By Fr. George Berendt, PIME
Readings for Sunday, December 29:
Sirach 3: 2-6, 12-14
Col 3: 12-21
Mt 2: 13-15, 19-23
All it takes is six letters to form the word “family” but it’s a word that is packed with all kinds of images, emotions, and feelings; sometimes pleasant, sometimes unpleasant. All of us come from a family and yet all of our families are different, unique, and distinctive. No two families are exactly alike.
Personally, I think I was born just at the right time. I’m a baby boomer born in 1947 soon after World War II and the family I was born into is perhaps a rarer form of family than what we have today.
Born in southwest Detroit where the two great streets of Livernois and Michigan wed, my life began on the side streets called Hammond and Nowak. My early years were spent around Saint Francis of Assisi parish on Campbell.
Dad’s side of the family left Europe in the 1870’s and mom’s left in the 1910’s. For some unknown reasons both sides of the family settled here.
Mom and dad married in 1946. They rented a house on Nowak Street and next year in September found me under a cabbage leaf somewhere in the garden. As soon as I could walk, I would cross the railroad tracks and go to my grandparents’ house on the other side of the tracks. Grandma and Dad’s youngest brothers and sisters would take care of me and this became my second home.
When I was courageous enough, I’d mosey further down Hammond Street a few houses, like a wobbly sailor on shore leave, and go to my great-grandma’s house. I’d crawl up the stairs, push open the screen door and sit in great-grandma’s lap as she rocked away, babbling something in Polish I never really understood.
Ma worked downtown. On her way to the streetcar on Michigan Avenue she’d drop me off at her Ma’s house for the day and Grandma would babysit me. I’d climb the huge apple tree on her lot and help Grandma pick apples that she turned into wonderful apple pies. When Grandpa returned from the Rouge Plant he’d take me to the corner bar, sit me in a stool next to him, and buy me a Coke while he nursed his boilermaker and talked with his union and Rouge Plant rowdies.
Most of my aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws by marriage and family friends were always a few minutes’ walk away “in da hood.” Family was more than just under my roof. It was spread around in the local area and I could always find a place to go to, grab a bite to eat or a playmate to get in trouble with. Family was nuclear and at the same time extended over the nearby city blocks.
Family began to change for me after the Korean and Vietnam Wars and as the modern highway system was put in. After the wars, most of my cousins moved to the suburbs or out of State where the jobs were. Uncles and aunts bought in to the great migration to the new suburbs around Metro Detroit and in the growing southern and western cities. Gradually, family as I knew it in my childhood began to scatter and become diluted. My family and, I think it is safe to say, the American family, was changing and becoming gradually like it is today.
Many things have made me what I am today: school, classmates, the local parish, my early education and so on. Nevertheless, it is family I believe that really formed me.
Most of you might not have heard of Jim Wallis. He’s the CEO of Sojourners and the editor of their magazine of the same name. In his latest book, On God’s Side, he wrote this in chapter 13.
For all the importance and attention we have given to national, institutional, cultural, economic, and political forces, no force, no place, is more formational to human flourishing than the household we live in. That’s because our households are the places where we have our most primary relationships and because, most important, they are the environments where our young are primarily raised….They are the places that most of us leave in the morning and come back to at night. Households are the home base of our existence and the foundation of a society. Households hold our families together, and they are the first place where we learn the lessons of human relationships and community…It is in our households that we must learn to choose values over appetites (p. 253).
This Sunday we begin to tie up the last celebrations of our Church’s Advent-Christmas season and as we do so we take one last look at the central figures of those around whom these holidays and holydays revolve – the Holy Family; and no, I’m not talking about Jesus, Mary and Joseph. I’m talking about my family and your family.
The Bible’s Holy Family is a touchstone, a model, a criterion, and icon of what is and makes the world and societies that we live in. They are us and we are them. The Holy Family of Bethlehem is a family like all families that must tend and deal with the vicissitudes, fluctuations, and vagaries of human life. No family is ever immune to them; not even the Holy Family. How do I know this? Well the Bible tells me so. Listen to what is written in the Letter to the Hebrews. The author says that “…he [Jesus] was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested” (Hebrews 2:18). If Jesus shared what it means to be a human being thorough his Incarnation, the essential meaning of Christmas, than he and his family know what it is to be like us – as family; with all the joys and tribulations that are part and parcel of this life.
Soon the Catholic Church is going to begin the Synod on the Family. Like us Jesus and his family experienced and suffered the same things our families do: the daily grind of work to put food on the table, thirst and hunger, sickness, death of a spouse, rejection, death of a child, lethargy, and the weariness of life. At the same time they knew the joys of life: a meal together, family creating a household in harmony; participating in a wedding party; a visit to the Capital City with its beautiful Temple; a sunset and sunrise that stirs the heart and soul; the fresh green grass of spring and countless other joys of life. The world of the Holy Family is also our world.
Today however, the modern family – our Holy Families – are under great stress and that is why our Church is turning its attention and calling a synod that reflects on the family today. Today marriage, family life, teen life, the life of young persons is reeling and staggering under tremendous pressures and problems. Fifty percent of all marriages end in divorce; families are blended; one parent families are common; family poverty is increasing. Spousal abuse; latch key kids; cohabitation without the intention of marrying; drug abuse; violence and gang membership; ignorance of the essentials of the Faith; the lack of a moral map to follow; consumerism; and so many other negative things batter our families daily.
The Holy Family isn’t a sterilized picture that we print on a Christmas greeting card to mail to family and friends. It’s a modern day creation of someone we know who lived here too some 2000 years ago. It’s a modern day creation of people like us who walked the same earth then as we do today, dealt with the same issues, and did as well as they could considering the circumstances of their lives. It is, however, an icon of what could be: our holy family.
Like them we too live in a world that stresses us and tears us apart. Like them, we too can decide to swim against the tide and enter the struggle to live together in harmony and in familial solidarity. Let us pray that those who participate in the upcoming synod and reflect on the modern day family can help us live more like the Holy Family of Bethlehem, enjoying the virtues St. Paul wrote about today: “…heartfelt compassion, kindness, gentleness,…patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another” (Col 3: 12).