On one occasion during the U.S. Civil War, Union soldiers from the North and Confederate troops from the South were camped for the night a short distance from each other. A major battle was expected the following day, so each army’s band played music for its soldiers, hoping to inspire them. First the Union Army’s band played “Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys.” The Confederates were close enough to hear this, and they of course rejected this sentiment, so in response their band played “The Bonny Blue Flag.” Then the Union band played “Hail, Columbia.” Not to be outdone, the Confederate musicians responded with “Dixie.” Finally, the Union band played “Home, Sweet Home”—and in this song the Confederate band joined right in (homily notebook, “Family”).
An experience of home, and of family life, is something that should unite us, in spite of any differences or disagreements we may have; these are universal experiences, and an essential source of God’s grace. A sense of belonging is very important, and the more people we’re able to share this with, the happier we ourselves will be. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are called the Holy Family not just because of their personal holiness, but because they freely shared their love and goodness with everyone—and in this they are an example for us.
Whether you attend Mass with family members, with friends or other acquaintances, or by yourself, all of us together are not present in church as separate individuals or groups. Rather, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, we’re all called to be united as part of God’s family, gathering in His Name to hear His Word and to share in the Body and Blood of His Son. Because we are in fact united in Christ—a bond meant to be even deeper than that of blood or friendship—we are expected to welcome others and show concern for everyone, including those who might otherwise be considered strangers or outsiders. Mary and Joseph did this, as the Gospel of Luke (2:22-40) shows. They could have considered themselves superior to others and exempt from normal rules and expectations; after all, their child was the Son of God, and the circumstances surrounding His birth were truly miraculous. If anyone was entitled to brag, it would have seemed to be them—and yet they humbly and faithfully followed the Law of Moses just like everyone else. Joseph and Mary presented Jesus in the Temple according to the custom of their people. While there, they first encountered Simeon, and then Anna—two persons who were probably strangers to them. There must have been something about Mary and Joseph to make Simeon and Anna feel that their attention would be welcome; the Holy Family was marked by a certain openness, or generosity of spirit.
Family life should bring us closer to God, and to one another. Through faith, we are all members of God’s family, and will one day fully and perfectly experience this in Heaven—and our family life on earth should help prepare us for this. There’s a popular book called Everything I Really Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten. I think we could paraphrase this title to say “Every Really Important Lesson We Need to Know, We Should Learn in Our Families.” It’s in the home that we should be given an appreciation of our own value as persons, being loved, accepted, and challenged to grow.
Parents are supposed to do this for their children, of course, but it works both ways; children—both young and grown-up—are required by God to respect and appreciate their parents. It’s in the home that we should first learn about God, and experience religious faith and standards of moral behavior. The most important religious training Jesus ever received was given by Mary and Joseph, and this holy tradition is one that every Christian family is expected to continue. It’s in the home that children should be given the opportunity to discover and develop their talents, and, above all, to discern and respond to their unique calling from God. The home is the place where vocations to the priesthood, religious life, diaconate, and lay ministry, along with every other vocation and occupation, should be nourished and cultivated. It’s in the home that we should develop a spirit of hospitality and concern for others, learning to see people not as strangers, but as potential friends and as brothers and sisters in Christ. This is what the Holy Family did in a wonderful way; everyone was important to them, and everyone was welcome.
If it were possible for us to travel back in time and space to 1st century Nazareth and visit the home of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, they’d surely greet us with joy, and generously share their humble hospitality with us. If instead we were to be visited by them today through a vision or mystical experience, we’d surely stop whatever we were doing and give them our full attention and respect. The former experience is impossible, and the latter is highly unlikely. What is possible, however, is for us to expand our understanding of family, recognizing our unity with and dependency on all people of good will, just as the Holy Family did. Whenever we lend a helping hand to someone in need, we follow the example of St. Joseph, who was good and generous and kind. Whenever we welcome someone into our home, we imitate the Virgin Mary, who made the home in Nazareth a place of warmth and love. Whenever we look at another person and see a fellow member of God’s family, we walk in the way of Jesus, Who came to save all people. In some way, every individual Christian and every Christian family is given the chance to be a sign of God’s presence on earth. Let’s use this opportunity, and thus prepare ourselves for the perfect life of God’s family in Heaven.