by f. Luis CASASUS, General Superior of the Idente Missionaries
New York/Paris, December 27, 2020. | The Holy Family
Book of Genesis 15: 1-6.21,1-3; Letter to the Hebrews 11: 8.11-12.17-19; Saint Luke 2:22-40.
We may think that holiness involves a series of noble efforts on the part of each of us to avoid the seductions of the world and to welcome the continuous divine call to do good. Who could deny this? Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world (James 1: 27).
But God always surprises us with something else, with something new. To the so-called righteous and to the so-called sinners. Just as he surprised Mary and Joseph with something impossible to predict and totally understand.
We all have very different faith experiences, but we can each identify people who in very different ways have led us to God and continue to help us on the path of perfection. Some are close to us in our daily activities, others even closer: in heaven and in the memory of our heart. At the same time, despite our mediocrity and lack of fidelity, Providence allows us to see how we sometimes serve as humble instruments to bring people closer to God. The instrument is always humble, but the task and the fruits are sublime and imperishable.
Why do we say of Jesus, Mary and Joseph they form a family that is holy? Surely, today is the appropriate festivity to ask ourselves this question and discover that there is more than just a balanced, devoted, harmonious family, like many other families of believers and non-believers.
Just as we say that a saint is a person whom God wishes to set apart from the slavery of the world to dedicate himself to the tasks of the kingdom of heaven, so also a family or a community will be holy if they unanimously accept that they have been brought together by Providence for a difficult and privileged mission. They are not gathered together simply by a decision of their own. Nor do they remain united in external and internal difficulties by any special force within them.
Even the famous Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 –322 BC) stated that friendship endures to the extent two friends fall in love together with a transcendent third. He meant that a friendship will endure only in the measure that the two friends fall in love, not so much with each other, but together, with a transcendent third. With some good that lies beyond the two of them. Then the relationship is really enduring. As C. S. Lewis said, the very condition of having friends is that we should want something else besides friends. Friendship must be about something.
This is true of God as well. The love between the Father and the Son is not kept within themselves but their love for each other is poured out into the world through the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of love. A Catholic family or community is not one that is inward-looking but reaching out to others in love by contributing to the larger human family.
To “fall in love with each other” only can be just a shared egoism. If we are simply trying to establish relationships among ourselves they will tend to devolve into bickering and ultimately into division, warfare.
This is what inevitably happens in families and religious communities: if there is no explicit and unique common project, which is to serve God and neighbor, the difficulties end up with the community. Each member will follow a more or less noble path, but that opportunity that God himself offers to become a holy family, a holy community, remains sadly sterile.
In the Bible, Hannah, the mother of prophet Samuel, pleaded God for a child only to give the child she had begged for back to the Lord. Her son’s relationship to the Lord mattered more to her as his mother than anything. Today the Gospel tells us that the first thing Mary and Joseph did was to present the newborn baby in the Temple.
In our case, the only possible “transcendent third” is Jesus himself, the love of whom draws us to the love of others. And He was very consistent with what he said. He showed us, and left no doubt as to what He meant by, “as I have loved you.” What I should be looking for is God’s will, God’s purpose. And then find somebody who is as in love with that purpose as I am. Now I’ve found someone to love and to live with.
Mary and Joseph subordinated their love for each other to their love for God. And that, is what makes their family Holy. Joseph, despite the danger of traveling far with a baby and his wife who had just given birth, obeyed the angel’s message and set out for Egypt. With Mary, he listened carefully to Simeon and Anna, to find out what God’s desire was for his son. This is what makes a family, a community, holy: each one puts himself at the service of God’s will for others, above activism and any personal or collective interest.
We can live this way if we see and are aware of the connection between our actions and that which is bigger than ourselves, the plans of God. It happens when we do not choose our relationship with people over our relationship with God but rather when we see our relationship with God reflected in all our interactions with fellow beings.
This is something that God himself grants us and which is called Inspiration. To live this Inspiration, we have to accept to be purified in a special way: we must recognize that our heart is divided and that unity is only possible in God’s presence. This goes beyond avoiding committing faults, beyond living virtue, which is certainly necessary. Only the Holy Spirit can reveal to us the meaning of small things, of small or great events of each day and at the same time not be absorbed or enslaved by our tasks, sufferings, successes or sins.
The Jewish law required that all first-born should be offered to God. Mary and Joseph submitted to this provision and to the observance of the law of the Lord. We could say that the Inspiration that each one of us receives in a multitude of small signs, is the new Law, the best clue that the Holy Spirit continually offers us to follow God’s will.
Therefore, it is a good day to ask ourselves: What part of my life is unrelated to Christ? A friendship or relationship? My marriage? My relationship to our children? My professional work? The moment to tell a joke? The occasions when I should make a fraternal correction?
From the point of view of apostolic testimony, it is certain that many virtues, many values, can only be transmitted by a holy community, a holy family. If I had to explain this to children, I would use the following story:
Once upon a time there was a church that was built way in the highest mountains of Switzerland. It was a beautiful church that had been built with great care by the villagers who lived nearby. But there was one thing that the church didn’t have. It didn’t have any lights. You couldn’t just go into the church and switch on the lights as it is done in many places. Yet every Sunday evening the people who lived on the mountain-side opposite the tiny church saw something magic happen. The church bell would ring and worshippers would wend their way up the mountainside towards the church. They would enter the church and then all of a sudden the church would light up brightly. The people had to bring light with them, so they brought lanterns. When they arrived at church they would light their lanterns and hang them around the church on pegs set in the walls, so the light would spread all around. if only one person came to church the light would be very dim. But when lots of people came to church there would be plenty of light. After the service the villagers would take their lanterns home. At this time, to those who watched from a distance, it was as if a stream of light poured out of the church and over the mountainside. For many it was a sign that all was well. God’s light was with them and in them. The only time the little church lit up was when people were there presenting and united in the Lord. As they presented their life and light, God came to present and unite with them.
What today’s Gospel tells us is not a tale: Simeon and Anna, in the Temple, were light for Mary and Joseph, they made them understand that God would always be with them, in the midst of the pain and the sword that would pierce Mary’s heart and the sorrow that Joseph would experience. Older people never feel useless when they live in expectation of the coming of the Lord. They can always perform humble services that bring joy to others. They have, above all, as Anna and Simeon, the task of talking about Jesus to those who are looking for a way of life. They have enriched themselves with spiritual experience. This is the most precious heritage that must be bequeathed to future generations.
The Holy Family shows us that true love always requires suffering. That does not mean that all suffering comes from true love, but all true love requires suffering…and the suffering that stems from true love is truly redemptive. It partakes in the suffering of God Himself in becoming human because it resonates with the will of God which is to save.
There is another kind of suffering, however, that is very common. It is a suffering that stems from selfishness, from not getting one’s way, from, in fact, pettiness, smallness of being and purpose. The Gospel is constantly challenging us to learn how to discern the difference between redemptive suffering, rooted in true love, and useless suffering that is simply rooted in our, more or less, self-centered human natures. Now any behavior motivated by true love will always have the quality of freedom in it. Holding on the others, trying to control others on the other hand, is really not motivated by their best self-interests; therefore, it really isn’t true love. Even Mary and Joseph had to learn, you might say the hard way, how to let go.
Possessive love, so-called love, is a companion to fear especially the fear of death. The fear of death involves the fear of all loss. It is said in the Letter to the Hebrews that The devil kept the world in bondage by the fear of death. This is a form of compulsion. It is a prison; it is an enslavement. Love which is like that -fearful, compulsive, enslaving, controlling- that is not true love. It is a prison and it creates dependence. It prevents us from living life in the Spirit of Christ, which is the Spirit of true love, which is always free and which always seeks the best interests of the beloved. Possessive love, which is very common in our world and is the basis of almost all novels, movies and other forms of entertainment, is to some extent natural given the fallen human nature.
We are born in it, but it is not healthy. It is not life-giving. Healthy, life-giving love is a supernatural gift that comes as a redemptive grace from God through Christ, and it requires our willingness to be open to it, to seek God, to acknowledge our own selfishness, and then to suffer true love’s demands.
Each of us is born with a vocation in some way to serve God, to be of purpose to God, to advance the kingdom of God, in a family or in some other form of community life or somehow to work for the very same thing Christ came to work for–the spread of God’s kingdom. Jesus, who was of course the unique Son of God, only begotten Son of God, had a unique and a powerful sense of that at a very early age.
As we try to serve God we must be always letting others grow and learn and move on. Holding on is not love. Now, as we come to this feast day, we know that our lives would be very different in one sense from Jesus, Mary and Joseph, who were after all unique and peculiar individuals; but in another sense their lives are meant to be a model for ours. The choice is will we suffer love’s demands or will we suffer the results of our selfishness? Suffering we will do; we cannot avoid it. Will it help others grow? Will it help us grow? Will it serve God? This is our decision; this our choice. This is This is the reflection that will allow us to live as a family, a community of saints. This is the reflection that will allow us to live as a family, a community of saints.