Author: Dr Jenny O'Brien
It is striking how often Pope Francis refers to the family in his writings and homilies. In the week after Christmas we celebrated the feast of the Holy Family, and now at the beginning of February, the Presentation of Jesus in the temple. Both feasts call us to reflect on the vital link between a strong Christian family and a fruitful celebration of parish liturgy.
Mary and Joseph did not stand out as an exceptional family. Jesus spent 30 years in the family home in Nazareth where, Luke’s Gospel tells us, he ‘grew and became strong, filled with wisdom.’ Just as Mary and Joseph handed on faith and wisdom to Jesus, so parents today provide for their children ideals to live by and values to sustain daily living. Pope Francis once said, “Mothers are the strongest antidote to individualism because they “divide” themselves from the moment they give birth to a child.’ And Jesus himself gave God the Father the intimate name of “Abba” (Dad), shared by fathers today when they spend time in conversation, play and prayer with their children.
When Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the temple it was the elderly Simeon and Anna who immediately recognised the significance of the moment. Their long lives of fidelity and perseverance enabled them to see in the baby Jesus the Messiah who had been promised. Simeon blessed the little family and Anna, Luke tells us, “began at that moment to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for redemption.” In other words, she was the first woman to preach about Jesus. God calls us to be disciples no matter what our age, and often it is the elderly who have a special gift for transmitting the meaning of life and faith.
When Jesus was baptised by John an amazing thing happened: the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove, and the voice of the Father was heard saying, “This is my son, the Beloved.” We are all beloved sons or daughters, and our first experience of the love of God comes through the gratuitous love of our parents. We did not give ourselves life, we received it. A beautiful phrase of Pope Francis is “God is the caress that keeps us alive” and this caress continues in the love of family and the love of the Christian community.
The very qualities that build up a strong family life are those that are present in our Sunday celebration of Eucharist: gratitude, forgiveness, listening to each other, rejoicing in each other’s gifts, reaching out to the needy. Unless we experience forgiveness in the family we cannot understand what it means to pray, “Lord have mercy” or “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” At each Mass we offer each other a sign of Christ’s peace, and reminds ourselves that we should never finish the day without making peace with those we live with.
The family is often referred to as the ‘domestic Church.’ In their children parents see the qualities necessary for entering the Kingdom of God: trust, dependence, the need of love, help and forgiveness. In their parents and grandparents children see models of love, fidelity, sacrifice, compassion and goodness. Small things, like saying Grace before meals, or calling on God’s blessing as we put a child to bed, can be quite significant in giving children what they need to join the Christian community fully when they come to Mass on Sundays.
We speak of Mass as a celebration, but we do not mean that it is a party. Pope Francis reminds us that celebration is a ‘loving and grateful look at work done well.’ Coming to Mass, we look back over the week that has just gone and bring to our loving God everything that is part of our lives, because we know that at Mass we are immersed into the mystery of Christ who gave his life for us, who revealed the love of God to us, and who remains for ever with us.
The Church and the family are where the communion of love that originates in God takes place. Let us rejoice and be glad that this is so!