The Holy Family

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Family

Family. The word is charged with emotion. Our happiest memories and our saddest ones are usually linked to the experience of family. Some people remember, or choose to remember, only the good things associated with family. Others reinvent a past altogether too painful to remember as it really was. Still others spend a lot of time and money recovering from their experience of family.

Brightnesses and Shadows

Family has never been a simple reality. If it has its brightnesses, it is not without its shadows. There is the public face of family, and there are family secrets. All of this is as old as the genealogy of Jesus himself. Because all of this is assumed in the mystery of the Incarnation, nothing of it lies beyond the mystery of the Redemption. When a word as emotionally and culturally charged as family is brought into the spiritually charged ambit of the liturgy, we find ourselves treading on landmines. Nothing is gained by pretending that today's feast, while rich in graces for all, is not problematic for some.

Come Lately to the Calendar

The feast of the Holy Family is a very recent addition to the Church's calendar. It draws from two different currents: first, a devotion originating in seventeenth century France; and second, a pastoral response to the crisis in family life provoked by the industrial revolution, by the First World War, and by dramatic changes in the social order, economy, and politics.

Incarnate Wisdom

In seventeenth century France, confraternities of pious layfolk fostered devotion to the Holy Family; some of these played a role in the establishment of the Church in North America. At that time, the expression "Holy Family" was understood in reference to the extended family: to Saint Joachim and Saint Anne as well as to Saint Joseph, the Virgin Mother, and the Child Jesus. The French school of spirituality understood devotion to the Holy Family as a way of contemplating the Wisdom of God in the flesh: the hidden God, humble, silent, obedient, and poor.

The Holy Family and Families

The great Jesuit missionaries; the Ursuline, Blessed Marie of the Incarnation; and especially the Sulpicians in their seminaries, fostered attention to the Holy Family and to the constellation of devotions that evolved in its orbit: the Child Jesus, the Child Mary and her Presentation in the Temple, good Saint Anne and, of course, Saint Joseph. After the French Revolution, there was a resurgence of interest in the Holy Family. The need to minister to families in distress was painfully urgent; the 1800's saw the foundation of a multitude of religious institutes under the patronage of the Holy Family, dedicated to the healing and promotion of family life, especially by education.

Introduction of the Feast

In the last century, still so close to us, the suffering of families --especially of widows and orphans-- in the aftermath of World War I, the fall of the European monarchies, and the triumph of political regimes hostile to the Church and to Christian education, induced Pope Benedict XV to establish in 1921 a feast of the Holy Family on the Sunday within the Octave of the Epiphany. In the mind of Pope Benedict XV, the new feast was an exercise of the Church's magisterium, exalting domestic virtues, and serving as a public declaration of the Church's teaching on the political and social questions that strike at the heart of family life.

Liturgical Reform

In the reformed calendar the feast of the Holy Family has been moved to the Sunday within the Octave of Christmas. In the feast's reformed liturgy all but one of the Proper Chants of the Mass have been changed; the prayers of the Mass have been substantially reworked; and the Lectionary provides readings corresponding to the Three Year Cycle.

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A Feast for All

The feast of the Holy Family is, at the deepest level, more than a social lesson or an ethical exhortation. Were it merely that, it would fail to reach the great numbers of those who, for one reason or another, live outside the conventional patterns of family life. I am thinking of the single, the bereaved, the divorced, the widowed, the orphaned, and those of us who, having embraced virginity for the sake of the kingdom, deliberately choose to forsake marriage, physical motherhood, fatherhood, and family in favour of a state of life that remains at once a question and a paradox.

In the Cloister

While a monastery is like a family, it is not a family according to the natural order of things. Monastic relationships are patterned after family life but they do not reproduce family life -- nor should they. Already in the deserts of Palestine and Egypt, monks and nuns were calling each other brother and sister, father --abba-- and mother --amma. Saint Benedict says that the abbot "must always bear in mind what he is called" (RB 2:1). He says that the cellarer is to be "a father to the whole community" (RB 31:2). He would have seniors call their juniors "brother," and juniors call their seniors "nonni," a word that, even today, in Italian is the affectionate and respectful term used for grandparents. In monasteries we call each other brother and sister, mother and father, and yet, in so doing, we must be perfectly aware that we mean both less and more than what we mean when we use the same terms in the context of a biological family unit.

The Most Holy Trinity

The feast of the Holy Family invites to us to ask ourselves if there are, in fact, any compelling reasons why monastics, who are "like a family, but not a family" should hold to the "family" model at all. Only if we dare to ask the question will elements of an answer begin to come into the light. Looking closely at the Holy Family we do not see the conventional model; we see a Virgin Mother, a Foster Father, and a mysterious Only Child. We also see --and this is where the model reaches us-- a mirror of the Most Holy Trinity in which each person lives in movement toward the other; receiving himself from the other, and giving himself for the other. This is family at the deepest level; it is from this level that it speaks to the monastic community.

Holy Mass: Healing the Family

In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we are brought into the communion of the Most Holy Trinity, a Family unlike any other, and yet the pattern for all life together, be it that of the conventional family, or of the monastic community. The Most Holy Eucharist is the Sacrament of Unity: the mystery by which we are drawn out of ourselves toward the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. In the Most Holy Eucharist we experience, at the deepest level, what it is to be persons-in-relationship, members of One Body.

One Family By Virtue of the Precious Blood

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, by drawing us after the priest into the bosom of of the Father, through and with the Son, in the Holy Spirit, plunges into Divine Love, the only Love capable of healing souls and of reconciling families scarred and broken apart by sin. The Precious Blood of Christ poured out for the many is, ultimately, what makes sinners into a "Holy Family," like that of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

2 Comments

God bless you, Father. God bless your Christmas and new year...

This: In the Most Holy Eucharist we experience, at the deepest level, what it is to be persons-in-relationship, members of One Body.

Ah! Yes! That is what causes all of our souls to cry out: At last! Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!!
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(big smile) and prayers for a most blessed new year ahead...may we all realize "at the deepest level" how precious we are to one another, always and forever!

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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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