Sunday, December 31, 2017

All in the Family

   The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph   
I was Christmas shopping a few years ago when I came across one of those, you might say, “inspirational” signs in a department store: “Our family puts the FUN in dysFUNctional.”  I was rather tempted to buy it…but walked away.  When I was back in the same store a week later, they were all sold out.  I guess at least a few families have the same experience!

At Christmas, many of us spend a lot of time with family—with all the ups and downs that can entail.  And how very appropriate that is during this season when we focus so much of our attention on the manger, and there see the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.  Over the holidays, families eat together and exchange gifts, all gathered together in one place.  But does sharing a meal, giving presents, or being under the same roof somehow make a group of distinct individuals into a family?  Of course not. 

The fact of the matter is that our Christmas festivities get their power and meaning from what happens the other 364 days of the year: from being there for one another; from looking after one another; from asking about each other; from supporting each other in difficult times; from celebrating with each other in happy times.  It’s only because we already care about one another, because we love one another, that it makes any sense at all for us to come together in the first place.

And the very same thing is true of our Church family.

The Church is a family.  We speak of our Holy Mother, the Church.  We refer to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.  You even call me Father Joe.  That familiar language is intended to be so much more than a homey metaphor.  But it’s not enough that we happen to spend an hour in God’s house at the same time every Sunday to make those words a reality.

Although showing up is pretty essential, to be Catholic requires much more of us than regularly getting to Mass.  In fact, it’s what we do between Masses that helps to form us and keep us together as a true family of faith.  We have to get to know one another.   We have to care for each other—to be there for each other in good times and bad.  We have to love each other.

And this is where the dysfunction comes into our Church family.  Experience shows time and again that when Protestants become Catholic, it’s usually either because of doctrine or the sacraments: the Church’s teachings are so consistent, so comprehensive, so compelling, that they want to be a part of it, or they recognize the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist and can’t stay away.   But we also see that when Catholics leave and become Protestant, it’s generally because they’re looking for a stronger experience of fellowship: their parish didn’t have an honest sense of community; they didn’t feel at home there; it didn’t feel like a real family.

Sure, we’re here right now to keep an obligation—but even more, we’re here to strengthen relationships.  That’s why taking a moment to greet one another before Mass begins—as we did this morning—is not a silly little exercise.  It’s also why racing out of Mass or heading home early is like leaving the dinner table without first being excused.  But there’s no magic program, no foolproof plan that can fix this dysfunction.  No one else can do it for you.  As in any family, being a family of faith is something we have to work at—each and every one of us.  Neglect it, take it for granted, and before long, it won’t be there for you any more.

I’ve been doing some reading recently on the life and ministry of priests.  A number of things I’ve read have pointed out that priests need to have an experience of community amongst themselves.  We were never meant to be “lone rangers.”  That’s important for our personal wellbeing—to have companions we know we can depend on.  But it’s also important for our pastoral ministry: if priests are going to be able to lead and form a parish community, then they need to have some first hand experience of community from the inside.  Community begets community; family begets family.

If that’s the case for the priest’s place in the parish, I’d say it’s much the same for the parish’s place in the wider world.  In our day and age, the family is threatened. Many would say that’s because we’ve gone and tampered with the very definition of what it means to be a family.  While that may be true, families have always come in a wide array of shapes and sizes.  (With apologies to my own parents and siblings: Have any of you ever met a “normal” family?)  For me, any concern about families these days being non-traditional is eclipsed by the fear that families may actually soon disappear altogether.

We don’t have any time to be a family any more.  Parents today are super busy with work (sometimes earning a salary just to pay someone else to look after their children).  And kids are super busy with the demands of school, sports, and countless other activities.  For many modern families, the only time they have together is in the car racing from one thing to the next.  Families are busy with many good things—it’s just they’re busy with too many good things.

And we’ve also allowed ourselves to accept some pretty cheap substitutes for family life.  Hours and hours every day are spent tending to our “social networks” and “online communities.”  Such connections can seem so much safer, so much more efficient, so much more convenient, than keeping in touch with our loved ones the old-fashioned way.  But you know these aren’t real relationships—only imitations—when you see family members, young and old, right next to each other…but never saying a word, their attention entirely given to tiny glowing screens.  Technology’s a helpful tool, but it’s also a huge temptation.

That’s why I worry that the family is an endangered species.  And that’s why the world we live in desperately needs parishes that are real families—that are authentic communities which allow people to experience human connection the way God intended it.  But “we can’t give what we ain’t got.”  And so there’s a great urgency for us as a Church family—specifically, as a parish family here at St. André’s—to get it right when it comes to loving one another as true brothers and sisters in Christ.

The sacred scriptures this Sunday remind us that the Lord promised Abraham many descendants.  But the promise was for more than a long bloodline; it was for an immense family of faith.  When God tells Abraham to go out and count the stars (for that is how numerous his children will be), we tend to overlook a rather crucial detail of the story: it was the middle of the day!  It’s not that God was asking Abraham to do something impossible—stargazing at noon; it’s that God was asking Abraham to trust him completely. 

And Abraham would be called to do that very thing again and again: when leaving his homeland; when awaiting a son with Sarah in their old age; when put to the test as he was asked to offer that same son in sacrifice.  That complete faith in God is what links all the spiritual children of Abraham.  It was that faith which united and guided Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as they journeyed to Bethlehem, then to Jerusalem, then to Egypt, and then to Nazareth.  It’s that faith which must bind us together here in Malone as one holy family.  We, the Church, are the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.

As a parish family, we are called by God to give witness to genuine human connection.  But deep and lasting human connection is only possible because we are really and truly connected to the Lord.  Since the Word became flesh, since God became man, the Christmas mystery is at the heart of what it means to be a family.  As he appears in every Nativity scene, it’s only when we keep Jesus at the center that we can be who we were meant to be.

You don’t get to pick your family, of course.  It’s a gift you receive—and it’s one you can’t return or exchange.  So we might as well make the most of it!  Yes, our family of faith will always be dysfunctional.  And that’s because you and I are members of it: we’re sinners among so many others.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t find the fun in our dysfunction.  And it certainly doesn't excuse us from answering the call to be holy.

Like the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, we now present ourselves before the Lord here in this temple.  We have come together again as God’s family in God’s house.  But let’s be sure we’re thinking and speaking and acting—and, above all, that we’re loving one another—as a true family of faith, not only on Sundays and at Christmas, but every day and all throughout the year.

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