The Family Altar

The Family Altar

Today we continue our Christmas celebration with a consideration of the Holy Family. This feast has the same first two readings every year but one of three different Gospels. The first reading is always the reading from Sirach (3:2-6, 12-14) about the honor that children should extend to their parents. The second reading is always the reading from Colossians (3:12-21) about respecting each other’s position within the family. It is not a divine decree that women should be subordinated to men any more than was St. Paul’s admonition to slaves to be faithful to their masters is a divine endorsement of slavery.

In the Gospel of Luke (2:22-40), Mary and Joseph present Jesus in Jerusalem’s Temple in fulfillment of their religious tradition. You parents can remember when your children were infants. You couldn’t wait to show them off to family and friends. You probably had a big celebration on that very special day when you went to your parish church and presented them to the Lord to receive his life in Baptism. They left the church on that day of their baptism still your children — but also the Lord’s. Mary and Joseph must have loved showing Jesus off just as you loved showing your babies off. They must have enjoyed the fuss that people made about him, just as you enjoyed people stopping by to see your babies and saying a kind word or two to you.

When you first held your children, when you brought the baby home from the hospital, when you survived that first night when your baby would not get to sleep, you probably asked yourself, how will I, how will we, deal with the challenges this new life is going to bring? Perhaps you are still asking yourselves that question. Certainly there is not a parent here who has not wondered: how can I be the best parent possible? What will happen to my child during his or her life? What sort of person will he or she become?

Today the Church bids us to look to the Holy Family. They kept their union with God as the foundation and glue of their lives. This resulted in a tranquility that let them meet each challenge they faced…conquering the surrounding chaos instead of being destroyed by it.

This is why the constant battle that you parents fighting against sin in your lives is a responsibility you owe to your family, not a matter of individual choice. This is why the efforts you make to nurture and develop your prayer life, your union with God, is not a matter of your own individual relationship with God but is fundamental to the stability and the tranquility of your family.

You parents live in a society that does too much but not enough. Other forces tempt you to do too much. They convince you that if you are going to be good parents you have to have your kids in every activity possible, be a part of every organization you can, be the perfect homemaker, cook, provider, repairer, and referee. They convince you to do too much… but not enough. For many parents there is not enough time to develop the union with God that is the heart of your family. You try too hard… but not hard enough. You try to be the perfect parent in every way but sheer exhaustion results in your not being able to spend the time you need to spend in prayer. Your prayer time should not be something you throw into your day. It should be the ground upon which you build your day.

The sudden and unexplained collapse during the last fifty years of the institution we know of as family is a great mystery. Why, during these times, have so many young people simply begun living together as a family when they really were not? Fully one third of the children born in America today are born out of wedlock. The numbers of children who are being shaped and formed without a father and a mother living with them is staggering. Who are their grandparents, and how many sets of grandparents do they have, given the number of stepfathers and stepmothers they have? What sorts of values are being displayed in the lives of the adults with whom children live?

Much is said these days about the troubles within our American public school system. While a lot may be wrong in the system, the chief thing that has gone wrong is the absence of genuine families in which the children are being raised. All too often they are not being raised with mom, dad, and siblings. Too many are being formed many hours of each week away from home. Schools cannot replace families. Do you know that 60% of the felons in our prisons don’t know who their fathers are?

And a lot is being said these days about so-called family values. What values? In what families? We are told that public schools are not supposed to teach morals and values and that these should be taught in the home. But what homes? And what is meant by the word home? Certainly not very many kids have the good fortune to be living in and raised in the traditional nuclear family. The nuclear family constitutes only 25% of the households in which children live these days!

Yet it was in my family that my character, personality and individuation were formed. I became an individual and a person with a distinct character because I lived in a family. For a family makes an individual, and individuals in turn constitute the family.

It is in our family homes that we learn a philosophy of life. It is there that we acquire principles by which we should live and relate to others. It is there, in the domestic church, that God is acknowledged, that prayer is learned, and devotion is formed. It is there that our soul is nurtured at the family altar, the family table in which we share a communion of food for the body, the mind and the soul.

It is in our family homes that our intellectual formation really takes place, where books are read, articles are discussed, and critical thinking is developed. It is there that we learn to revere that which is above and beyond what is merely popular. For what is popular is ever-changing; it has no absolutes, nothing that lasts; only things that evaporate with the coming of the next new fad. How can all of this vital formation happen if one is not being raised in a family? Without it education, religious devotion, and the formation of our hearts and souls in the art and skill of loving commitment… all collapse.

Is it any wonder, then, that our Church pays close and reverential attention each year at this time to all that it means to be family? For even God himself chose to come among us not as some sort of space alien that stepped off of a cosmic space ship, not as some sort of mysterious guru discovered in a mountain cave, but rather as a member of a human family, with all that it entails.

So in thanking God for the gift of the Christ Child, let us also thank God for our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, and the wonderful gift that we have been given, our family.

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Written by
Fr Charles Irvin