The Feast of the Holy Family
Dec. 27-28, 2014, Year B, #17
Saint Michael's Catholic Church
Imagine for a moment a desolate wasteland, a once happy place that is now strewn with shredded wrapping paper and empty boxes. A place characterized by tangled lights and half packed decorations. In the distance you hear a soft sob. Is it a child that did not get from Santa what they asked? Is it a teenager that got something for which they did not ask? Or, more likely, is it the sound of a husband still in a daze over the large quantity of AAA batteries he purchased when his wife clearly told him that the new toys only take 9volt? And we talk of subordination! Nonetheless, in the air lingers the smell of leftovers and scented candles long since burnt out; while the questions of now what, and how did I eat so much, weigh on everyone's mind. The days following Christmas are not always the cleanest, often they are downright messy.
We will be in the season of Christmas for some time now, until January 11th to be precise, when we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. All the same, it is not hard to see that Christmas gets a little stale very quickly. You have often heard from me about the need for, and the danger of, expectations. Here is one at play - all the energy goes into the preparation with little saved for the living out. It is not surprising at all, however, because of the enormity of the gift we have received. If we were to try and fully grasp, for an extended period of time, the immensity that is the gift of the birth of God-made-man, well... I find it hard to believe that our weak minds could take it - it is just too big! There is a technical term for the phenomenon wherein a gift soon becomes a common part of life; that term is hedonic adaptation. The author Oliver Burkeman describes it as the "predictable and frustrating way in which any sort of pleasure we obtain... swiftly gets relegated to the backdrop of our lives. We grow accustomed to it, and so it ceases to deliver so much joy." (1) Simply put, getting something often feels more satisfying than keeping it.
I image the messiness of family life was present in the Holy Family, along with a focus on present things and a bit of hedonic adaptation to top it all off. Just imagine the mess and confusion active in their lives! A child born in a stable, the smell of cattle mixing with the smell of unbathed shepherds, the exotic sounds and smells of the wise men, the baby crying with a dirty diaper - the kind that needs constant washing. From there they have the fear and confusion of taking flight to Egypt, the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents at the hands of Herod, the road, the dust, the anxiety. From just today's gospel there are days of purification, turtledoves for sacrifice, Simon and his promises of glory, of pain, of pierced hearts and contradictions. The prophetess Anna and her very public proclamations about their little child. There are words of growing strong, being filled with the wisdom and favor of God; and one cannot forget those infamous words of Paul: subordinate, as is proper, love, avoid bitterness, obey parents, do not provoke children, avoid discouragement. These words must have applied to the Holy Family as well, and just as with many areas of faith that don't sit right - there must be something greater going on below the surface. How well was the Holy Family able to celebrate the days of that first Christmas? How different are their struggles from the lives of average families? In a very human way, I imagine, as best they could, with as much grace as possible.
It is too easy to picture the Holy Family in the way we have presented here. Serene, peaceful, the epitome of love, of trust, of balance. This Holy Family was just as much a family as yours and as mine. This signifies that our families can be as holy as this family. They are not introduced here as something to be idolized, they are revealed as something to emulate, to find within their union holy inspiration. The more our families are prayed into holiness, the less we will need this amazing statue and the more we will rely on each other as witnesses to the genuine, complex, holy, and messy reality that is the domestic church - the primary place where faith is formed.
Even though it is probably mixed up in the effects of our fall into original sin; I am glad, in a certain way, for human nature and this hedonic adaptation. Without it we could too easily be overwhelmed by the gifts we have been given and forget to live them out. We could focus on God to the detriment of our attention to humanity. For this balance we need God-made-man. This must be part of the reason why Christ loved us so much to take the form of a messy, puking, pooping, wailing, beautiful little baby boy; a miracle and a mess all wrapped up in a bundle of flesh and blood. Might we imitate him as much as he has imitated us?
- The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman, page 31