Immediately after World War II, an American couple went to China as missionaries, taking along with them their two small children. They were very happy preaching the Gospel, but then in 1949 the Communists took over, and the family was placed under house arrest for a long time. Finally one day a soldier appeared and announced, without explanation, that they would be allowed on board a ship going to America the next day, and stated, “You may take 200 pounds with you–no more. Only 200 pounds!” As you’d imagine, the missionary couple got out a large flat scale and began weighing everything–and then the arguments started. The husband insisted on taking these essential books and everyday items; the wife refused to leave without these photo albums and a beautiful vase and other possessions of sentimental value; the children begged to bring along their favorite toys. It took most of the night, but finally a compromise was hammered out. The next day the soldier arrived and asked, “Are you ready?” “Yes.” “Are you packed?” “Yes.” “Did you weigh everything?” The couple answered yes, pointing to the boxes on the scale, all of which together weighed exactly 200 pounds. “Did you weigh the children?” asked the soldier. A dreadful realization came to the husband and wife: they were expected to include the children in the 200 pounds they were taking. This changed everything. Off came the books, off came the vase and the photo albums, off came the toys and everything else, and then the children were put on the empty scale (William J. Bausch, Story Telling the Word, p. 230).
This is a rather dramatic reminder of the need to have proper priorities by putting people before things, and this truth should especially apply within our families. If we had to choose between saving a loved one or saving a treasured possession, there’s no question that we’d choose to save the life of someone dear to us–and that’s how it should be. Family comes first, and the Christmas season often reflects this. That being the case, the question arises: Why don’t we live this way all the time? If God has chosen to make us part of His family, this means one of the most important places where we respond to His love is supposed to be within our own families.
Each year the Church celebrates this Feast of the Holy Family to remind us of the wonderful love shared by Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and to inspire us to let this same spirit of grace and peace reign within our own homes. The Gospel shows us that Joseph and Mary were very careful to observe the laws of their religion; faith in God, and humble obedience to His commands, formed the very center of their lives, and they raised Jesus in this spirit of service and love. That’s an important part of the reason why, as the child grew up, He was filled with wisdom and grace. This approach to life, of course, isn’t just for children; both Simeon and Anna were very old, but their faith and openness to God’s Spirit allowed them to recognize the child Jesus as the Savior Whom God had promised. Our homes are meant to be sanctuaries of divine love and mercy. This can only happen, however, if we respect those to whom God has given authority over us, and if we take seriously our responsibilities as children, spouses, and parents.
The great 19th century American statesman Daniel Webster wrote, “If we work upon marble, it will perish; if on brass, time will efface it; if we rear temples, they will crumble into dust; but if we work upon immortal minds and imbue them with principles, with the just fear of God and love of our fellow men, we engrave on these tablets something that will brighten to all eternity” (Roy B. Zuck, The Speaker’s Quote Book, p. 50).
Parents—and also grandparents, aunts and uncles, teachers, and other significant adults—have a lasting influence on the children entrusted to them, and God expects this influence to be used in a positive way. Someone once wrote a little poem about parents’ most important responsibility; it says:
“Before your children have come to [age] seven, teach them well the way to Heaven. Better still the truth will thrive, if they know it when they’re five. Best of all, if at your knee, they learn it when they’re only three.” (Zuck, op. cit., p. 51)
Of course, children can also influence their parents; their innocence, playfulness, and sense of wonder can be a living reminder of the beauty of life, and of the love of our Heavenly Father. All the members of a family are supposed to be a source of grace and encouragement for each other.
That being the case, here’s a question to think about: What have you done over this past year to help the members of your family grow closer to God? Ultimately, our relationship with God is the only thing that matters and the only thing that will last. God alone can give us true happiness, so we greatly need Him–and because we love our families, we know they need Him, too. Even if we’ve fallen short in living out our faith at home, there are some things we can and should do, starting now. If a family member asks us for help, we should respond as quickly as we can; in general, we should look for opportunities to spend time with our loved ones, even if it means putting down that magazine, turning off the television, or hanging up the telephone. We should rejoice in one another’s successes, and sympathize in each other’s failures; we should put up with each other’s faults and quirks, and forgive the many little acts of insensitivity and other offenses that occur, while recognizing and appreciating the many little acts of kindness and assistance we often take for granted. Above all, our family life should be marked by prayer: communal prayer here at Mass, family prayer within our homes, and personal prayer every day for each of our family members.
When we encounter God face to face, He won’t ask how much we’ve earned or how much we’ve accumulated, but how much we’ve loved. Life is like a giant scale, on which we weigh and sort out our priorities. There isn’t enough time or space for everything; we have to choose–and today we’re reminded that our families must be a vital and treasured part of our choice.