Any other year than this, and a sermon today might have started with a joke, probably involving the proverbial Monopoly board, about how anyone could believe in a “holy” family so shortly after Christmas. But not this year. This year, most of us, I suspect, have valued rather more than usual what little time (hard to believe I’m typing this) we were graciously allowed by the Government to spend with our families.
If, that is, you weren’t working on Christmas day or too far away to visit, and so missed out altogether.
If relatives haven’t died, alone, over the past few months.
If you have anything like a family you would want to go home to.
There are always ifs around family, and often enough a few buts too, which always make this a difficult Sunday to preach on. And there are even more ifs and buts this time.
There are two obvious paths to take in preaching on the Holy Family, and two traps to fall into:
1. Given the scriptural and liturgical texts prescribed, there’s no way out of preaching on what a holy family is. The danger is that we then end up chastising ourselves for the shortcomings of our own families or worse, chastising others for the kind of families they belong to or, for that matter, don’t belong to and don’t want to.
2. The other path is to look at the Holy Family and emphasise certain elements of it that might titillate or invite ill-thought through allusions to modern mores – the unplanned pregnancy and apparent cuckoldry, the single mother Our Lady becomes after her most chaste spouse dies presumably early, their not entirely convincing poverty, for instance – and use this to argue that anything goes and a family is whatever we might make it.
The first approach risks uncharitable and hence unchristian unkindness, the second dishonesty. Both are susceptible to the political motivations of the preacher.
The best we can do is to stick to the terra firma of the texts and the tradition, and see what they have to say: or rather, what is God communicating through the Church’s choice of lessons here?
The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying:
“Fear not, Abram! I am your shield; I will make your reward very great.”
But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what good will your gifts be, if I keep on being childless and have as my heir the steward of my house, Eliezer?” Abram continued, “See, you have given me no offspring, and so one of my servants will be my heir.” Then the word of the LORD came to him: “No, that one shall not be your heir; your own issue shall be your heir.” The Lord took Abram outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so,” he added, “shall your descendants be.” Abram put his faith in the LORD, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.
The LORD took note of Sarah as he had said he would; he did for her as he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time that God had stated. Abraham gave the name Isaac to this son of his whom Sarah bore him.Genesis 15:1–6; 21:1–3
The story of Abraham and Sarah’s unexpected progeny points to fecundity, and a miraculous fecundity at that, given their advanced age: the need to rely on God who, by his very nature, gives all being, life and growth. Like the sun, he gives both light and life to all beings, and yet all the more illumines his chosen people who trust in him, in the Old Covenants or the New.
Brothers and sisters: Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, so they may not become discouraged.Colossians 3:12–21
Order is the theme of S. Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae, in what is nowadays the west of Turkey, starting with the headship of Christ over that Body by which all things in heaven and earth are to drawn into Him. Here we read that there is to be order both within the individual – the virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and forgiveness are to be ordered under love, which is the product of Christ-like harmony in our hearts.
As within, so without. The microcosm of the inner human is meant to reflect the macrocosm of our external ordering, with God, with all of creation, and with one another in the Church. Our families, too, whether the family of the human race, of the Church, or of our homes, are given to reflect the loving order which comes from Christ, the Divine Word, dwelling harmoniously in us.
In this connection, one word particularly sticks out of the passage, because it is going to be a key theme in the Gospel reading, too: wisdom.
When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, they took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord, and to offer the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.
When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.Luke 2:22–40
To live in Christ-like order both within and without is to live in Christ’s wisdom. And, we hear, Christ lived in that order himself. Indeed, the Church has gone so far as to maintain that Christ is Divine Wisdom as much as Word Incarnate. And as such, pure from all stain of sin, He had no need to submit to the rites of purification, of circumcision and even, some thirty years later, baptism. Yet He did. He once famously strayed from his parents, around the age of twelve, and was found in the Temple debating with the priests, but even then we read that, thereafter, he was subject to Mary and Joseph, and grew all the more in wisdom and stature. Divine wisdom revealed itslef not by breaking the social and religious conventions of his day, not by disruption and revolution, but by submission and harmony.
Fecundity, order, loving deference, submission: not exactly watchwords of modernity, I admit. And there are good reasons to be careful. There should be no demeaning here of married couple who, for any number of accidental reasons, cannot have children. The Church has a noble tradition of celibacy and God’s fecundity can be shown forth in other creative ways than in childbirth, normative though that may be. And order, deference and submission can be and have been abused in a variety of ways, both within the Church and the home. Forgiveness can be abused by the manipulative or unscrupulous. Yet such abuse is a failure to adhere to the order of love which the Gospel proclaims, not a product of it. We must not confuse the divine order with the order of this world. The order of this world is based in power, dominance and violence. The divine order is based in love, forgiveness and peace. The latter is the true meaning of the word “hierarchy,” the holy order. Not empowerment, not conflict, not domination, but love is the way of wisdom we find proclaimed by the Scriptures, incarnate in Christ and infused by the Spirit in the lives of the Blessed Virgin Mary and S. Joseph.
Now that’s all well and good. But what next? What can we do with this Holy Family other than put them in a crib set and gaze on them as a distant and possibly unrealisable ideal? How, in short, can we not just admire the Holy Family, but become a holy family ourselves? And what does this mean to those whose affinity to their parental units is, to put it mildly, ambivalent?
Well, unusually for me, I would suggest that the English Reformation gives us some rather good practical tools for familial holiness. At the most literal level, there’s much to be said about fecund clergy (careful how you pronounce that in Ireland), and I’d say that conservative Catholics might reconsider their resistance to married clergy: there’s much to be said for clergy bringing up Christian children of their own, even to the extent of clerical dynasties, and I wish I had had more and started younger rather than being drawn into the general culture of sterility which already prevailed when I was in my early twenties.
Anyway, that’s an aside, and not really the direction I’m taking us in here. More widely applicable, whether to household families or the great family of the Church to which all Christians belong, the genius of the Prayer Book was to take the staple diet of holiness which had belonged rather exclusively to the clergy, and to bring it into the private home. I’m talking about the Divine Office: that is, Morning and Evening Prayer. The idea was that any literate person could join in with the praying of Scripture in the family setting, making the home a school of prayer. However much we may deplore the King’s method of ransacking actual monasteries to attain it, the intent was good.
The 1662 BCP and a Bible are easy enough to navigate, but there are even easier ways now than ever to get into the habit of daily prayer alone or with others. The Prayer Book Society offers the texts with daily readings online. Universalis is an excellent Roman Catholic application which you can install on your ‘phone for full access to the texts of the daily office. There are also groups which say or sing the office online: S. Giles, Reading streams a shortened form of the Prayer Book office at 9am and 6pm every day which you listen into from their website or join in with via Discord.
Any family can become holier by praying together. So, if you’re in need of a new year’s resolution, here is is: take up the discipline of praying at home, with your family and with the family of the Church, including the saints and angels, all in good order, yielding fruits of spiritual increase and growth in divine wisdom – with no arguments over the rent on Old Kent Road.