Lessons for Family & Parish & Civic Life

Holy Family of Jesus, Mary & Joseph

A major highlight of the Christmas season is that people will sometimes make a genuine and intentional effort to get together with those they love, whether that connection is circumstantial or a conscious choice; sometimes because they share some of the same DNA, and sometimes because they share some basic personal values. At times they are aware they share both, and at times they are aware they share neither. But nonetheless they still make that genuine and intentional effort to get together. What ensues often becomes the premise of many a sidesplitting fall-off-the-couch comedy and emotionally searing drama that is offered for our holiday entertainment on TV and in the movies. We can laugh and cry along with everyone else because it is our story; well, some of it; usually none of the really funny parts, or even the really sad parts; or at least not as bad as is portrayed on screen. Still, regardless of how the plot of our real-life stories unfold, we can take the opportunity to step back from the chaos and reassess our previous responses, determine the outcome we hope for and whether or not we are still headed there, and then make yet another attempt to arrive at that preferred conclusion.

Family life is rich with material for entertainment as well as deep reflection. It is in the environment of family and home that we are given the basic materials, the skills, and the necessary tools, and where we learn the important lessons that will serve us for when we get out there and make something of our lives. Sometimes we can experience deep sadness and frustration when we realize we have been shortchanged, that we missed out because something fundamental was deeply flawed or missing entirely. Perhaps a parent or grandparent was absent. Perhaps a divorce, an illness, or a death caused great upheaval. Perhaps a tragic plot twist early on altered what could have been an amazing and wonderful story. But despite the sadness and frustration we have known, we have also come to know some measure of joy and fulfillment along the journey because somebody saw great potential and believed in us. Perhaps somebody took a chance and decided we were worth their time and effort. Perhaps somebody showed us great kindness and reminded us of our true dignity and self-worth. Every life story will have its share of frustration and fulfilment, sadness and joy, drama and comedy. But it will be interesting to figure out who will play you in the movie about your life. And no, John Wayne and Lucille Ball are no longer available. But knowing what digital technology can accomplish, even Denzel Washington and Jennifer Hudson should not be eliminated from consideration. If Judi Dench, Taylor Swift, James Corden, and Idris Elba can be made to look like house cats, anything is possible.

So in his great wisdom, God almighty decided his only begotten Son would be born into a human family and get to know our human experience firsthand. Although his human family would become known as the Holy Family of Nazareth, his experience of family life did not go untouched by some very real difficulties and challenges that have touched our own. The circumstances and details may differ, but we can be sure there was just as much frustration and fulfillment, sadness and joy, drama and comedy. And I’m sure some things in his life were not as deadly serious as is often portrayed.

When Jesus’ birth was announced by an angel to the young woman who would agree to be his mother, there was initially some confusion. Mary probably had her own plans, and this was not an option she had considered. Joseph, the man to whom she was betrothed, was never consulted. He must have had plans himself; a wife and a couple of kids; a quiet family life and a nice livelihood as a carpenter in a quiet little village. He wasn’t asking much. And then this happens. We can imagine he was deeply hurt and angry when she told him. He must have felt betrayed. Then he had a dream assuring him it would all work out. And he loved her so much and trusted God, he risked it all.

Then they had to make a treacherous journey to Bethlehem in her last month of pregnancy because the Roman emperor decreed a census should be taken. And once they arrived, they could find no suitable place to stay. So the child was born in a stable, far from home and the basic conveniences that attended any child’s birth, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a feeding trough as far away from the surrounding mess in a stable as they could manage. Although we read in today’s gospel that the Magi had just departed, so it wasn’t all hardship and pain, a new danger forced Joseph to take the child and his mother on another long and perilous journey to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous wrath. Joseph obviously didn’t intend to break Egyptian law by entering the country illegally. And if he did, I imagine the thought of landing in jail was far better still than certain death if they had stayed. They did return to Israel after Herod’s death, and settled in Nazareth. Tradition tells us Joseph died sometime before Jesus began his public ministry. So Jesus must have worked as a carpenter to support his mother.

Now we will always picture a better, more pleasant, and more successful family life than the reality that often unfolds. Even if things have gone well, we probably can think of ways life could have gone better. But we adjust to changing circumstances and make the most of what we are given. Discovering we should only truly worry about the things we have control over, we learn to focus on and celebrate the small victories, and not get bogged down by petty slights and disappointments. When we near the end of life’s journey, we will wish we had a little more time and courage to fix a few things, things we should have paid closer attention to the first time around. Instead we chose to put them off and end up regretting what should have and could have been.

Both readings from Sirach and Paul’s letter to the Colossians provide us some wisdom and useful advice for family life, and really for parish life and civic life as well. It all comes down to a fundamental respect for others and their dignity, for everyone regardless of their differences, their peculiarities, and their faults. Life is too short to waste on trying to impress people who are ungrateful and selfish, or holding grudges, or being miserable. Yes, “put on heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another. Over all these put on love. And be thankful. Be subordinate to one another. Avoid bitterness. Obey those who have care over you. And do not provoke one another to anger or discouragement.”

For so long we have spent time and energy worrying ourselves with how other people should think and speak and act. Rather, we should concern ourselves with how we think and speak and act. Whether we’re dealing with our children or our parents, our pastors or our fellow parishioners, our leaders or our fellow citizens, we teach others best by making good choices and leading by example. Life has enough tragedy and pain. Choose to celebrate beauty and truth. Embrace what is good. Give thanks.

Rolo B Castillo © 2019

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