What makes a family holy?

Is your family holy? What makes a family holy? Most often when we think of families, we think of what makes them healthy – and that too is a good question, a good goal, and something worth time and energy to ensure. A family should want to be a place where its members feel welcomed, warm, embraced, safe, supported, loved and so much more.  But do all those things – as good as they are – make a family holy?

Is your family religious? Of course one answer is – “why sure…we here at church.”  And if you are here to give praise and worship to God, then St. Thomas Aquinas would hold that your family is religious in that you possess the virtue to give God that which is fitting worship and praise. Is your family holy?  Aquinas makes a distinction between being religious and being holy. Holiness is the virtue by which we make all our acts in accord with the will of God.

Here on the Feast of the Holy Family, perhaps it would better to leave medieval theologians behind and look to the lives of Joseph, Mary and Jesus to see why we are celebrating them as the Holy Family. Consider Joseph – a biblical dreamer in the tradition of other great people of Scripture (Joseph: interpreter of dreams of the court of Pharaoh; Daniel, interpreter of dreams in the court of Babylon; Jacob, dreaming of angels ascending and descending from heaven; Abraham, dreaming of a vision of God) Dreams – the privileged means of divine wisdom.  It is why the Psalmist writes that God “ever at night direct my heart.”

I am sure that Joseph had his own plans for his life, his family, his work and so much more. But Joseph set aside his dreams and hopes and made his life in accord with the will of God – and followed the wisdom of God given in a dream.  When he found Mary his wife-to-be was with child, his plan was to simply call off the wedding and not subject Mary to public scorn. God’s plan, revealed in a dream, was that Joseph was to be her husband and a father to Jesus.  After the census which brought the family to Jerusalem, Joseph’s plan was to return to his home and work in Nazareth. God’s destination was Egypt only eventually to later return to Nazareth.  All Joseph’s acts were in accord with the will of God.

I suspect Mary had her own dreams, hopes and expectations. But she heard the invitation from the Angel Gabriel to reorder her life and bear a son, the one who will be holy, the Son of God. Without fully understanding the implications or knowing what lays ahead, she too acted in accord with the will of God. “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

What about Jesus? We know almost nothing about his childhood.  We know that as a son “Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.”  I imagine Jesus as a child was dutiful and obedient.  I am sure Joseph and Mary, as parents, even know that their son had a role to play in God’s plan for Israel and the world, still had their own parental dreams, aspirations and hopes for their son.

And then comes the incident in today’s gospel.  His parent’s are frantic that they have forever lost their child. Meanwhile Jesus is in the temple. I think it is one of those moments of a monumental advance in wisdom with his heart aflame and his mind enlightened in his exchange, his give-and-take, his questions and answers with the teachers in the Temple. Perhaps it was that moment when Jesus – fully human and also fully divine – had this fully human moment to know, “this is what I want, this is what I desire with all my heart.  I love Mary and Joseph, yet my life is not about them… it is about my father in heaven.” “Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.”

I wonder about the trip back home or maybe later at home.  Did the family begin to discuss Jesus’ experience in the Temple – what he felt, what was becoming clear for him.  Just as Mary and Joseph, each in their own time, had acted in accord with the will of God, now it was Jesus’ time.  I suspect Mary and Joseph had a lot to share.  I think it was when the family discerned the will of God and acted in accord with it.  The Holy Family modeling what we should strive to be.

Are we a holy family – do we as a family seek to act in accord with the will of God?  A great question for a homily, but what about the hard work of discerning  God’s will. I think that a family begins to put its holiness on display when it becomes a place where that discussion can occur and together, the family discerns questions ranging from youth soccer on Sunday, TV shows, vocations and more – and discerning God’s will in these matters.

Let me offer this insight about knowing God’s will pressing on the edge of our consciousness. If it is a prompting of love, justice, truth, integrity, or self-gift and offering – be attentive. Such things are of God.  And there will be hard choices. Thomas Merton offered that the will of God was often hidden in the harder choice.

Be a family that is welcoming, warm, embracing, safe and where love abounds. Be a religious family and give praise and worship to God.  But even more, strive to be a holy family that acts in accord with the will of God.  It is tough stuff.  But holiness is the pathway to eternal life in the Family of God.

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