Growing up in our suburban Philadelphia parish was a beautiful experience. We got to know the names not only of our parish priests from early on, but also the parish housekeeper. She made the best chocolate chip cookies I’ve ever had, and whenever we found an excuse to cross the road from school to the rectory on some (real or made up) errand, she always took time to treat us to one or two of her cookies, complete with a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye. Her name was Annie Campbell, and she came from western Ireland. She wasn’t only housekeeper, but cook and parish secretary as well, and knew most of the school children by name.
Whenever something unexpected happened, or something took her by surprise, Annie would exclaim in clear and ringing tones, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” I don’t believe she was being irreligious, nor was she taking those holy names in vain. Rather, she had probably been taught from her earliest years as a child in Ireland to invoke the names of the Holy Family whenever she was in trouble or needed help. So well did she take this advice to heart, that every parishioner who came to know and love her knew that, in her world, the invocation of the Holy Family was never far from her lips.
In days long gone, it had been a great prayer, taught to people to invoke the persons of the Holy Family as a preparation for a happy death. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I give you my heart and my soul.” “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, assist me in my last agony.” “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, may I breathe forth my soul in peace with you.” This tradition came from the understanding that Joseph had passed from this world with Jesus and Mary at his side.
Today, on this Sunday after Christmas, the Church places before us the beautiful image of the Holy Family, and speaks to us about virtue — about many virtues — all those positive forces that are needed if people are going to be able to live with one another peaceably and in harmony.
In writing to the Colossians, St. Paul gives a very impressive list of virtues in his letter, and he talks about them as if they were the clothes that we wear in everyday life. He tells us to put on these clothes every day – compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience. Then Paul goes on to tell us to teach and advise one another in daily life. So, we ask ourselves, do we wear these clothes every day? We have a lot of learning to do. Finally, he points out that parents and children must have mutual respect for one another.
Virtues are not simply “nice things” to have in our life. They are vital to our well-being and to our happiness. They are vital to the peace of the world. Jesus said, “If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” You will never know what the joy of God is. The point is that every day our virtue will be tested by others, including members of our own family. But the first battle will be fought not in our home but in our own heart, because it is there that virtue and vice battle for supremacy!
In the days of Jesus’ birth, a cruel tyrant ruled the land. Herod was so lost in vice that he lived in constant fear of being overthrown. Seeing enemies everywhere, he even had three of his own sons executed, fearing that they intended to topple him. Once you commit yourself to evil and wrongdoing, nothing short of conversion of heart can ever save you. Any vice can destroy us, stealing our peace of mind, and throwing us into anger and despair. That’s why Paul urges us, “never say or do anything except in the name of the Lord Jesus.” What a wonderful way to live!
Some people have nothing but happiness to relate when they think of their family; others have nothing but sorrow and sadness. The family, in our experience, can either be a place of joy, or a nightmare. In this sense, the family is like the world in miniature itself — a place in need of love and redemption. Jesus said that He didn’t come to condemn the world but to save it. If our experience of family life is good, then give thanks to God for it. Where people’s experience of family life is bad, then let’s try to save people from the ruins.
In the story of the Holy Family we hear of the message given to Joseph by the angel of God, telling him to save the mother and child. Joseph did just that, going first into Egypt, and then returning back to his hometown of Nazareth. In that little corner of Galilee, Jesus grew up in “wisdom, age and grace,” in a loving family home. Each and every child deserves a chance to do the same. That’s why, to the true Christian, little children should be treated with love and caring, never to be abused, and always to be raised in a responsible way so that they may freely choose to love and stay close to Jesus and one day come to see Him in heaven.
In our Mass, we experience Jesus as the light for our hearts and the one who lifts the burdens of our sins from our shoulders. As we approach Christ in Holy Communion at Mass, you and I can truly say that we who walked in darkness have seen a great light. May each and every gathering around God’s altar for our celebration of the Eucharist always fill us with an awareness of the grace and peace that comes to us from God our Father through the Lord Jesus Christ. Continue to celebrate the Christmas season (at least until its conclusion on January 12th). Happy New Year!