It was 2:30 in the morning, December 23rd some years ago. Knowing that the next few days would be quite demanding, I tried to get to bed earlier than usual. However, since I was on duty and responsible for emergency night calls, it fell to me to answer the emergency line which rang several times waking me from a sound sleep. The call was from a local convalescent facility. The nurse explained that one of the residents was near death and that her son was at her bedside requesting a priest. Within 15 minutes I was at her bedside as I watched her son tenderly hold his dying mother’s hand and caress her face as he stood vigil beside her. The other members of the family had been notified and they were arriving one by one at this painful yet graced moment of farewell. We prayed together around their mother poised now between this world and eternity. They shared with me briefly about the life and legacy of their mother. Through their sorrow, there was a deep sense of gratitude for what their parents had left to them - a sense of responsibility to be moral guides to their own families, a wonderful sense of humor, a dedication to education, and finally a deep and abiding faith. A faith that sustained them at this difficult hour.
As I left the bedside and walked out into the bracing winter morning my thoughts and prayers went out to this family. I could not help but reflect on how important family is to all of us. For it is the midst of the family that you and I first come to understand what it means to be a person in the most fundamental sense. It is in the family that ideally, we come to know what it means to love and be loved; to give and receive; to forgive and be forgiven. As Catholic Christians, it is in the midst of the family that we believe we first experience what it means to be Church - a community of believers - where the Lord Jesus is to be found in the daily give and take that is part of every family. It is in the midst of the family that the legacy of faith is handed down lovingly from one generation to another.
It should then come as no surprise to us that Jesus, the Lord and Savior of the World, would enter our world as a member of a human family with Mary as his mother and Joseph as her loving and caring husband. The feast that draws us together calls us to remember and celebrate the gift of family - the gift of the Holy Family; the gift of our human families, and for us as a people of faith - the gift of our faith family in whatever faith communities we find ourselves drawn to.
While piety may idealize the Holy Family, we should never forget that like all families, Jesus, Mary and Joseph experienced the tensions and tragedies as well as hopes and joys that all families do. Homelessness and financial hardship; misunderstanding and doubt; suffering in the face of persecution; the death of a husband and foster father; the understanding and love of a mother who had to endure the death of her own son - these were the moments that shaped the life of this Family from Nazareth. Yet, in the midst of it all, there was a love that bound them together and would carry them from here to eternity.
This Feast of the Holy Family calls us to remember and be grateful for that reality which we can so easily take for granted. Where family mealtime around the common table is sadly becoming an exception rather than the rule in many households, the Church calls us to stop and take the time to be grateful for what we have and who we have become because of our families. Perhaps with Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, this day could and should become another day to gather in a special way around a common table to give thanks to God for mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. As the author of the book of Sirach reminds us, we are to revere our fathers - even if their minds fail, and we are to bring comfort to our mothers; and as Paul in his letter to the Colossians reminds us, this is a day in which husbands should love their wives and not nag their children!
Finally, this Feast calls us to be thankful for who we are as a parish community who at its heart is a “family of faith.” May the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph continue to guide, protect and inspire our families and all communities which we are privileged to call our faith family in the Lord, now and in the New Year that is before us.