Sunday, December 28, 2014


   The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph   

Modern American culture does a great job—
maybe even too good a job—
of documenting childhood these days.
When I was young,
at most you had a nice little baby album
with a few cute photos and maybe a lock of hair.
Today, nearly everything an infant or toddler does
is broadcast far and wide—and instantly—on Facebook:
first word, first tooth, first solid food, first step, first day at school.
Parents seem prone to overshare when it comes to their kids.
I think most of us of a certain age
have an embarrassing baby picture in the bathtub
lurking somewhere in our past;
it was a whole lot easier to keep those out of sight
when they were just printed on paper,
rather than floating around forever in cyberspace.

Now compare that
to what we know about Jesus’ earliest years.
This Sunday’s brief gospel passage is about all we’ve got
before he hits young adulthood—
except, of course, for an infamous twelve-year-old trip to Jerusalem.

Quite naturally, we’re curious about those hidden years,
which actually make up the bulk of Jesus’ time spent here on earth.
It’s an incredible temptation to try and fill in the gaps
with likely but imagined details.
The silence of the Scriptures—like silence in general—
can make us pretty uncomfortable.


While I was home Friday,
my brother-in-law was asking me
(Shane’s not Catholic, 
and he’s often got questions for me
about the Church or the priesthood.)
For more than a decade now,
I’ve annually gone to a monastery or hermitage
to spend a week on silent retreat.
What most fascinated—and perplexed—Shane
was the silence.
Standing there in the middle of his house
while the TV was blaring, the dogs were whining,
my niece and nephew 
were buzzing about with new toys,
and the microwave was humming 
in the next room,
Shane just shook his head and said, 
“I couldn’t do it.”
(Which is how most folks react.)
I stood there thinking, “I couldn’t do without it!”

Silence is an increasingly rare commodity in the world today.
In addition to the chatter and music which are always around us,
there’s the constant noise of our many machines:
the rumble of traffic on the street;
the ding of an incoming text on our cell phone;
the perpetually whirring fans of our computer 
or furnace or refrigerator.
We don’t even notice it all…
…till it’s not there (say, when the power goes out).
And then we feel the need to fill that void—
to break the uncomfortable silence.
I know of folks who require a “white noise” machine
to make static-like sounds in the background
just so they can sleep.  
(So much for “Silent Night”!)

Maybe the Scriptures’ silence on the life of the Holy Family
is meant to remind us of another way.

What can the silence of Nazareth teach our families?
For one thing, it encourages us to listen—
to listen with greater care to one another,
to listen more attentively to God.
In my experience,
poor communication is the source of most strife in family life
and most confusion in the spiritual life,
and communication breaks down most often
not because we fail to express ourselves clearly,
but because we fail to listen well.
In family relations, in our relationship with the Lord,
silence encourages us to truly listen.

And silence also encourages us to trust—
to live by faith.
Think of the task entrusted to Mary and Joseph.
Where could they turn for guidance?
How could they know
if they were parenting the Son of God aright?
Sure, angels occasionally appeared on the scene
in those first few months,
but their messages may have only made matters more mysterious, not less.
Like Abraham and Sarah so many generations before them,
faith alone could support and sustain them.
And that’s how it is with us, too.
Such faith, such trust in God’s promises,
is tested and matures in silence.

Our heavenly Father will never be accused of oversharing—
quite the opposite, in fact.
As Mother Teresa of Calcutta liked to say,
“God is the friend of silence.”
And yet, because silence is so rare,
it makes us uncomfortable.
And because silence makes us uncomfortable,
we’re pretty quick chase it away.
We work hard to fill in the gaps.
But it’s precisely in those silent gaps,
in those quiet and open spaces,
that we’re most likely to meet the Lord.

May our families—whatever their size or shape—
learn to listen better and learn to trust more.
We’ll learn these things best when—little by little—
we begin to befriend even just a few brief moments of silence.

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