Archbishop Eamon Martin is Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. This Mass was celebrated in Saint Patrick’s Church, Pennyburn, Derry.
A couple of years ago the family of world-famous poet Seamus Heaney found a long-lost unpublished poem of his called A Christmas Rhyme which he had privately written and shared with them as a gift. Like all of our families, the Heaney family had their own Christmas rituals and Seamus’ poem describes how they would do “the rounds”, year after year, of visiting aunties and uncles, setting down memories for life of family characters, kindnesses, love and Christmas cheer.
Someone said to me the other day “sure isn’t Christmas all about family?” But we are all conscious that this year, with the restrictions, there has been much sadness and disappointment in many families that loved ones have been unable to travel home. Many of the usual family “get-togethers”, customs and visits have been curtailed or disrupted completely, or gone virtual, or simply treasured and stored away again in the memory until next year, please God.
At the heart of the Christmas season, the Church has placed today’s feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Of course, all three have their own individual special days throughout the year in the Church’s calendar, but today they are placed together – in their “bubble” (so to speak) – so that we can think of them as a unit, a household of love.
Today’s feast is not that old in the Church’s history – it will be a hundred years next year, 2021, since Pope Benedict XV declared it as a feast for the Universal Church. But devotion to the Holy Family of Nazareth goes back centuries and the Coptic Christians in Egypt can trace it back to the earliest days of Christianity – probably because it was to Egypt that the Holy Family fled, like refugees, from the threats of King Herod.
In the prayers at Mass today we are encouraged to make the Holy Family of Nazareth a model and an inspiration for our family. Not the easiest thing to do, I suppose, for we know so little about what the life of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph was like. Apart from the Christmas stories we get only fleeting glimpses in the Gospels – like today’s Gospel story of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple or the one about the time the Holy Family went up to Jerusalem when He was twelve years old. Otherwise, we have to rely on our religious imagination to fill in the gaps.
What was life like for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph? They did nothing to attract attention or make the news. No doubt, like ourselves, they had family routines, customs, favorite pastimes – I wonder what their home looked like? Sometimes the Holy Family has been presented in devotional literature as an idyllic, heavenly, picture of perfection.
No doubt the Holy Family was unimaginably special! But to speak realistically of the Holy Family as our model, inspiration, and guide, we have to be careful about “bubble-wrapping” them completely – we need to know that they experienced not only the joys and happiness of being together as a family but also some of the struggles, “ups and downs” and painful daily realities that ordinary families have to live with and through.
Pope Francis reminded us when he was in Ireland two years ago that “no family drops down from heaven perfectly formed”, but still he suggested that: “Every family should look to the icon of the Holy Family of Nazareth. Its daily life had its share of burdens and even nightmares, as when they met with Herod’s implacable violence”.
Clearly, the Holy Family’s experience of fleeing into Egypt for fear of their lives must have helped Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to build a shared resilience and inner strength as a family; there is also no doubt that Mary and Joseph must have had to draw on deep faith, courage, and trust in God to cope with the many unanswered prophecies, puzzles and questions surrounding Jesus – first as an infant, later as a child, and then as a young man beginning to grasp God’s plan for His life. No wonder, as the Gospel puts it, Mary found herself “pondering all these things in her heart”. Perhaps one of the key inspirations that emerges from the life of the Holy Family is the need for serenity in modern families – as the prayer of that name puts it:
“…Serenity accept the things we cannot change;
Courage to change the things we can; And, Wisdom to know the difference”.
Those three gifts of serenity, courage, and wisdom are much needed in our families this Christmas – jostled as we are with the ongoing Covid19 crisis.
Our families share uncertainty about the future, weariness with the ongoing restrictions, confusion of changing messages, nervousness – fear even – with talk of new waves and new variants of the virus. Sadly since the beginning of the pandemic, many families among us have had to carry heavy crosses of separation, sickness, grief and loss, worries about employment and finances, or simply missing those comforting family rituals of being together, visiting, and being close and present to each other in the normal way.
At Christmas time, especially, families of faith can find consolation, good news, hope, and promise in the wonder of the Christ-child, born into a human family, to be our Saviour. Faith with wisdom, courage, trust, and serenity guides our journey as families through uncertainty and the unknown. Just as a loving parent takes the hand of their frightened child, so we firmly grasp the hand of Him who has made us, Who redeemed us and saved us, and Who journeys with us every step of the way.
In 2013, in his first year as Pope, on today’s feast, Pope Francis offered this prayer to the Holy Family:
Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
in you we contemplate
the splendour of true love,
to you we turn with trust.
Holy Family of Nazareth,
grant that our families too
may be places of communion and prayer,
authentic schools of the Gospel
and small domestic Churches.
Holy Family of Nazareth,
may families never again
experience violence, rejection and division:
may all who have been hurt or scandalized
find ready comfort and healing.
Holy Family of Nazareth…
make us once more mindful
of the sacredness and inviolability of the family,
and its beauty in God’s plan.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
graciously hear our prayer.