because he has Downs Syndrome; he was left with his surrogate mother in Thailand while the commissioning parents took his twin sister away. Many other cases have emerged of trafficking in children and of creating “genetic orphans” whose lineage is deliberately scrambled and who may go through life in a hopeless search for their roots.
All too aware of the challenges in living family life well today, the Church had a Synod on the Family this year past and will have another next year. All around the world the bishops are consulting their people about these matters and the Bulletin describes how you might contribute your thoughts. One way or another, Christianity must continue to propose to our world high aspirations for family life – supernatural aspirations by which the family might model of life in God’s heavenly family – while also being there for those who struggle in their marriages. With St Paul in our epistle we aspire for family lives of compassion and kindness, humility and patience, forbearance and forgiveness (Col 3:12-21). More than ever today our culture needs the example of families, amidst all their struggles, persevering in the cross-shaped loving. Jesus, Mary and Joseph pray for us!