The celebration of Christmas has a way of amplifying our ordinary family experience. For a loving and harmonious family, Christmas tends to be the time when its familial bonds are tightened. The members of such a family enjoy each other’s company the most at Christmas, and they find richer meaning in their family relationships.
Where family life is ordinarily more challenging, Christmas tends to be a time of high anxiety and stress, a time when frayed bonds seem always in danger of being broken by one more snide joke by Uncle Larry or one more meal eaten by ungrateful relatives who seem to think the dishes will be magically washed by Santa’s elves. Such minor offenses often expose deeper wounds related to past hurts or differences of religion, politics, or lifestyle.
Focus and dedication
In both experiences, a danger lurks that threatens to turn family life from good to bad or from bad to worse. That danger is an exclusive focus on each other and on oneself, on whether other people are behaving properly and on one’s own feelings about family life. These are not bad things to focus on, but today’s feast gives us a model of what should always be our first priority, our primary focus. The Holy Family shows us what it means to be totally dedicated to God. Not only does the story of Mary and Joseph show us what it means to hear and say “yes” to God’s call, but today we see them take Jesus to the Temple for an act of ritual observance of the Feast of Passover. We also see the dedication of the Child Jesus to his Father’s house.
This question of focus and dedication has tremendously important consequences. Pope St. John Paul II once wrote, “The future of humanity passes by way of the family” (Familiaris Consortio, 86). Every person is profoundly shaped by his or her experience of family. And the formation that happens—or doesn’t happen—in families goes a long way towards determining what kind of difference each person will make in the world. For example, a young adult who has been well-formed by his or her family can face a lot of challenging situations in the wider world with grace and virtue. But it is very difficult to make up for bad formation in the family.
One of my friends is a director of religious education at a parish in Michigan, and was once told me about a discouraging experience he had with his eighth grade class. He told me that he was shocked one day when he was playing a quiz game with the eighth graders, who had been through years of religious education, but could not answer even some of his most basic questions, such as when he asked how many sacraments there are.
My friend said he was convinced he had good catechists who were working hard at teaching the students. What dawned on him was the magnitude of the challenge he faces when the children he teaches have no experience of religion all week except for the ninety minutes they spend in their religious education classes. In many cases, the kids are not even attending Sunday Mass, and so it is almost impossible for them to understand the importance of religious education classes.
Even in our Catholic schools, we face this problem more and more often. An increasing number of parents send their children to Catholic schools without raising their children as practicing Catholics. It is incredibly difficult, even in an environment as strong as a Catholic school, to make up for what is not happening at home.
The difficult path is the joyful path
Unfortunately, this is only the tip of the iceberg of the challenges faced by families today. Survey data shows that fewer than half of America’s children are currently being raised in traditional families. There is an ocean of sociological research showing that the breakdown of marriage and family life over the past several decades is very real, and corresponds to lots of other kinds of societal problems. Divorce, abortion, suicide, crime, and other grave problems are directly tied not only to bad decisions on the part of individuals, but to a lack of strong interpersonal bonds, especially in the family. We are not meant to face life alone, but rather with the support of people we love and who love us.
In order for the family to thrive, however, we need divine assistance. It is God who joins couples together in the Sacrament of Marriage, God who gives the gift of children, and God who makes possible the fidelity we find so difficult today. That is why St. John Paul II also wrote, “The Church is deeply convinced that only by the acceptance of the Gospel are the hopes that man legitimately places in marriage and in the family capable of being fulfilled” (Familiaris Consortio, 3). Reading studies on the state of marriage and the family, I cannot help but think there is not a single problem identified in those studies that wouldn’t be prevented or solved by total dedication to God and following his plan for dating, marriage, human sexuality, and family life.
As the G.K. Chesterton famously wrote, “It’s not that the Christian ideal has been tried and found wanting. Rather, it has been found difficult, and left untried.” There is perhaps no area of human life in which Chesterton’s words ring truer than in the areas just named, above. Dating and sexuality are treated as if their highest purpose was self-gratification. Half of the formula used in the exchange of marital consent—specifically, the words “for worse”, “for poorer”, “in sickness”—are too often ignored and marriage treated as disposable. And families often become focused on worldly goals, forgetting that their most important purpose is to help each other get to heaven, to “enter into the glory of Christ and into the joy of the Trinitarian life” (CCC, 1721). To follow God’s plan is to take the difficult path, but it is the only path that leads to true joy, peace, and fulfillment.
Fostering holy family life
We certainly need to share God’s plan for marriage and family with others by our words, but as Blessed Pope Paul VI reminded us in Evangelii Nuntiandi, today’s world needs witnesses and not just teachers. We need to practice and foster holy family life and to show people that this is the truly “good life.” What are some practical ways we can do this?
- The family is a “school of prayer,” St. John Paul II taught, and it is literally true that the family that prays together stays together. We cannot let our religion remain private. We need to share the most important part of our lives with the most important people in our lives. Holy Mass is obviously most important, but families going to confession together, praying the rosary together, saying night prayers together, and praying before meals have a much better chance of flourishing than families that do not pray together.
- Display symbols of our Catholic faith in our homes. It was very common two generations ago to see lots of Catholic images in family homes, but unfortunately they are much rarer today. We do a much better job of this at Christmas, with nativity scenes and religious ornaments on the Christmas tree, but all-too-often that is the only time of year when we have a daily, visible reminder of what is most important in our lives. Even hanging a crucifix and a picture of the Blessed Mother in each Catholic home would do a lot to change that for the better.
- Talk about our faith. It’s so easy to fill our conversations, at worst, with fighting or insults, or at least with sarcasm and insincerity. A shared sense of humor should be a part of family life, but we need to have times when we talk about “the serious stuff,” when we can discuss what is really going on in our lives, and especially about our faith and what it means to us. If we do not learn about Christ and the Church in our families, it will be very hard to learn these things anywhere else.
- Forgive each other. Jesus makes it clear again and again that we need to love each other even to the point of self-sacrifice. In my own life, I know that I will never be able to repay my parents and other family members who have done so much to help me, and forgiven me so many times when I have hurt them. But repaying people is never really the point anyway. Family life is about more than fairness. It is about loving others no matter what, and forgiving them the way God has forgiven us, even when that forgiveness is undeserved.
- Discern and do God’s will. Here again the Holy Family is our greatest example. Their whole lives were dedicated, not to the question “What will make me happy,” but to doing whatever the Father called them to do. Jesus Himself said, “I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me” (John 6:38). Doing the will of the Father is the reason for Christmas, and it is needs to be the driving purpose of our lives. Doing God’s will brought Jesus to the Cross, and it will always involve sacrifices for us, too, but God’s promise is that our sacrifices are never offered in vain. They will always bring new life.
Finally, no matter what challenges we face in our families, we are never alone. Christmas brings us the promise that God has come to live with us, and he is never going away. The Holy Eucharist is Christ’s fulfillment of that promise. As we offer and receive the Body and Blood of Christ, we pledge our lives and our families to him, and he gives us the strength to be faithful, to him and to each other.
(Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted at CWR on December 29, 2018.)
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