Fullam, D.V.M., Th.D.
Fullam, D.V.M., Th.D.
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family, and our opening prayer invites us to see in Jesus, Mary, and Joseph “the true model of life.” It is easy to mistake that invitation for an endorsement of the sentimental myth of a biological nuclear family, where mom and dad and the kids all get along all the time, and all grow together in wisdom and strength.
But that’s not where today’s readings take us, and that’s not always where life takes us. Family life can be painful and conflictual as well as harmonious and joyful, and often a mix of all of these. Family can be a place where we are welcomed but not understood, or a place where our lives and loves are not welcome at all. For many of us it is our “chosen” family that fulfills the role of family more than our biological families do. I want to make two points today. First, what we see in today’s readings and in Jesus’ comments and actions about family in his ministry is that Jesus’ idea of family is broader than biology—it’s spiritual. Family for Jesus is a community of discipleship. Second, then, family for us means the places where we grow in discipleship, grow into wisdom and virtue as God’s people with Jesus our brother.
Let’s start with today’s gospel. We hear Simeon’s lovely prayer to God over the baby Jesus,
“Now you may let your servant go in peace,…
for my eyes have seen your salvation,…
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel.”
I suspect that Simeon made that same prayer over every new baby brought to him in the Temple, as each child marked the continuing life and God’s blessing of the family of the Jewish people.
But let’s not miss the prophet Anna. Widowed after a short marriage, Anna spent the rest of her days in the Temple. Instead of doing what was expected of women in that time—get married again, have a family to support her in her old age—Anna instead opted for what we might call a chosen family, like-minded men and women who spent their days in the work and prayer of the Temple. Like Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Simeon and Anna also represent a holy family, a chosen holy family.
Jesus would become an advocate of chosen family. Later in Luke’s gospel, Mary and Jesus’ brothers come to see him, and have trouble getting close to him because of the crowds. Jesus says “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” It feels like a rebuke. Or was it an invitation for his mom and his relatives to join the larger chosen family of Jesus’ followers? And while Joseph disappears from the gospel narrative after Jesus’ childhood, Mary is one of her son’s chosen family, all the way up to his heart-breaking crucifixion, and on into his resurrection. Her decision to travel with her son was no surprise: I bet Jesus first learned his upside-down theology, in which the last are first, the meek inherit the earth, and that the poor are privileged in the reign of God, from his mom. Remember her mighty prayer that was her response to Gabriel’s message from God? She prayed about how God lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things, and casts down the mighty from their thrones—Jesus takes after his mom all the way.
So what does this chosen family of Jesus look like? Our reading today from the letter to the Colossians gives us some ideas—but first I need to start with a public service announcement about this letter, in case you, like me, are troubled by that “wives be submissive to your husbands” thing. So—Public service announcement: This letter wasn’t written by Paul. Paul, the real Paul, gave us this in his letter to the Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,” Paul’s ringing endorsement of a just and equitable Christian community. But by the time a follower of Paul wrote this letter to the Colossians, that revolutionary spirit was gone, replaced by what we heard today from fake-Paul: “Wives, be subject to your husbands,” and later “Children, obey your parents in everything,” and in the next sentence “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything.” Not only is this letter not authentic Paul in its linguistic details of grammar and such, it also contradicts the real Paul of Galatians, and also Jesus, who said “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her motheWhoever loves father or mother [or son or daughter] more than me is not worthy of me… “ So let’s agree that that stuff about mindless obedience by wives, children and even, God help us, slaves is bad advice from somebody only posing as Paul. End of public service announcement.
But what we CAN take from today’s second reading is this: “as God’s CHOSEN ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another … forgive each other… Above all, clothe yourselves with love, … let the peace of Christrule in your hearts... And be thankful.” This is a longer version of Jesus’ “hear the word of God and do it” for our close relationships. I would add that we should also share a fierce thirst for justice, which was so central in Jesus’ life and preaching. These all together make up what faithfulness looks like in Jesus’ chosen family.
What does this mean for us? This is my second point today and it’s simple: those relationships in our lives in which we grow in discipleship, in compassion, justice, humility, and the other qualities we grow into in as we tag along with our brother Jesus—that’s where our family is. We learn those virtues from people we admire and emulate--from Jesus, from saints, and those others in our lives who model for us the kind of people we are called to be as members of Jesus’ chosen family.
Now let’s come back to our own families, biological, chosen, or mixes of the two. That list of virtues is a good picture of how to be a member of a holy family, and for how we can discern who we welcome to be family with us. Those close relationships where we are known and loved, formed, challenged, and guided, are where we can become our best selves. As Jesus showed, we should discern carefully, looking for those who hear the word of God and do it. We should love others beyond this, of course—heck, we’re told to love our enemies! But family is a spiritual thing, a gift of God. As we live into those special relationships in our lives—with partners, close friends, children, and those closest to us generally—we should find ourselves growing in kindness, bending when people need bending with, forgiving when people need forgiving. We will be imperfect. We will make mistakes—we are still human, after all. So likewise, our holy family members will grow in kindness in return, bend with us when we need it, forgive us when we need it, and join us in our work for justice. THAT’S what family means, at least for Jesus and his mother, and all the members of Jesus’ chosen family, and for us as members of Jesus’ chosen family.
So today let us give thanks for our own holy family members, whether they be related to us or not—because all are one in Christ Jesus. Take a moment in your prayer today to bless and remember those who have blessed you in your life. And let us strive to be holy family members ourselves, with the grace of God and the fire of the Holy Spirit to help us.
Lisa Fullam, D.V.M., Th.D.
Lisa Fullam, D.V.M., Th.D.
Lisa Fullam D.V.M., Th.D. is prof. emerita of moral theology from the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University and associate veterinarian at New Baltimore Animal Hospital in West Coxsackie, NY. After veterinary studies at Cornell, she earned a doctorate in Christian ethics from Harvard Divinity School. Research interests include virtue ethics, medical, veterinary medical, and sexual ethics, the intersection of ethics and spirituality, and Ignatian spirituality. Published essays include: “Dealing With Doubt: Epikeia, Probabilism, and the Formation of Medical Conscience,” “Toward a Virtue Ethics of Marriage: Augustine and Aquinas on Friendship in Marriage,” "Joan of Arc, Holy Resistance, and Conscience Formation in the Face of Social Sin," “Sex in 3-D. A Telos for a Virtue Ethics of Sexuality,”, “Why Ordination Matters: A Reflection from Jamaica,” and “Juana, SJ: The History (and Future?) of Women in the Society of Jesus.” She has co-edited with Charles E Curran four volumes in the series Readings in Moral Theology: #19, US Moral Theology from the Margins, #18, The Sensus Fidelium and Moral Theology; #17, Ethics and Spirituality; and #16 Virtue Ethics. Her book The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic was published in 2009. Newspaper editorials and blog posts include "Civil Same-Sex Marriage: a Catholic Affirmation" “Of God and the Case for Unintelligent Design,” and "How to Get a GREAT New Dog." After 19 years at JST-SCU, she and her husband John R. Mabry packed up their house and their boxer dogs and headed to the upper Hudson Valley in NY where she resumed veterinary practice. A few years back, she climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. The view from the top is just glorious.
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