Fourth Sunday of Advent/Christmas Eve
Here is a link to this week’s readings
As we enter the Christmas season, many of us think about family. For some, this brings warm feelings of comfort, peace, and joy. For others, the thought of family brings heartache, either because of loss of loved ones, which becomes poignant this time of year, or because of longing for a loving family that we have not genuinely experienced. There are also those who have families that don’t match the Church and society’s ideal, or who feel hurt by prejudice or the lack of recognition: blended families, interracial families, families headed by gay parents, families headed by grandparents, single-parent families, families affected by divorce, etc.
People often say things like, “Blood is thicker than water,” “Family first,” and “Family above all.” Although well-meaning, these expressions can represent an unhealthy “cult of the family” that turns family itself into an idol. If, for example, these sayings indicate an insular understanding of family, then they stray from the Church’s teaching. Family, to the Church, should be the great symbol of God’s family. It should lead us not inward, into seclusion from the world and narcissistic tribalism, but outwards into the family of God.
Pope St. John XXIII said “the family is the first essential cell of human society.” No cell in a human body exists for itself; it exists for the good of the body. Likewise, the Second Vatican Council called the family the “domestic Church,” (Lumen Gentium #11) and, like the Church universal, it cannot be self-referential, concerned only about itself and looking out only for its own best interests. It must have an ad extra orientation—a recognition that it has received blessings in order to share them, and a commitment to the common good. The family, as the domestic Church, is inherently evangelical. It exists to bring the Good News of salvation and mercy into a world that desperately needs to hear this message of hope, the Christmas message.
In the Gospels, we see that Jesus rejected the “cult of the family.” He challenged it, sometimes shockingly so. For example, when his own mother, the “handmaid of the Lord who was “full of grace,” arrived with other family members to speak with Jesus, he said, “‘Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.’” (Matthew 12:48-50). It’s not the only time he surprises us with his views on family. Faithfulness to Jesus, he himself said, would lead to a situation where “Brother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise up against parents and have them put to death” (Matthew 10:21). Loyalty to Jesus is clearly more important than loyalty to family in his teaching: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). Blood is not thicker than water. It is not family above all. This is why Jesus said, “…if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?” (Matthew 5:46-7). He teaches us to think of all God’s creation as family, “the bad and the good” alike (Matthew 5:45), and to call God “Our Father” (Matthew 6:9).
The reading today from Second Samuel says that David’s descendent, the Messiah, will himself have God as a Father: “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.” The Psalmist echoes this theme: “He shall say of me, ‘You are my father, my God, the Rock, my savior.’” St. Paul begins his writing with words we are so familiar with that we easily overlook their significance: “Brothers and sisters…” Taken together, these serve as a reminder that our relationship with God and one another is always in Christ Jesus. Every human family imperfectly symbolizes and points toward this perfect relationship between the Father and the Son, in which we share by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of love and unity. In other words, family points to God’s family, which, in turn, points to the inner life of the Trinity.
As we remember and celebrate the Holy Family of Bethlehem and Nazareth—itself an unconventional family by any estimation!—we remember that individual families exist for the good of the whole human family and are meant to draw us into the life of love that is the Trinity. Whether family brings us comfort, or pain and loss, or longing during this season especially, the Christian approach is to turn our gaze outwards, and to see sisters and brothers everywhere, all children of the same Father. The beautiful Christ child will ultimately shed his blood for this family out of faithfulness and love for the Father and for us. This blood is our salvation. This Precious Blood alone is thicker than water.
Merry Christmas, everyone!