The Feast of the Holy Family
Everybody loves a good, heartwarming, somewhat schmaltzy Christmas special. I remember growing up, most of the ones I saw on TV ended with some imperative to “keep the Spirit of Christmas alive in your heart” all year long. Of course they were usually pretty vague as to just what the Spirit of Christmas was.
Generally it was something to do with good will to all; Jesus was never mentioned, though he is the “reason for the season.” But of course one cannot separate Christ from love of neighbor. To keep Christmas all year long means to keep Christ in your heart all year long, which means following his commands, the principle two being to love God with all your mind, soul, heart and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself (Lk 10:27).
A Season of Feasts!
The Catholic Church knows how to keep Christmas! We don’t celebrate the Nativity of the Lord with just one day, but with a whole season. We are currently in the Octave of Christmas, the eight days between Christmas Day and the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God (formerly the Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord, which would have taken place eight days after his birth).
This Octave feast is more than just an excuse to keep partying for a solid week. It is a lesson in just what it means to keep Christmas all year. The day after Christmas is the Feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr. This reminds us that welcoming the Christ-child into our hearts also means welcoming his Passion and accepting our share in it. The next day is the Feast of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist. This reminds us that the joy we have at Christmas cannot be contained — it must be shared. To be an apostle is to be sent on a mission. To be an evangelist means to be a sharer of good news. Once we have come to the creche to adore our newborn King, we must go back out into the world to proclaim him!
The following day is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, commemorating all the children who died at the order of King Herod, in his attempt to eliminate the threat he perceived from the birth of the Messiah. This is a poignant reminder to us that not everyone will accept the good news we proclaim; that we can expect resistance, but God will honor those who endure suffering because of his name. All this is part and parcel of what it means to keep Christmas.
The Sunday within the Octave of Christmas is the Feast of the Holy Family. This celebration draws our attention to the fact that God became incarnate within the context of a human family. He had a mother and a foster-father who loved him and cared for him. Even though he was God, Jesus subjected himself to the authority of his parents, desiring to be raised, instructed and guided by them. Jesus grew in wisdom (Lk 2:52) within the context of a family. If we are to grow in wisdom — if we are to keep Christmas all year long — we must keep Christ not only in our hearts, but in our families. We must allow our love of Christ to empower our love for one another.
The Domestic Church
God calls us to love our neighbors. This is both practical, as we have greater opportunity to love those near to us, and poignant, as those closest to us also tend to challenge us the most. The family provides us with the natural bonds of closeness in which most of us first learn the lessons of love; where we first learn to trust, to be patient, to forgive and to be forgiven.
The scripture readings for the Feast of the Holy Family are full of these lessons. (The Church provides different options for the readings for this feast, so you may or may not hear some of these read at Mass).
God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons. Whoever honors his father atones for sins, and preserves himself from them. When he prays he is heard; he stores up riches who reveres his mother.Sirach 3:2-4
This admonition from Sirach calls to mind the Fourth Commandment to honor your father and mother. It is the only commandment that comes with a promise: “so that you may have a long life the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Ex 20:12). The promise of prosperity doesn’t necessarily apply to this life. The true home God desires to give us is heaven, where we will dwell with our divine Father for all eternity. Sirach points out that the prosperity we gain by honoring our parents is spiritual. Our sins will be atoned. Our prayers will be heard. By their act of procreation, our parents share in the creative work of God. When we honor those who gave us physical life, we also honor him who gives us spiritual life. Our parents are living icons of God the Father.
In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul also speaks of the importance of honoring our parents. “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord” (Col 3:20). But he also instructs parents to be mindful of their children’s good. “Fathers, do not provoke our children, so they may not become discouraged” (Col 3:21).
In fact St. Paul looks at the gambit of family relations and instructs all of us, no matter our station, to subject ourselves to the good of others in our families. “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them” (Col 3:18-19). Or, as he instructs spouses in another letter, “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21).
This mutual subordination is precisely how we learn to grow in love. When we make ourselves subject to one another, it requires us to put our own ego to the side so that we can work for the good of the other. As a parent, I have to put my own needs aside to do what is best for my children. As a husband, I have to think of my wife’s good before my own. As a son, I have to put my own needs aside out of respect for my parents who gave me life and raised me. Paradoxically, if I put the good of others ahead of my own good for the sake of Christ, my own good is also realized in a much more profound way than it ever would be if I considered myself before others.
The family is where these lessons of selflessness are first learned, which is why it has been called the “Domestic Church.” But these lessons of love should spill out from our families and influence the ways we interact with all whom we encounter.
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…Col 3:12-16a
If you want to keep Christmas in your heart all year long, this is how you do it! You do it with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and all the other ways St. Paul mentions above that we are called to show our love for one another.
To keep Christmas in our hearts is to keep Christ in our hearts, and we do this, St. John writes, if we “keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And his commandment is this: we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us” (1 Jn 3:22-23).
Maybe those schmaltzy Christmas TV specials about good will, gratitude, and forgiveness were on to something after all.