Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Virtues of Family Life

The Holy Family, by Michelangelo

(Feast of the Holy Family-Year C; This homily was given on December 30, 2018 at St. Paul Church in Cranston, R.I.; See Luke 2: 41-52)

The opening prayer that we say at the beginning of each Mass, in liturgical terms, is called the “collect.”  It’s purpose is to “collect” or gather the congregation together around a central mystery or celebration.  For Christmas, the “collect” focused on the mystery of the Incarnation, God made flesh, and the celebration of the Child born in Bethlehem.  For our Mass this weekend and the celebration of the Feast of the Holy Family, our collect includes not only Jesus, but the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, as well.  In fact, it even broadens to include each of us and our families!  At the beginning of this Mass we prayed:

O God, who were pleased to give us the shining example of the Holy Family, graciously grant that we may imitate them in practicing the virtues of family life . . . 

The virtues of family life.  A great question we could ask, though, is “Which virtues?”  There are numerous virtues that we see at work in the lives of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the Sacred Scriptures.  

Certainly the virtue of courage is one obvious example.  What could have taken more courage than for a young girl to say, “Fiat! Yes!” and give birth to the Eternal Son of God?  In the same way, St. Joseph shows tremendous courage when he consents to take Mary and her child, Jesus, into his care.  Specifically, he is told by the angel of God in a dream that King Herod is seeking to destroy the child, and that he will have to flee to a foreign land with Mary and Jesus to avoid this peril.  

Likewise, the virtue of chastity is one we find beautifully embraced and wonderfully exercised in the life of the Holy Family.  Holy Mary remained a virgin, our faith teaches, before, during and after the birth of Christ (in ancient iconography, there are always three stars displayed above the Virgin Mary to express this great mystery).  Mary and Joseph lived together and loved each other deeply, but were never physically together as husband and wife; they lived in chastity and in a state of celibate love.  They teach us much today by their virtue and love for each other and for God.

The Holy Family would have also possessed what Aristotle called the “charioteer” of the virtues, prudence.  In their choices and their actions they were prudent, choosing the good in exactly the right measure and magnificently showing those around them the power of human freedom and the wonders of a virtuous life.

One could fill volumes describing the virtues lived out so gloriously in the life of the Holy Family.  But there are three specific virtues that they would have possessed in abundance, virtues that are central to our own families and to our own Christian lives.  These virtues are called the Theological Virtues, for they unite us most closely to the life of God Himself.  The Theological Virtues are faith, hope and love.  

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that the Theological Virtues form us “for participation in the divine nature...They dispose Christians to live in a relationship with the Holy Trinity” (CCC, #1812).

In other words, when we choose to believe in what God has revealed, when we choose to place our trust in the God who governs all things and to hope in Him, when we love in all the places where it may be difficult or daunting, when we practice these virtues, we participate more completely in the life of the Holy Trinity.  We begin to live more closely united to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  When we choose to act in faith, trust to hope, and will to love, we become more and more open to the power of God working in and through us.

In the Gospel passage for this weekend, the mysterious finding of the Child Jesus teaching in the Temple, we can see these Theological Virtues practiced and developed in the life of the Holy Family. 

The Catechism teaches us that FAITH is to believe in God and what He has revealed (CCC, #1814).  More than that, St. James teaches us in the New Testament that faith is not really faith, but remains just an empty sham virtue unless we act on it: "Faith without works is dead" (James 2:17).  The Holy Family believed all that God had revealed to them, and they acted on what they believed.  

St. Luke relates to us this weekend that “Each year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover” (Luke 2:41).  Why did they do that?  They went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover each year because God had revealed Himself to the people of Israel specifically through the Passover event.  In saving them from slavery and death in Egypt and bringing them into the Promised Land, God had commanded Moses to commemorate that salvation through a meal in which an innocent lamb was slain, its blood shed, and its flesh eaten.  He commanded that Israel observe a solemn feast of this saving event each year.  The Holy Family  believed what God had revealed and they gladly went to Jerusalem to celebrate it.  

But when they went there, faithfully observing all that God had revealed, they discovered suddenly that they had lost their child!  Recognising that Jesus was not with them in the caravan, they returned to Jerusalem and they sought for the child . . . for three days!  It must have been a harrowing search, indeed.  But they did not give up believing that they would find Him.  They believed all that God had revealed about this child, that He was to be the Saviour, and they acted in faith until they found Him.  They did not think that God had abandoned them or that they were alone in the world, even though they could not see Him and He seemed to be absent from their lives.

Do you and I have that same faith?  Do we also believe, when it seems like Jesus is not present in our families or in our personal lives in the way we had anticipated, that He is very real and very present?  There is one word that hovers over this Christmas Season and seeks to find a home in each of our hearts.  It is the word from the Prophet Isaiah that signals the coming of the Messiah: Emmanuel!  God is with us!  Do we believe that?  Do we act on that belief, everyday?

When it comes to the Theological Virtue of HOPE, our faith indicates that one of the central components is an abiding sense of trust, placing our present circumstances and our entire future in God’s promises, and not simply relying on ourselves.  The Catechism states that “hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ's promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit" (CCC, 1817).

When Mary and Joseph lost Christ, they did not give up or become despondent.  They trusted and hoped in God, believing that somehow, somewhere, they would find Him.  What ever gave them the sense that such a hope was well-founded and not just wishful thinking?  The great spiritual writers teach us that the Theological Virtue of hope is not so much rooted in what we desire to obtain in the future, as much as it is rooted in what has already happened in the past.  In other words, we can hold fast to hope, and trust in the promises of God, because He has already been so very faithful and kind of us in the past.  

God had revealed to the Blessed Virgin Mary that she would conceive and bear a son, and that He would be the Saviour of the world.  She was perplexed by such an annunciation, and exclaimed, “How can this be, since I have no husband?” (Luke 1:34).  It was something that seemed impossible to her, and yet it all came to pass in a beautiful and mysterious way.  

Once the Child was born, Mary and Joseph were confronted with the overwhelming news that King Herod was seeking to destroy Him.  Joseph was instructed to take the Child and His mother and to flee to Egypt.  There would be no army accompanying them, no guide other than God Himself.  But God was faithful.  He brought them through.  It must have been extremely difficult to travel to a foreign land with a newborn child, but God had cared for them and brought them through that arduous trial.

Mary and Jospeh would have remembered these events while they were frantically searching for Christ.  Could the God who had brought them through such strange and frightening trials suddenly forget about them while they were looking for Jesus in Jerusalem?  Not a chance!  Mary and Joseph possessed the Theological Virtue of hope, trusting in the God who had always helped them in the past, and that he would be with them in their present difficulties.  Do we?  Is our hope founded on God?  Are our families founded on this same Theological Virtue of hope?

The final Theological Virtue, and perhaps the one our culture today most misunderstands, is the virtue of LOVE or charity.  The Catechism teaches that “Charity upholds and purifies our human ability to love, and raises it to the supernatural perfection of divine love(CCC #1827).

Mary and Jospeh had great love, for God and for each other.  How painful and challenging for us this weekend, to see that love purified and raised up by God!  They believed that Jesus was in the caravan, and they trusted that He would be with everyone else when the group began to make their way home.  But Jesus, whom they cherished with love perhaps beyond our comprehension, was suddenly lost.  When they finally find Him, Mary expresses her anxious concern: “Son, why have you done this to us?  Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”

Jesus’ response is perplexing, at first: “Why were you looking for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  But reflecting on this remarkable passage we can see that God was purifying their love and raising it to an entirely new level.  To love Jesus is to also love the Father, and the Holy Spirit.  To love in a human way is wonderful and necessary.  But let us not be at all surprised when, in 2019, God begins to purify that love and raise it “to the supernatural perfection of divine love.”  

The stronger these virtues are in us, then the greater we will possess the grace to dwell in relationship with God.  Importantly, the Catechism teaches us that these virtues are not acquired by working really hard for them and they are not the reward of something earned.  If we want an increase in the Theological Virtues, then we need to begin by asking God for them: “They are infused by God into the souls of the faithful to make them capable of acting as His children and of meriting eternal life” (CCC, #1813).

With living faith, certain hope and a deep, abiding love, we pray once again that beautiful prayer from the opening collect:

O God, who were pleased to give us the shining example of the Holy Family, graciously grant that we may imitate them in practicing the virtues of family life.