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A few years ago, I was at a Mass where a priest-friend of mine was being installed as the new pastor of a parish. Before we began, a middle-aged woman came into the sacristy and asked the bishop who was officiating that ceremony if he would be able to offer a blessing for her parents who were celebrating their anniversary that night. He said “even better, how would they like to renew their vows?” Which they were very excited to do. After communion, the bishop invited the couple to come up. These two older people started walking slowly, carefully up the aisle. The entire way up the aisle, they never stopped holding each others hands, and as they passed pew upon pew of people, you could see how their eyes were filling with tears.
When they arrived at the foot of the altar, the bishop asked them how many years they had been married – the wife responded “60 years ago today.” The bishop then followed up asking “where did you get married?” and the wife proudly responded “Right here,” as she pointed her finger to the floor marking the very spot in front of the altar where they had stood all those decades earlier. The bishop was surprised as he said “You’ve been here in this parish for 60 years?” and they simply nodded their heads as the wife said “we’ve been here together every week since we were married.” What was even more moving was that as they began to renew their wedding vows, no one could take their eyes off this couple as they lovingly held each others hands, but could barely look at each other as they tried holding back tears as they said to each other once again “I take you to be my wife… my husband… I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad; in sickness and in health… I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.”
Listening to them, you couldn’t help but wonder what must be going through their minds – what had they lived through? What struggles which must have seemed insurmountable at times had they conquered; what joys and moments of pride, what sleepless nights of worry over their children had they endured? What twists and turns, ups and downs did they encounter? How often did they think “I don’t think I can do this anymore” – but somehow found the unconditional grace of God to strengthen their resolve to try once again?
That memory came to mind praying with these scriptures for this Christmas Feast of The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. In the first reading from Genesis, we hear about Abraham and Sarah (before the name change) One of the major struggles in their married life was the fact that they were unable to have children of their own. Here God had chosen Abraham to lead His people, God decided to make Abraham a great nation. But he had no son, no heir, and no legacy. Now they are of an advanced age. Abraham doesn’t see how it would be possible for God’s promise to be fulfilled.
Similarly, in the Gospel, Joseph and Mary are still trying to unpack the things that have happened in their lives in a relatively short period of time. They went from being an engaged couple with their own hopes, plans and dreams for their lives to being drawn into such miraculous developments. Mary conceives Jesus through the Holy Spirit; Joseph is consoled and counseled in a dream to take Mary into his home and raise the son as if He were his own. In today’s Gospel they enter the temple to perform the Jewish custom of presenting him to the Lord – and they hear these two devout people Simeon and the prophetess Anna speak the inspiring words of how this newborn child is “salvation… light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory for your people Israel.” This leaves the Gospel writer St Luke to share somewhat timidly “The Childs father and mother were amazed at what was said about him.” The amazement is short lived as Mary is warned that this salvation, this light, this glory who is her son will not be received by many and that division will pierce her heart and soul…
So often whenever the Church speaks of family life, I think there’s this erroneous impression that because we believe marriage to be a Sacred Covenant it automatically implies that perfection is expected out of every marriage. And that’s why this feast can be a bit off putting for so many people. Just the title, “The Holy Family” seems like a really high bar to measure ourselves up to. Exacerbating the fact that so many people have had painful family circumstances – abusive, dysfunctional, destructive and unhealthy relationships – all of this sadly results in the beautiful institution of marriage being another area where many people, understandably feel disconnected from our faith…
But to me, all of these couples testify to a very different reality: a reality that indicates at a universal call for unmarried and married couples alike. A call not to perfection, but to faith… which is often times the complete opposite of perfection.
Joseph and Mary expressed astonishment, doubts, and fear to their invitations and directions from the Lord. Abraham himself was plagued with confusion, uncertainty, perhaps even exasperation (and his wife Sarah laughed) when the plan for their lives was being unfolded… Yet somehow in the midst of all those questions, all those worries, all those challenges – they much like that couple renewing their marital vows after 60 years, held each others hands, trying to maintain faith and in each other and in God… so much so that in hindsight, they almost couldn’t believe any of what they were able to endure was ever possible.
These couples testify in their unique, blessed way that when they trusted in God, when they obeyed God, when they acted courageously in response to God’s word- they were able to remain committed to their vows and to one another in good times, and in bad, in sickness and in health… They were able to become a father to countless generations… they were able to bring forth our Lord Jesus Christ. In short, they were able to accomplish far more than had ever conceived or imagined possible.
No matter what our personal family stories have told us to this point… whether we’re married or we’ve never been married, suffered divorce, or experienced a myriad of challenges that’s a mix of all of the above – the beauty of this glorious Christmas feast reminds us that Jesus willingly enters into all of this human messiness that can be found in every family because of His love for us. In Jesus’ birth, God entered into human history in a unique and profound way – and human history changed forever after that.
That doesn’t make us perfect here and now… but it does inspire us to hold on to a faith in which everything and everyone is recreated; they are transformed in the love of our God who humbles himself to become one of us, so that one day we might become like him for all eternity.