Just as many of us make special efforts to spend time with members of our families during this Christmas season, it is also a time when Readings at Mass give us opportunities to “spend time” with the family of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.
The Sunday after Christmas Day is the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. All the Readings will have family as their theme. The Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God on January 1st also will have the theme of family in its Readings.
The Vigil Mass of the Nativity of the Lord presented “the book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham”, which is Christ’s interesting family tree in Matthew 1:1-25. The first seventeen verses of this passage also served as the Gospel for the Tuesday of the Third Week of Advent. This extended family of Our Lord had members who acted in ways that might be surprising.
In chapter one, verse three of Matthew’s Gospel, he tells us that the mother of Perez, one of Christ’s less familiar ancestors, was Tamar. The father of Perez was Judah. The problem is that Judah was Tamar’s father-in-law. Tamar was a widow when she slept with Judah. Sleeping together was her idea because she was childless, did not want to remain childless, and wanted Judah to father her child. In order to get him to sleep with her, she disguised herself as a prostitute. Judah was not guilty of adultery when he slept with Tamar since his wife was deceased. But he was willing to have intercourse with a prostitute, which was against Israelite morality, and ended up sleeping with his daughter-in-law, which he concluded was his own fault for having failed to provide her with a lawful husband to give her children. The story is in Genesis 38.
We are reminded in Matthew 1:6 that Solomon, the famous king and ancestor of Christ, was the son of David and that Solomon’s mother “had been the wife of Uriah.” Her name was Bathsheba. Although David and Bathsheba were married when they conceived Solomon, they wed after they had committed adultery and after David, in effect, had murdered Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah. David arranged to have Uriah, a loyal soldier of his, unnecessarily killed in battle so that he could marry the then widowed Bathsheba. This story is in 2 Samuel 11:1-12:24.
David and Solomon were descendants of Judah. Judah was the fourth son of Jacob, mentioned in Matthew 1:2. Jacob cheated his elder brother, Esau, out of receiving a blessing from their father, Isaac, so Jacob received Isaac’s blessing instead of Esau, as recounted in Genesis 27:1-40.
Christ’s family was not perfect.
Neither are our families perfect and it is not just particular members of our families who are not perfect.
Every member of every family is flawed, to a lesser or greater degree. Each of us “has issues.” Each of us is a sinner. Anyone who is honest with himself can identify with the anguish of St. Paul, “For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want” (Romans 7:19). None of us always treats our family members as we should. We sometimes say the wrong thing. Or use the wrong tone of voice. Or make the wrong facial expression. Or do the wrong thing. Or fail to do the right thing.
Of course, both asking for forgiveness and being forgiving remain essential to good family life, due to both Christ’s command and to the requirements of our God-designed human nature. What is especially challenging is having family members whom we have actually hurt, to whom we have sincerely apologized, but who will not accept our apology. In such a situation, it is all too easy to focus on ourselves—our hurt, frustration, disappointment. As in other situations, we need to ask God to help us want what is best for them, not us; stay open to their change of heart, even though it might never happen; stay constructive in our words and actions; realize that we may deserve their antipathy more than we know; hope that their bitterness is not hurting them.
Also complicating family life is that sometimes members we are trying to love have an entirely different idea of what love is. What we know is good for them can be the opposite of what they think is good for them. Then the very thing we do to help is perceived as hurtful.
How do we know whether we or someone else is being a good family member? How do we know the solution to a family problem? How do we know what love is? How do we know Jacob, Judah, Tamar, David, and Bathsheba were wrong?
How We Know
God gives us the basis for answering these questions, as He does to all questions about the meaning of life, in the doctrine of the Catholic Church. A good Catholic family is a family that is trying to grow in faithfulness to Catholic doctrine. A good Catholic is one who tries to relate to his family members in ways harmonious with Catholic doctrine.
We might be tempted to conclude from the imperfections in Christ’s family that it does not matter if our families are not perfect; that we should accept our families as they are; that we should not judge others in our families, and they should not judge us. Instead, we should encourage each other to grow in holiness as we ourselves strive to grow in holiness, which is growing in faithfulness to Catholic doctrine.
Doctrine about the family is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s treatment of the Fourth Commandment in CCC 2197-2233. CCC 2201-2206 puts forth the objective nature or essence of the family. The relationship between the family and society is addressed in CCC 2207-2213. CCC 2214-2220 cover the duties of children, no matter their age, with a brief reference to duties to siblings. The duties of parents are presented in CCC 2233. The many Scripture passages footnoted below these paragraphs are also edifying.
No doctrine, whether about family or anything else, makes complete sense by itself. We must bring a Catholic understanding to any term used in a doctrine. For example, when the Catechism says that family “members are persons equal in dignity” (2203), we need to supply the Catholic meaning of persons, equal, and dignity, and not, for example, the Postmodern meaning of those terms.
We need more than doctrine to know how to have good family relationships. True psychology (not one of the many forms of false psychology) helps. God designed human nature to need Reason as well as Faith. A good place to begin (or review) thinking through the role of psychology in Catholic life is Father Mitch Pacwa’s excellent interview of Dr. Ray Guarendi. An internet search of “Catholic Family” will disclose many resources. The good resources are those in harmony with Catholic doctrine.
One of the supreme virtues, along with faith and love, is hope. We should always have hope, including hope that our families and we ourselves will become more in tune with God’s will, as did some ancestors of Jesus.
In verse 5 of Matthew’s family tree of Christ, he mentions that the wife of Salmon and the mother of Boaz was Rahab. Although Rahab began as a pagan and as a prostitute, she became a great model of faith, praised in both the Letter to the Hebrews and the Letter of James. Ruth, also mentioned in verse 5, became another heroine of faith after having begun as a pagan. Her story is told in the beautiful and inspiring Book of Ruth. The Jacob who cheated his brother out of his father’s blessing became a great Patriarch, worthy of his new name, Israel, and father of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The David who murdered his lover’s husband became the greatest king of the Chosen People and the exemplar of the Messiah.
As Rahab, Ruth, Jacob, and David did, we need to keep our relationship with God the most important relationship in our lives. As Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” because “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:37, 39). Whoever loses the merely feel-good quick-fixes to family life, for Christ’s sake, will find the fullness of family life, but not necessarily the smoothest and easiest family life. A wise adage is: “In essential things, unity; in non-essential things, liberty; in all things, charity.” We will find good family life the more family unity is based on Catholic doctrine.
We need to realize that our hope is ultimately in the Second Coming of Christ on the Last Day to complete the establishment of the Kingdom of God in which “God’s dwelling is with the human race. . . . He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing, or pain” (Revelation 21:3-4).
With such hope, we can be prepared for times when truth and real love are rejected by a family member, who can use his free will well or poorly. As we witness to the Faith, even as constructively as possible, Christ’s words are sometimes prophetic about our own individual families: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s enemies will be those of his household” (Matthew 10:34-36).
So we should be neither pessimists about family life, nor naïve optimists. All of us have fallen human nature, yet the Holy Spirit is always available. Let us fervently add our “Amen” to the priest’s Prayer over the Offerings on the Feast of the Holy Family:
We offer you, Lord, the sacrifice of conciliation, humbly asking that, through the intercession of the Virgin Mother of God and Saint Joseph, you may establish our families firmly in your grace and your peace.Through Christ our Lord.