This is a very popular message on t-shirts these days in the Philippines: “Family is love.” On deeper reflection on the Christian meaning of marriage, this description of marriage is deficient and gravely distorted. Love is indeed essential for family life but family cannot be love if love means a merely emotional attachment or a permissive attitude to all sorts of immorality characteristic of our times.
Truly speaking, family is not love; family is a response to the call to holiness through love. Family life, like all other vocations in the Church, is a free and generous response to the call to holiness through selfless charity. On the part of the members of a family, this means a firm will to seek to become more and more like Christ through a love for each other that is patterned on the self-sacrificing love that we find in Jesus Christ.
What makes the Holy Family holy? They are firstly holy in their persons. Jesus is the all-holy one, the source of all holiness. Mary is His holy Mother, the one and only Immaculate Conception who is full of grace. St. Joseph is the truly virtuous and holy spouse of Mary.
But they are also holy in and through their relationships. They relate with each other in ways that mutually support and challenge each other in goodness. Mary and St. Joseph teach Jesus and raise Him up in the faith. They bring Him to the temple at the right age. On His part, Jesus stays behind to challenge His holy parents to put the rights of His heavenly Father above their own rights over Him, “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?”
Jesus was obedient to Mary and St. Joseph, “He went down with them and came to Nazareth and was obedient to them.” By relating with His parents and giving them the respect and authority that they have over Him, Jesus in His humanity also “advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.” Authentic love in the family is not sentimental but expressed in selfless obedience.
While He was growing by learning from his human parents, Mary was also learning from her Son’s words and actions, “His mother kept all these things in her heart.” On her own part, Mary also advanced in her complete surrender and acceptance of God’s right over her son, Jesus Christ. She will eventually freely consent to God’s mysterious ways at the foot of the cross as Jesus offered Himself to the Father in loving obedience, “Standing by the cross of Jesus was His mother.”(Jn 19:25)
The example of the Holy Family shows us that the members of a Christian family must influence, support, and challenge each other to mature in holiness. Every family must also reflect this mutual support and challenge in holiness on the following three levels.
There must first be mutual love and trust between the members of the family. The members trust that each one has their best interest at heart. Jesus trusted Mary and St. Joseph to the point of giving Himself to them as their child and obeying them. Mary trusted in Him enough to accept His incomprehensible explanation for remaining behind, “But they did not understand what He said to them.”(See Lk 2:41-52)
Then there is a need to be a good example to others in the family. Mary and St. Joseph most probably went to Jerusalem many times before they brought Jesus there the first time. They embodied and practiced first what they would later teach Him. Jesus also put His heavenly Father first before He instructed His parents to do the same, “I must be about my Father’s business.”
Lastly, there is the need to support and encourage each other in holiness by our words. The dialogue between Mary and Jesus at the temple shows this honesty and openness in communicating expectations and listening to each other. Only God knows how the words of Jesus must have strengthened Mary in her mysterious vocation.
Just as Jesus chose to become human and the very center of the Holy Family, He also desires to be the central member of our own families so as to guide the members of the family along the path of holiness in and through their relationships with each other. The Christian family thus becomes an arena of growing in holiness through selflessly receiving and giving love.
We find in Col 3:12-17 some good points to help us examine the holiness of our families. Are they places where we learn how to love and trust each other? Are we ready to labor to rebuild trust in each other when that trust has been betrayed or wounded? How are we striving to cultivate “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” in our relationships? Are we all striving to “bear with one another and forgive one another, as the Lord has forgiven us?” Are we striving to put on love, “the bond of perfection?” Family cannot just be love if love means that vague and sentimental affection that cannot lead to dying to self for the true good of the beloved.
Are our families places where we learn to embody the Gospel values first and to edify each other in virtuous Christian living? Are the members of our families willing to “let the peace of Christ control their hearts?” How ready are we to “let the word of Christ dwell in us richly?” Under the guise and deception of “family is love,” we unknowingly allow our families to become the training ground for the worldly values and sentiments of our cultures.
Lastly, our families must be places of solid instruction in Christian living. Are our families places where “in all wisdom, we teach and admonish each other?” Do we encourage each other in holiness by our words of affirmation? Are we living with a permissive mindset that fails to teach and correct each other? Have we adopted the cowardly “Who am I to judge?” mentality to the moral life and choices of our loved ones? Are we courageous enough to do sincere and honest fraternal correction in our families?
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, our families struggle and break down when the members fail to strive to grow in holiness and when they refuse to support each other in holiness. Because it is the domestic Church, lack of holiness in the family leads to a lack of holiness in the Church too. We hear so much about heartless and inconsiderate clergy in all levels of the Church’s hierarchy. We hear of clergy that are scandalous to the flock in many ways. We hear of clergy who fail to instruct and correct the erring souls in their care.
We hardly connect such remiss and waywardness among the clergy to their families of origin. It is probable that many of the clergies did not experience mutual love and respect in their families, they did not see living examples of the Gospel, and they were not corrected in loving ways in their own families. They could not sense that true love also speaks the difficult and painful truth and gives good examples. As the families go, so does the Church also go!
The call to holiness is initiated in Baptism and it is first answered in the family. Holiness is always possible because God gives us all the graces and opportunities that we need to cultivate this holiness through our relationships with family members. The family cannot be love if that love does not include a desire and striving for holiness for ourselves and for our loved ones.
The Christ who became one like us at Christmas also wants to become one with our families. He comes with amazing graces in this Eucharist to strengthen us in holiness and help us to mutually support and encourage each other in holiness too. We need this grace badly if we too are going to be holy in our persons and also holy in our relationships with others, beginning with our families.
Glory to Jesus! Honor to Mary!