Stained Glass Window
Fairfield CT *
It is appropriate that we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family right after Christmas. Not only do we continue the narrative of the infancy of Christ but also at no time do families come closer together than at Christmas. However, there is a dark side. We all know that the Christmas season can strain and test family relationships.
Today's first reading from the Book of Sirach can be summed up in the great commandment to "honor thy father and mother." It would do us well to pay close attention to Sirach's words. He tells us that the authority of a father and mother come from God, and that it is ingrained in all of us. We would call it today a part of our genetic makeup. To depart from this practice violates our very nature and will only result in bitterness and unhappiness.
In our time when so many of our parents can no longer take care of themselves, the words of Sirach are more important than ever.
My son, take care of your father when he is old;
grieve him not as long as he lives.
Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him;
revile him not all the days of his life.
In our culture the roles of father and mother have come increasingly under attack. Television and movies usually portray fathers as ignorant simpletons or as brutal abusers. This only reflects a culture where men casually urge their girl friends or wives to abort their own children. That men should act as guardians and protectors of their wives and children is now regarded as old fashioned and laughable.
Nevertheless, that was precisely the role that Joseph played in today's story of the flight into Egypt. Warned of the danger facing his little family, "Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt." The danger was real. Although we skip over the passage in today's reading, Matthew tells us that the madman King Herod had every male child under two years of age in Bethlehem and its nearby towns put to death. We still call this the slaughter of the "Holy Innocents."
The role of father and mother is also the central theme of our passage today from St. Paul's letter to the Colossians. How are we to understand this reading especially that controversial passage where St. Paul says, "Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord."
We could say that Paul, like so many of his contemporaries, was a "sexist" who thought that women were second class citizens. You could also say that since Paul never married, he knew nothing about the actual relationship of a man and a woman in marriage or the way they would arrange responsibility in a household even then.
However, you could also say that Paul was dealing in this section with a very practical problem that had arisen in the early Christian churches, especially among the Gentiles. It would appear that the new faith was especially attractive to women. Scholars tell us that in pagan families it was often the woman who first converted to Christianity, and then subsequently brought their husbands and families into the fold. This is not unusual even in our time.
However, there were cases where the husband would not convert, and women in this situation wondered what to do. Should they stay with their pagan husbands or should they leave? Paul always urges them to remain faithful to their marriage vows. He knew that there was no social safety net for these women outside of marriage but he also argued that they would be better able to bring their husbands and families to believe by remaining married.
Finally, I think you could say that St. Paul is preaching a revolutionary new doctrine here. For a minute, let's concentrate on his advice to the men. "Husbands, love your wives." It is hard for us to realize that in the ancient world, love of a husband for his wife was not the ideal. Our idea of a young couple falling in love and dedicating their whole lives to one another was an alien idea in the ancient world. At that time and for centuries after marriages were arranged between families. A young woman or girl might only meet her future husband, often an older man, for the first time at their engagement. A woman was little more than a child bearing machine. If she could not bear children, her husband was obligated to divorce her. As far as romantic feeling or sexual pleasure was concerned, a man usually found that outside of the bonds of matrimony.
Despite today's popular opinion, Christianity elevated the role of women not only in society but also in the eyes of her husband. St. Paul understands the teaching of Christ to mean that Christian men must give up their whole lives for their wives and families, a rare thing in any time. Look at the first part of today's reading. St. Paul is telling the Colossians and us to put on virtue in the same way we would put on a suit of clothes. The relationship in a family should consist of "heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience." A family built on these virtues won't have to worry about who's the boss.
Today's feast is not just about "The Holy Family" but its about making our families holy.
And over all these put on love,
that is, the bond of perfection.
And let the peace of Christ control your hearts,...
Reading 1. Sirach 3: 2-6, 12-14
Reading II. Colossians 3: 12-21
Gospel. Matthew 2:12-15, 19-23 (flight into Egypt).
*Image by Melissa DeStefano. Click on image to enlarge.