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 very generously offered, “How would they like to renew their vows?”  Which they were very excited to do.  So, 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 other’s hands, and as they passed pew upon pew of people, you could see how their eyes were filling with tears.

Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for the SOLEMNITY OF THE HOLY FAMILY – December 31, 2023.  I appreciate your sharing this on your social media posts and your feedback and comments…  I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE.  May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim

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 other’s hands but could barely look at each other as they tried holding back tears as they said 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 was 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 grace from 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 this married couple’s relationship had been that they were unable to have children of their own.  Here, God had chosen Abraham to lead His people, that God would make Abraham a great nation – yet he had no son, no heir, no legacy.  Now they are of 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 what has happened in their lives in a relatively short period of time.  They went from a betrothed couple to being drawn into these miraculous happenings.  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 go into 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 these 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 somewhat underwhelmingly share, “The Child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him.” Immediately after,  Mary is warned that this salvation, this light, this glory that 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 impression that because we believe marriage to be a Sacred covenant, there’s an expectation of perfection in marriage.  And that’s why, for so many, this feast can be a bit off-putting.  Just the title, “The Holy Family,” seems like a high bar to measure ourselves up to.  Add that so many people have had painful family circumstances – abusive, dysfunctional, destructive, and unhealthy relationships – well, all of this sadly results in this 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 that is a universal call for married couples and those not married alike.  A call not to perfection but faith… which is oftentimes the complete opposite of perfection.

Joseph and Mary expressed astonishment, doubts, and fear in their invitations and directions from the Lord.  Abraham has confusion, uncertainty, and perhaps exasperation (and his wife Sarah laughs) when the plan for their lives is unfolding… Yet somehow in the midst of all those questions, all those worries, all those challenges – they like that couple renewing their marital vows after 60 years, holding 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 face, 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 in response to God’s word acted courageously – they were able to remain committed to their vows 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 Jesus Christ.  They were able to accomplish far more than they ever imagine, expected or conceived of.

Whatever our personal family stories have told us to this point… whether we’re married or we’ve never been married, suffered divorce, or experienced some challenges that mix all of the above – the beauty of this Christmas feast reminds us that Jesus enters into all of this human messiness that can be found in every family.  In Jesus’ birth, God enters into human history in a unique and profound way – and human history is changed forever by that.  That doesn’t perfect us here and now… but it does call us to a faith in which everything and everyone is recreated and transformed in the love of our God, who humbles himself to become one of us so that one day we might become like him.