Brief synopsis of the readings: Once again we being with a Biblical book that Catholics accept and Protestants and Jews do not: the book of Sirach. Sirach speaks of the roles of parents over children. But he goes further and speaks of the need for children to care for their parents, even if their “mind should fail, show [them] sympathy, do not despise [them] in your health and strength. In Luke’s Gospel we see a rare glimpse into Jesus as a child where he and his parents travel to Jerusalem for Passover when Jesus was about 12. On their return they assumed Jesus was with them, but after a day they recognized that Jesus wasn’t in their caravan. Panicked, they returned to Jerusalem and found their son preaching in the Temple. When Mary asked him why he stayed behind, Jesus told them: “Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father’s affairs?”
The Sunday after Christmas creates problems for many Christians. Homilies all over the world this Sunday will celebrate the value of family and look to the Holy Family as the example we should all look to.
I have to confess that this has always puzzled me. Full disclosure: by any measure the family I was born into embodied what could be considered the perfect family. My parents grew up within a block of each other and both families supported their marriage. In February they will celebrate 61 years of wedded bliss and they produced two children (me and my sister).
But the Holy Family shared nearly nothing with me. Joseph and Mary weren’t married and Jesus was born in a stable. Today we read from Luke’s Gospel, but if we read Matthew’s account the Holy Family they were refugees. They fled for their lives and sought asylum in Egypt, which, thankfully, they were granted.
Today we think of family as a “nuclear family.” That is, a family consists of a father, mother, and biological children. But let’s face it: this idea has never been the family for most of us. The modern ideal of a nuclear family didn’t exist in the ancient world. For most of our history, a family consisted of one man and as many wives as he could afford. Don’t believe me? The Old Testament book of Kings describes Solomon as having 700 wives and 300 concubines.
Today nobody thinks of a family as a man with 1,000 wives and we dismiss Solomon. But many of us continue to dismiss families that don’t conform to our image. I grew up in the state of Virginia and in 1968 the Supreme Court shocked us by ruling that marriage between a man and woman of different races can’t be prohibited, even though at the time most Americans disapproved of them. I still laugh that the case was Loving vs. Virginia. Decades later we saw much the same thing with gay marriage.
And yet, through all the of self inflicted chaos, many of us forged a family that works for us. Couples who cannot conceive a child themselves welcome a child from a family who (for whatever reason) cannot raise a child they conceived and give this child a forever family. Several years ago I met the author Lew Smedes; he spoke about how he and his wife adopted a child. He spoke eloquently about how they were a family even though none of them shared DNA with each other. They became a family not through biology but through a decision to become a family.
Before we had marriage equality, gay men and women would refer to other gay men and women as family (“See that guy over there? He’s family”). People who find themselves alone, particularly at the holidays, are “adopted” by others and are told: “you’re just like family to us.”
For all its complications, we think of family as those people who are closest to us, who have our backs, who want only the best for us. Sometimes these are people who share our DNA, who are the people we grew up with. Sometimes these are people who we’ve met along our path and come into our lives when we needed them most.
And so what do we owe each other as members of the same family? We Americans value independence, sometimes to a fault. We expect our children to be dependent on us, but once adults we demand of ourselves the we never be dependent on anyone, particularly our children. I can’t tell you how many times one of my patients has told me that he never wanted to be a “burden” to his children, while his children are honored to be caregivers. I point to this first reading from Sirach. Much of the beginning of the reading speaks of honoring parents, and this goes all the way back to the 5th Commandment.
But the reading goes on to talk about caring for parents in their old age. The reality wasn’t nearly as common back when few people lived into old age and many more illnesses were fatal. But the message is clear: support your parents in their old age, even their minds should fail. Today, because of clean water and antibiotics, we are living to a much older age. Life expectancy in the United States rose from 49 in 1900 to 78 in 2000. Someone who developed pneumonia or appendicitis in 1900 had a tough road to survival; but today a simple course of antibiotics or surgery leads to a full recover. When I get a 90 year old with end stage dementia it’s not uncommon to learn that he had quadruple bypass surgery at 65 and stage 1 colon cancer at 75.
I’m not making value judgements on how health care should work, but it does mean that these words from Sirach resonate to us. I’m also not saying that in all cases we should care for aging parents in our home: sometimes we physically or financially simply cannot. Sometimes these relationships are complex or even abusive. Sometimes we need to access care from the outside.
But at the end of the day we are still family, however our family happened. And if the desire to care for members of our family steers our actions, we give honor to ourselves, each other, and the Holy Family.
This is my last homily of 2018. I pray it’s been a blessed year for all of you. I think of you often and hope these homilies have helped. I will see you in 2019.