HOMILY for the feast of the Holy Family (C)
Eccl 3:3-7. 14-17; Ps 127; Col 3:12-21; Matt 2:13-15. 19-23
It’s tempting and attractive to think that the birth of the “Prince of Peace” would put an end to all wars and violence. Or that, as the angels sang on Christmas night, peace would come to all people “of goodwill”. And yet, every Christmas, we’re reminded that this isn’t obviously so. This year, bombs went off near a church in Baghdad; in the previous two years bombs exploded in Nigeria. But it’s not just contemporary events which remind us of this. The Church’s liturgy also reminds us that Christ’s birth did not bring an immediate cessation of sin and violence. So, perhaps the peace that Jesus’ birth promises is not the end of human conflict and strife as such.
For God became Man, but in doing so God left intact our humanity with its greatest dignity, which is our freedom to choose good or, indeed, evil. Hence on the second day of Christmas, the liturgy recalled the killing of St Stephen the first martyr. While he chose to love and die for the truth, his executors chose otherwise. Yesterday, we recalled Herod’s cruel decision to massacre the newborns of Bethlehem because of his fear and lust for power. And today, we’re confronted again with the threat of violence – Man’s wickedness and cruelty to his fellow Man directed against Christ, the Son of Man. Thus God is with us, and experiences all that Man has to suffer. Hence the divine infancy is, from its first moments, overshadowed with sorrow, tragedy, and the difficulties of the human condition, of our mortality.
In contrast to the cosy – and, even, splendidly grand – images of the Nativity that dominate our art and popular imagination, these words from the 17th-century poet Patrick Cary have remained with me:
“Look, how he shakes for cold!
How pale his lips are grown!…
He’s frozen everywhere:
All th’heat he has
Gives in a groan;
or Mary in a tear”.
For Jesus is born in a cold dark cave – the kind of makeshift shelter that shepherds used when inclement weather suddenly arose. And Mary is a young inexperienced mother – anxious for her child, an amateur in every sense of the word. And Joseph’s greatest concern is to protect and safeguard his wife and the baby; this preoccupation even fills his sleep. Such is the Holy Family being presented to us today, with all the fears and anxieties, the needs and concerns, as well as the hopes and dreams, of every young family; it’s all very human.
But at the same time, as Patrick Cary notes, there is in the parents’ concerns and anxieties, in the suffering groan and tear of Joseph and Mary, a true expression of love. This love is all the heat the Christ Child has. And, indeed, this love is something divine. For we are also being presented with the greatness of human freedom when it rises to its divine potential and chooses to love, to sacrifice, to care deeply for another’s wellbeing and good. Every family – mother, father, and child – at its best, exhibits this too. And, so, there is something holy about every family founded in love. But what distinguishes this family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph as the Holy Family is that, throughout all the trials of this life – today we see how they are forced to flee as refugees – they always chose to love, to co-operate with God’s grace.
Hence, it is with Mary and Joseph that Christ is most at home on earth. Because in the mutual giving and receiving of love between Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the Holy Family mirrors the divine life of the Holy Trinity who is a perfect communion of love. So, whenever we co-operate with grace and choose to love, to create a communion of love on earth, we are, so to speak, building a home for Christ where he can live with us; where incarnate Love can dwell and be made visible. This is true of every family but also of our parish communities; of God’s holy Church.
But there is another divine quality that is essential for our communities and families. It is a vital part of the suffering associated with genuine love. And the Holy Family, hounded into exile by Herod, would have known this also. So, St Paul says to Christian communities, and thus, to families too: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col 3:16). Now, Christ is Love made Man, so what is his word? What does Love say? On the Cross, Jesus says: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34); words repeated by St Stephen as he lay dying too. For love enables forgiveness, which is never easy. But it is necessary if we’re to receive the peace of Christ in this world.
For peace in a world in which Mankind remains free means there is always the risk of sin, violence, and evil done to us – as well as the selfishness, thoughtlessness, and fears that wound and strain our human relationships. But, at the same time, we each remain free to rise to our divine potential, to co-operate with grace and so, to love and to forgive. Thus the peace of Christ is ours. Because, when we do love and forgive, we suffer alongside Christ but we also share in his divine freedom, and we experience the newness of his risen life. Hence, St Paul says: “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col 3:13).
These words underpin an account I read recently in The Tablet. Maureen Greaves’ story is one of holiness in a family today. It illustrates how Christ’s love dwells in us, and gives rise to long-suffering forgiveness, but then, also, to the grace of new life and true peace. This is peace, as Jesus says, “not as the world gives” (Jn 14:27) but from the merciful and sacred heart of Jesus; peace as the Holy Family knows it. So, let Maureen’s story have the final word today:
On Christmas Eve last year, Maureen’s husband, Alan, was savagely attacked as he was walking to his local Anglican church for the midnight service. As he lay unconscious in hospital on Christmas day, Maureen says: “I… remembered how, all through our marriage, he had always been the one who found it easier to say sorry and to forgive others. And I also remembered that he’d been attacked at Christmas, and that Christmas is when Christ came to forgive our sin. And when I looked down at Alan, I knew that if he could speak to me, what he’d be saying is: please forgive them.” She prayed deeply, and it was one of the hardest things she’d ever done, she says, but that Christmas day, she forgave her husband’s two killers. Concerning them, she says: “I see them as two men – men who have done something immensely shocking, but men who were made in the image of God. I’ve always thought of them as two people who are loved by God… Forgiving them gave me a huge sense of relief. It’s allowed me to sleep at night, it’s allowed me to use up all my energy on helping my children to cope with what’s happened, rather than being eaten up with anger and hatred”. “If that had happened, she believes it would have been in a sense a double tragedy: first the tragedy of losing Alan, and then the tragedy of losing sight of the truth that’s been the centre of her life, and was at the centre of her and Alan’s life together, which is the importance of Christian forgiveness”.