Monday, December 26, 2011

Family life: A vehicle for God's grace

Today, on the Feast of St. Stephen - the first deacon and the first martyr for the Christian faith - I'll pass up the opportunity to write about the diaconate or martyrdom. Heady and important topics both, I'll concede, but I have been consumed lately with a draw to reflect on the blessings of family, on the vocation of marriage and on the graces that God provides in the still-small recesses of our homes.

Many of you are or will be called by God to the vocation of marriage and family life. But nearly all of us have families - even if only extended ones. And during the holidays, most of us are spending more time with our families than we have been accustomed to for some time.

Perhaps it's the Christmas season, with its inherent sentimentality; or maybe it is the reflective nature of the reality that yet another year is quickly drawing to a close, but whatever it is that seems to be drawing me in to prayerful reflections on these beautiful but often hidden spiritual truths about family, I am grateful because it has led me to some profound readings and reflections on the goodness and holiness of family life. One such reflection is found in the writings of St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei. One of his published homilies is entitled: "Marriage: A Christian Vocation." His words, which are very appropriate during this Octave of Christmas, read, in part:

At Christmas our thoughts turn to the different events and circumstances surrounding the birth of the Son of God. As we contemplate the stable in Bethlehem or the home of the holy family in Nazareth, Mary, Joseph and the child Jesus occupy a special place in our hearts. What does the simple, admirable life of the holy family tell us? What can we learn from it? 
I would like particularly to comment on one of the many considerations that we might make on this theme. As we read in holy Scripture, the birth of Jesus means the beginning of the fullness of time. It was the moment God chose to show the extent of his love for men, by giving us his own Son. And God's will is fulfilled in the simplest, most ordinary of circumstances: a woman who gives birth, a family, a home. The power of God and his splendour come to us through a human reality to which they are joined. Since that moment Christians have known that, with God's grace, they can and should sanctify everything that is good in their human lives. There is no human situation, no matter how trivial and ordinary it may seem, which cannot be a meeting-place with Christ and a step forward on our journey toward the kingdom of heaven. 
It is only natural that the Church rejoices as it contemplates the modest home of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. We read in the hymn from matins on the feast of the Holy Family: 'It is pleasing to recall the lowly house at Nazareth and its slender resources, it is pleasing to tell again in song Jesus' hidden life. Jesus grows up in hidden seclusion, to be trained in Joseph's lowly trade. The loving Mother sits beside her dear Son, the good wife by her husband, content if her loving attention can ease and comfort them in their weariness.' 
When I think of Christian homes, I like to imagine them as being full of the light and joy that were in the home of the holy family. The message of Christmas is heard in all its forcefulness: 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will.' 'And may the peace of Christ triumph in your hearts,' writes the Apostle. It is a peace that comes from knowing that our Father God loves us, and that we are made one with Christ. It results from being under the protection of the Virgin, our Lady, and assisted by St Joseph. This is the great light that illuminates our lives. In the midst of difficulties and of our own personal failings, it encourages us to keep up our effort. Every Christian home should be a place of peace and serenity. In spite of the small frustrations of daily life, an atmosphere of profound and sincere affection should reign there together with a deep-rooted calm, which is the result of authentic faith that is put into practice.

During these days of the Christmas season, most of us are blessed to be able to spend a little more time with our families. See this time for what it is: a blessing. Sometimes that can be a difficult task. But God asks us to look not for reasons to complain, but for reasons to praise and to number our blessings, not our difficulties.

Find those reasons. Count your blessings and praise and thank God for all of them - especially for your families. Remember always that the family is the oldest of human institutions and is God's most basic building-block for the building up of his Kingdom. Furthermore, as Bl. John Paul II taught, the family is a "school of love." Learn to love in your family. If necessary, love to learn your family.

Finally, I'll leave you today with a prayer for families by Bl. Theresa of Calcutta:

Heavenly Father,
you have given us the model of life
in the Holy Family of Nazareth.
Help us, O Loving Father,
to make our family another Nazareth
where love, peace and joy reign.
May it be deeply contemplative,
intensely eucharistic,
revived with joy.

Help us to stay together in joy
and sorrow in family prayer.
Teach us to see Jesus in the members of our families,
especially in their distressing disguise.
May the eucharistic heart of Jesus 
make our hearts humble like his
and help us to carry out our family duties
in a holy way.
May we love one another
as God loves each one of us,
more and more each day,
and forgive each other's faults
as you forgive our sins.
Help us, O Loving Father,
to take whatever you give
and give whatever you take with a big smile.

Immaculate Heart of Mary,
cause of our joy, pray for us.

St. Joseph, pray for us.

Holy Guardian Angels,
be always with us,
guide and protect us.