One of the feasts of this Christmas season I very much enjoy is the Sunday after Christmas, the Feast of the Holy Family, which we celebrated last Sunday.
That baby born just last week is true God for sure, but also true man. As a true man, he has a mother, Mary, and an earthly foster father—since God the Father is His true one—St. Joseph. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph: the Holy Family.
During the Christmas holy days we seem most grateful for our families. To be a member of a warm, loving, united family is such a savored part of the human project that God did not want His only-begotten Son, Jesus, to miss out on it!
When God, our Father, looks upon us, His cherished children, He beholds a family of people, the family of humanity, all of us created in His own image and likeness, He our Father, we His children, brothers and sisters all, His creation, the earth, our temporary home. Here’s one meaning of “family” in our Creator’s vision: the universal family of humankind.
Then of course He smiles as He gives us our natural family: man and woman united in lifelong, loving, faithful, life-giving marriage, blessed with children, together in the most basic human community, living and growing together, surrounded and supported by grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.
Our Christian tradition so honors the family that we consider it a reflection of God Himself, united in the Most Blessed Trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit.
Especially do we relish memories of our families this joyful season, and want to pass on happy ones to our kids. To be raised and nurtured in a loving, warm, united family is perhaps this life’s most revered blessing, especially when the most sublime gift of the next life, faith, is part of our family life.
Then God’s design is yet for a third family: the Church. Jesus told us about this that time He was teaching at a packed synagogue on the Sabbath, remember? The attendants spoke up, “Master, your mother and your family are outside and want to see you!”
To which Jesus replied, “Who are my mother and my family?” The answer He gave was to point all around to His followers, who knew Him, loved Him, and served Him. That’s the Church! We are His family!
The Church is our spiritual family: God is our Father; Jesus is the first of our brothers and sisters, while also, of course, our Lord and Savior! Mary, His Mother, is ours as well, the “Mother of the Church”; those who love, follow, and believe in Jesus are our siblings.
We are born into this supernatural family in Baptism; we gather as a family at Sunday dinner in the Holy Eucharist; we mature in the Sacrament of Confirmation: when we hurt God, Jesus, our brothers and sisters or ourselves in sin, well, we apologize in the Sacrament of Penance: when sick, we approach our family for care and healing in the Anointing of the Sick; we then start our own in the Sacrament of Matrimony.
As any family, we look out for and take care of our members who are sick, poor, or suffering.
We’ve got a lot of “relatives” in our spiritual family, the Church, and we call them “saints,” and reverently remember all those generations before us who have passed on.
As with our natural family, we hardly choose our spiritual one, the Church. Oh, sure, we might drift away or lose touch at times; we might even be at odds with the Church, or get mad at our soul-family, the Church, at times embarrassed or hurt by her, just as we can be by our family here on earth. However, our identity as a member of this one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, our family, cannot be erased. I am as much a Catholic as I am a Dolan, as much as at times both family names can exasperate me!
We praised God for our natural family, and our spiritual one, the Church.
The Church is not some cold, clumsy, corrupt institution, but our family of faith. Yes, at times it is a “dysfunctional family,” like our earthly one can be, a family of sinners still united in God, in Jesus, held together by the Holy Spirit, with Mary, Joseph, the saints, and our brothers and sisters, on our way to our eternal home in heaven.
Two weeks ago I went to a prison to celebrate Mass and visit with the inmates, none of whom, obviously, would be home with their families for Christmas.
“Cardinal Dolan,” one of the prisoners whispered to me after Mass. “I’m thirty-eight, and I’ll be here the rest of my life. These guys at Mass in this chapel are all the family I got anymore. Jesus, this chapel, these Masses, these guys are everything to me... they’re family!”
That convict appreciated well, learning the hard way, the mystery and meaning of our spiritual family, the Church!
A blessed New Year!