As we wind down to the end of the Church year, we are given scripture readings that really challenge us to really think about our lives. The message in the readings of the season couldn’t be more clear. We are expected to take care of the least of our brethren. That’s important, and I’m going to talk about that, but first I want to talk about something more basic. Before we can faithfully take care of the least of our brethren, we have to understand what we’ve been given, to thank God for it, and to share what we’ve been given with our families, with our friends and with the least of our brethren. It’s a lesson that I learned in a fairly dramatic fashion.
I have often shared that my father and I didn’t see or speak to one another for a long time. In all, it was about 16 years. You see, Dad is a recovering alcoholic, now sober almost 27 years, but on Christmas Day, 1984, he was not in recovery. He and my mother never got along very well, but that day was one for the record books. He had started drinking very early in the morning, which was unusual for him, and by early afternoon, he was really blitzed. Dad was normally a “happy drunk,” which is why I think he got away with it for so many years, but on this day, he was downright mean. I’ll spare you the gory details, but we kids ended up taking my mother out of the house for her own protection, and she didn’t return until he was gone for good. I stayed away so long, because I was afraid of an ugly scene, but even in the worst of circumstances, God does work miracles. Let’s fast forward to Thanksgiving Day, 1999.
I wanted to go to Thanksgiving Day Mass at the local parish back in Pittsburgh. My mom, who was estranged from the Church at the time, asked if she could go along. This was a pleasant surprise, and of course I said, “Yes.” A short while after we walked into church, my dad and his wife walked in. My first thought was something like, “Oh no! Nothing good can come from this.” (Actually it was more graphic, but I don’t use that kind of language out loud in church. You need to understand that, after the divorce, my mom and dad couldn’t be in the same room together without things turning ugly.) The Mass was something special. Father Dan Valentine, a retired military chaplain with a Doctorate of Divinity in Sacred Scripture, is an amazing, spirit filled man, and his sermon that day spoke about troubled families and healing relationships. As he read from Ezekiel and Mark, then expounded on the message, I swear we felt The Spirit moving in the church.
In Ezekiel, the prophet tells us that God isn’t particularly interested in the wealthy person or the beauty queen. They’re his children too, but He is truly in love with the humble of heart. Paul reminds us that in order to become one in God, we have to adhere to his commands, to love God more than anything, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. So let us give thanks to God for what He has given us, especially for the gift of His Son, and let us share our thanks and what we have been given with our families and with the least of our brethren.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells us that the entirety of law, be it church law or civil law, comes down to two commands, “Love God above all things, and love your neighbor as yourself.” If we’re to love our neighbor, and our neighbor, according to Jesus, is anyone we meet, shouldn’t we also extend that care and love to those to whom we should be closest? Yet often, that very closeness will lull us into routine, and we will forget to express affection, or worse, deliberately withhold it. We should rethink that and endeavor to express our love to our loved ones.
Now I need to tell you the rest of the story. Something miraculous happened during Father Dan’s sermon. All of us agreed afterward that we felt a sense of peace and love come over us. It was that movement of the Spirit of which I spoke earlier.
After Mass, my dad and his wife approached us, wished us a Happy Thanksgiving, and made some small talk. Then my mother spoke up and invited them to dinner that Saturday. My wife and I couldn’t believe what we were hearing, but we were delighted nonetheless. Dad and Esther came, along with my brother and his family. It was the first really pleasant family celebration I could remember in a very long time.
Afterwards, as everyone was going their separate ways, my sister and I noticed that Mom and Dad were still in the dining room, together, alone. My sister leaned over to me and said, “Oh no! Here it comes!” (Remember that this is a family blog. So I’ve cleaned up the language a bit.) She was afraid that Dad or Mom would say something to precipitate a fight, but that wasn’t the case at all. Instead, my dad apologized to my mom for everything that he ever did, and she accepted. Mom and Dad became friends that day, perhaps for the first time in their lives, and the friendship has endured. They made peace that day, and so did I.
In the years that have passed since that Thanksgiving Day, we have had many happy family celebrations, celebrations where both of my parents have been present and have shared the joys that they have in common. Mom is now in Hospice care near her home in Pennsylvania. Recently, my dad visited her, and they made peace once again, putting all the former resentments behind them. Miracles do happen.
I tell this story because I believe that the Advent scriptures that speak about the end times are not so much a threat as an invitation. If you haven’t spoken to someone in your family in a long time, write a letter, or find some other way to express the love that you have for them. If that’s not possible, say a special prayer for them. I can’t promise the same result as I experienced, but I wouldn’t have seen that result, if we hadn’t listened to God’s message in our own hearts. Maybe you’re fortunate and have a loving family. If that’s so, tell them how much that means, and then share that love, when the opportunity presents itself, with the least of your brethren.
God bless you, and have a blessed holiday season.