Every year right after Christmas, families with small children descend into chaos. The kids are blitzed out of their minds on Christmas cookies and climbing on everything, toys are everywhere, you can’t walk through the living room without running a gauntlet of legos just waiting to stab you in the foot, batteries are everywhere and strange noises come from the toys in the middle of the night and make you think a criminal is downstairs robbing you blind. Kids start fighting over toys, because even though they’ve just received a whole treasure trove, they’re jealous of whatever brother or sister has that they didn’t get. It truly is the most wonderful time of the year.
When we’re here at mass, my favorite thing is to see what amazing thing one of the kids will think up during mass. I was here once and saw a kid throw a ball into the back of the head of the person in front of them while everyone was kneeling during the Eucharistic prayer. I hear kids singing the Sanctus at the top of their lungs, which is amazing, by the way, and a testament to how well children’s choir is working to teach the kids to participate in the Mass, but it still makes me laugh. Last week, during every single Mass, a baby started crying. I loved it. I can see, though, how it might stress out parents and make them question how they got to this point in their lives.
And this is just the stress of a family with small children. Families that are primarily made up of adults come in all shapes and sizes, and extended family can be a cause of conflict when we get together at the holidays and remember past quarrels or hurt feelings. Because family is the people who know us best, it hurts the most when we let each other down.
So, what do we do when family becomes a source of stress instead of a joy? Or today on this feast of the Holy Family, we might ask, what, exactly, makes a family holy?
We get lots of advice in our scripture readings. St. Paul, for instance, begins by addressing us as his brothers and sisters and placing his advice in the context of a family. Be compassionate, he says, don’t hold grudges, respect each other, pray together. In other words, cultivate virtue with each other. This is good advice for any family or for any human relationship in general, but what makes it an avenue towards holiness? In what way is it more than a list of good qualities that even non-Christians can practice?
The key is in the very first thing that St. Paul says to “Put on,” these virtues. So, the image is that of placing them upon ourselves like clothing. Elsewhere, the Scriptures talk about clothing ourselves in Christ, or clothing ourselves in the armor of God. It is a way of imitating Jesus and mingling our identity with his. It is a way of allowing the Holy Spirit to settle upon you and soak into your skin, of being filled up with his power and grace to not only try your hardest to act in a virtuous manner within your families but to actually allow Jesus to become the focal point of your family and the way that you interact with them. This is what makes a family holy, to invite God into it and let him be the center.
Take St. Joseph for an excellent example of what makes a family holy. Joseph, as the father, is hard-pressed in his task to protect his wife and child. He first trusts his wife-to-be in a very difficult situation and he becomes a foster-father of a child not his own. From the beginning, his new little unusual family, who have the craziest home-birth story I’ve ever heard, are in danger. Herod is out to get them, so he must protect them by traveling to Egypt. Think about travel today and how hard it is with young children, the constant bathroom breaks and fighting and boredom. Now imagine taking that same trip on a camel. Joseph was a great father. Perhaps most importantly, he obeyed God, because he knew that putting God first was the only way for his family to not only survive but to thrive. The most important thing parents can do for their children, or that children can do for their parents, or that any of us can do for each other is to obey God. Obey God in your own life, obey God as a family. Put him first, allow him to clothe you and make you holy, and then make that holiness a gift to the ones you love.
There is so much pressure out there to do certain things for our children: sign them up for this, or that, and get them in the extra sports leagues and extra classes, to not force religion on them, etc. When it comes to maintaining a strong, happy family, all that advice is wrong. The world wants your children to become high earners in the economy and to become machines that buy products; God wants your children to be happy. Those two goals don’t always overlap. In The Temple, Mary and Joseph trust that their son, the 12 year old Jesus, is in the right place. He is obeying God his Father and living a life of holiness. This brings him to a place of sacrifice, and his presence there means he is lost to his family, but the anguish, as real as it is, is a mark of obedience. The business of God is more important than anything else. This points us to the fact that our families can be a place of trial. We are with each other not only during triumphs but also during tragedies. The Bible doesn’t romanticize it, but a family that suffers together, and follows God together, and obeys him above all else, that will be a strong family.
It doesn’t matter the mess or chaos that surrounds a family. If we fall in love together with God, he will be our strength. He is the source of our love, and as we learn to rely on him we will grow closer to each other. That is what makes a family holy.