Not long after his surprise election as the successor to Pope Benedict, Pope Francis surprised many in selecting the island of Lampedusa as the destination for his first papal visit outside of the city of Rome. Lampedusa is an island off the Western tip of Sicily. Since the early 2000’s, Lampedusa, the European territory closest to Libya, has become a prime transit point for illegal immigrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia wanting to enter Europe. The treacherous journey from Africa in waters that are prone to sudden storms and strong currents has tragically been the occasion of the death of thousands of these migrants, including whole families. Pope Francis’ decision to visit this island and to call the world’s attention to the plight of these refugees has become a stinging indictment of the complacency that these refugees face as they seek freedom from tyranny and a better life for their families.
As we gather in faith, basking in the joy of the Feast of the Nativity, the Sunday following Christmas is always dedicated to the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. In the mysterious unfolding of Salvation history, God our Father choose to reveal His Son as a member of a human family with Mary his Mother and Joseph as his foster father. Touched by so great a gift, all families are ennobled. When we hear the word, ‘family’ it is easy for us in our American culture to think immediately of what social scientist refer to as the ‘nuclear’ family of father, mother and children. Yet, for the vast majority of other cultures around the world, that word ‘family’ is understood in an expansive and extended way to include grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins crossing generations. The notion of the ‘extended’ family speaks of the profound interrelatedness that we have as members of the human family.
For people of faith, there has always been a core belief in the intimate bond that exists among all God’s children. As daughters and sons of a loving father, we are called to see in our neighbor as a brother or sister in the human family. One of the most tragic ironies that can mar the true face of all religions is to deny this foundational belief. Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi in Britain, argues this point in his remarkable book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. Hechallenges believers to face this painful fact. He states, too often in the history of religion, people have killed in the name of the God of life, waged war in the name of the God of peace, hated in the name of the God of love and practiced cruelty in the name of the God of compassion. He insists that when religion turns men into murderers, God weeps.
To Cain’s perennial question in the Book of Genesis that reverberates down through the centuries: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God’s unfailing and consistent response has been a resounding ‘yes!” As Christians we are called to nurture bonds of solidarity and communion with all the members of God’s family here on earth. In doing so we can give the most credible evidence of the heart of what it means to bear the name Christian.
With this in mind on this Feast of the Holy Family, let us listen again with open ears and hearts to Paul’s admonish to the the first Christians in Colossae and pray for the grace to live these words daily in the New Year that is before us:
Brothers and sisters:
Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,
bearing with one another and forgiving one another,
if one has a grievance against another;
as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.
And over all these put on love,
that is, the bond of perfection.
And let the peace of Christ control your hearts,
the peace into which you were also called in one body.