Merry Christmas. And happy Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
“In the family, we learn how to live as one.” Pope Francis declares this in Amoris Laetitia, his reflection on the joy of love experienced in marriage and families.
Today’s readings are rich with imagery that help us understand the profound import of that statement and challenging call: in the family, we learn how to live as one.
Let’s begin with the second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. Along with many other couples, my husband and I chose this text to be read at our wedding. In that context, it’s a beautiful reminder of what makes Christian marriage distinctive--that is, marriage is not a purely romantic endeavor in which we gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes until happy-ever-after. Rather it’s a demanding vocation to live out our baptisms together by “putting on Christ” and committing to the virtues that lead to holiness. It is by daily practicing heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience that we become one. It is by bearing with one another and forgiving when our bond is fractured, again and again, by the ways we hurt and disappoint each other in our inevitable weakness. It is by partnering to let the word of Christ dwell in our hearts, and in our home. And most of all, it is by putting on love--that bond of perfection. And so the indissolubility of marriage that Catholic spouses are called to--that oneness that lasts forever--is not simply a gift of grace but is the result of a mutual, daily commitment to the attitudes and actions that support it. Parents who practice these virtues become models for their children, in turn teaching them how to be virtuous--and so the family becomes a domestic church, and the church “a family of families.” (Amoris Laetitia, .87)
In the first reading from Sirach and in the responsorial psalm, we hear more about how families are connected in that bond of perfection which is love. Love bears good fruit. Parents are gladdened by children, who grace their tables like olive plants. In turn, children honor and revere their beloved mothers and fathers. In our lives, we see such fruit borne in families of many shapes and kinds--the ones gathered at our tables, breaking bread and gladdening our hearts, are simply beloved as family whether they are blood-related or chosen. In these readings, blessings are promised for those who walk in God’s ways--delight, joy, and the security that comes from mutual belonging. And yet, we are also reminded that family love does not always come easily. Caring for an elderly parent even when his mind has failed, is the hard work of compassionate love. Likewise, comforting a colicky baby while sleep-deprived--night after night after night-- is the hard work of patient love. Guiding a sulky and eye-rolling teenager through the drama of adolescence is the hard work of gentle love. Supporting a sibling who suffers from addiction or illness is the sometimes heartbreaking and hard work of humble love. Remaining meaningfully-present to one other, even while separated and constrained during this pandemic, is the hard work of creative love. Such love demands fidelity, a commitment to sustain and nurture relationships over the long haul. Families are inspired to love one another faithfully--even when it’s hard--because they belong to each other and thus feel responsible for one another. We want our dearest ones to flourish, and therefore we diligently work for their good. (Fratelli Tutti, .93)
From a Christian perspective, of course, it is not enough to care for the needs of our own family members. We belong to them, yes, but not only to them. We belong to the wider body of Christ, and we are called to be light to the world. The gospels very clearly push us in this direction--moving beyond exclusive identity with birth-kin and toward expansive identity as brothers and sisters in God, a new family to whom we are spiritually and materially accountable. This is why the fruitfulness of Christian families expands to enrich the wider society. This is why Christian families are deliberately outward-facing and justice-seeking.
Pope Francis emphasizes in Fratelli Tutti that we are all connected to each other as members of one human family. To tackle the many problems we face--disease, war, poverty, abuse of human rights, uncontrolled consumerism, climate change, forced migration--the Pope suggests that we “think of ourselves more and more as a single family, dwelling in a common home,” remembering that our lives are interwoven and that “no one is saved alone.” (.17, .54) The hard work of familial love must be done in ever-widening circles of responsibility.
“In the family, we learn how to live as one.”
In today’s gospel reading, when Mary and Joseph present their firstborn in the temple, Simeon and Anna the prophetess rejoice (!) declaring Jesus the light of the world, the one the people have awaited, the one who will bring salvation. This Christmas, as we gather in our own sacred spaces--our homes and our churches--may we too give thanks and rejoice in the salvation brought in and through Jesus. And may we prayerfully consider how we can become the light of Christ for one another, both within and beyond our families.
Bridget Burke Ravizza
Bridget Burke Ravizza
Bridget Burke Ravizza is a Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin. Bridget earned her doctorate in Theological Ethics at Boston College, and her work focuses on sexual ethics and the ethics of marriage and family. She is co-author (with Julie Donovan Massey, M.Div.) of Project Holiness: Marriage as a Workshop for Everyday Saints. The book draws on the experience of married couples in Catholic parishes to identify the virtues and values that lead to flourishing marriages and to the holiness of married partners.
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