Preached December 29, 2019; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
Today, on the Feast of the Holy Family, the Gospel shows us that the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph had enemies.
The Gospel shows us the ‘real world’ character of the Holy Family. We are often tempted to think that, pure and sinless as they are, they have nothing in common with us. Nevertheless, they did indeed live in this fallen world of ours, suffered therefrom, and had to endure many hardships and afflictions in this life, more than we can imagine. Whether in Bethlehem, or Egypt, or Nazareth, they lived with sinful human beings like you and me and so faced all the challenges that sinful human beings like you and me face from each other.
The Holy Family had enemies and today, the family, individual families, the family of the Church, and the whole human family, has enemies.
So I will begin today by speaking about enemies. Jesus taught us to love our enemies, but we make a huge mistake when we think that we must love enemies the same way we love friends.
Since love of enemies and love of friends is different, in the first place we need the wisdom to distinguish between enemies and friends!
All manner of confusion and disorder results when people try to live this way with their enemies, or think they are obliged to live this way with their enemies. The failure to distinguish friend and foe is a form of spiritual AIDS that has become widespread today in the western world.
Basically, you can’t trust an enemy. You must often resist and oppose an enemy, to keep him from doing harm or to limit the harm he does. Nevertheless, you must pray for your enemy’s eternal salvation, you must be patient with him, you must keep your heart free from the spirit of hatred and revenge, you must be ready to forgive and reconcile if a real opportunity arises, and you must even treat him with common human courtesy as the occasion demands. You must even seek to win your enemy to the truth, then he will become a friend, for we certainly must not be enemies of those who are friends of the truth, Jesus Christ.
Further, our Lord warned that a man’s enemies would be those of his own household! (cf. Mt 10:36)
There is certainly a special challenge involved in loving an abusive husband or father, while protecting yourself against him. At the same time we must always remember the words: See that no one returns evil for evil; rather, always seek what is good for each other and for all. (Rm 12:17,20)
We should also be aware that the truest enemy is sin itself, whether in ourselves or others. Because we sin and are capable of committing sin, sin even that could separate us from God forever, we are our own worst enemy. So even with ourselves and with our friends, we must be on guard against the inclination to sin that is part of fallen humanity.
St. Philip Neri is reported as having prayed: “Watch me, O Lord, this day; for, abandoned to myself, I shall surely betray thee.”
Since trust is the basis of friendship, trust is something that should never be taken for granted but must be continually built up.
Today’s 2nd reading is addressed to those who would live together in friendship based upon a common faith in Jesus Christ, who receive his word in faith, treasure it in their hearts, seek to live by it, do everything in word or deed, in his name, and giving thanks to God the Father, through him. St. Paul mentions the virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience; these were perfectly lived in the family life of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. As for us sinners, who strive to follow their example, we will also need to bear with one another and forgive one another as they work together to build their life of mutual trust. The key, though, is love, the bond of perfection, love that is more than just an affection, but a commitment, a real will to seek the good of the other.
All of this is the proper context for understanding the politically incorrect application to family life that brings the 2nd reading to a close: 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.
The words of St. Paul are not just something that we can dismiss as being the reflection of antiquated, out of date, and irrelevant cultural practices, they show us the right order of family life.
We should remember, however, that marriage is not the highest vocation, either for a man or for a woman, but rather virginity or celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God, for God’s family. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph give us the supreme example of the virginal life.
They also show us how families are to live, following the words of St. Paul. The Immaculate Virgin Mary was subordinate to St. Joseph. In matters that involved the life of the whole family, the angel appeared to Joseph, and Joseph followed the angel’s commands, taking the child and his mother to Egypt and then returning to the land of Israel. St. Joseph was the head of the Holy Family and he loved the Virgin Mary with a pure and tender love. Jesus, the Son of God, obeyed Mary and Joseph.
Pope Pius XI wrote clearly and beautifully about how this teaching should apply in the life of every family.
“Domestic society being confirmed, therefore, by this bond of love, there should flourish in it that ‘order of love,’ as St. Augustine calls it. This order includes both the primacy of the husband with regard to the wife and children, the ready subjection of the wife and her willing obedience, which the Apostle commends in these words: ‘Let women be subject to their husbands as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife, and Christ is the head of the Church.’
This subjection, however, does not deny or take away the liberty which fully belongs to the woman both in view of her dignity as a human person, and in view of her most noble office as wife and mother and companion; nor does it bid her obey her husband’s every request if not in harmony with right reason or with the dignity due to wife; nor, in fine, does it imply that the wife should be put on a level with those persons who in law are called minors, to whom it is not customary to allow free exercise of their rights on account of their lack of mature judgment, or of their ignorance of human affairs. But it forbids that exaggerated liberty which cares not for the good of the family; it forbids that in this body which is the family, the heart be separated from the head to the great detriment of the whole body and the proximate danger of ruin. For if the man is the head, the woman is the heart, and as he occupies the chief place in ruling, so she may and ought to claim for herself the chief place in love.” (Castii Conubii 26-27)
In a word: It is the role of the man to build the house and the gift of a woman to make it a home. The underlying principle here is the difference between man and woman; that difference involves also the unique relation between mother and child, that finds its proper protection and support within marriage.
But what happens when love fails? What happens when in place of love there is abuse? That is why I began with the discussion of enemies. Trust may be gone; it may be necessary for the abused wife to take measures to protect herself and her children; but she is still bound by her marriage vows to be faithful to her husband and to “love and honor” him, even as an enemy, all the days of her life, even if she must do so at a distance and chiefly by prayer.
Still, Pope Pius XI added: “The structure of the family and its fundamental law, established and confirmed by God, must always and everywhere be maintained intact.” (Ibid. 28)
The modern world, however, is dominated by fear, the fear of disorder, tyranny, and abuse, whether in the political or domestic orders; by putting a priority on avoiding disorder, the world has ended up making it nearly impossible to establish any right order.
As result, the spirit of Herod rages. Having failed to destroy Jesus Christ, it runs amok, seeking destroy all knowledge and memory of the truth, laying waste human lives in every part, especially in the family.
Indeed, our society today has institutionalized the violation of the commandments of God, especially as regards the family.
God commanded: Honor thy father and thy mother. The violation of this commandment has been institutionalized by the rejection of authority on all levels, but especially the authority of the father. It has also been institutionalized in the hatred of motherhood, exemplified in abortion and contraception, but also in the ideal of the ‘working woman’ or ‘career woman’ that is proposed to women and girls, over the life of motherhood.
This has been reinforced even further because the economy has been restructured around the two-income household. Meanwhile, girls can get contraception and abortions without their parent’s knowledge, at the taxpayers’ expense. Indeed, little children are now being allowed to pretend to change their sex, even to the point of self-mutilation, while parents have become powerless bystanders.
God commanded: Thou shalt not kill. Marriage is the font of life, but murder directly impacting the life-giving role of marriage, has been institutionalized through abortion and euthanasia, while human beings try to seize control over the very springs of life through in-vitro fertilization.
God commanded: Thou shalt not commit adultery, but adultery has been institutionalized through ‘no-fault’ divorce, while marriage itself has been redefined to include perverse and essentially sterile pairings of the same sex.
God commanded: Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s wife. Nevertheless, lust has been institutionalized by extending the right of free speech to include all manner of expression. The result is that we have been inundated with the raw sewage of pornography and all manner of salacious material found unfiltered on most websites, television programs, movies, newspapers, magazines, and supermarket checkout lines. Consider how much of woman’s clothing today would have been scarcely acceptable even for a harlot just 60 years ago!
In part, at least, all this has been justified as a means of liberating women from the danger of being subject to an abusive husband. Yet, the result has been that domestic abuse has only increased, marriages have fallen apart, and children have been left abandoned and without guidance in life.
Children need fathers and fathers must have authority, but authority also means responsibility. Men, for their part, must be trained for the right exercise of authority, the true service of authority. This also means that they must learn to submit themselves to God so as to serve as the leader in the practice of religion, the ‘priest’ of the family, the domestic Church. In a word, we need men like St. Joseph.
Frankly, we are in a mess and we would do well to direct our prayers to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, heal our wounds and teach us the right way to live. We have clearly lost the way; lead us, your children out of the new Egypt we have fashioned for ourselves. Help us to overcome enmity and distrust and so build friendships and families on the solid foundation of a common faith and common hope in Jesus Christ, bound together by that love of God that is the bond of perfection.