“Son, why have you done this to us?” How many times my mom and dad could have said the exact same thing! “Son, why have you done this to us?”
In my first run at this homily I thought about relating several stories about how I was a somewhat mischievous young child. But then as I started thinking of all the stories I could recall about how I was mischievous I realized that I would have been feeding the young boys at Mass with ideas on how they could be mischievous too. Then parents would have been frustrated with me thinking to themselves, “Father, what are you doing? My child does not need more ideas!” So, I figure I needed to take a different direction for today’s homily.
So let me start with this: my family does not look like this crèche scene. If there was ever a family photo when mom and dad looked as peaceful as Mary and Joseph or the five of us boys were as perfectly posed, it was only for a shutter-flash of a moment. With five boys in my family, family photos were more of a rodeo match in which mom would corral one boy flying off one direction, dad would straighten another boy in the other direction, and the three other boys would jockey for the “I’m the tallest” distinction. Then at the command, “Smile,” we would pause for one brief moment, and snap, a normal looking family. A moment later we were back to the fidgety, frolicky, feisty boys we were so good at being.
So it was more than once in all of us boy’s lives that we heard mom and dad say, “Son, why have you done this to us.” But, you know, I take a certain amount of consolation in the fact that Mary had to say this same thing to Jesus. I mean, the Holy Family was a family without sin and still the teenage boy could hide from his parents and put them through anxiety for a period of three days. It reminds me of the times I hid in the clothes racks at the department store and waited to see how long it would take for mom to find me. But Jesus being lost in the temple means that for us “less than sinless” families not all of our problems are necessarily attributed to sin itself. Miscommunication even happened in the Holy Family, as our Gospel says, “But they did not understand what he said to them.”
So the main point that I am making so far is this: families are at times chaotic realities. While they are often marked with love, respect and joy; they are, at other times, often marked with miscommunication, frustration and anxiety. As a priest I frequently counsel parents and siblings through the frustrations of family chaos. Without denying all the great and loving moments a family is able to share, it is also true that there are many times in even the best of families when one member seems to dance on the nerves of another member. There are times when one spouse, even without intending it, says the worst possible thing at the one moment that it should not have been said. There are times when one sibling is strung as tight as a mouse trap and another sibling is more than happy to push that tense button (not that I ever did that to my brothers). And there are times when children and parents seem like they are living on two different plains of existence and their words might as well be foreign languages.
So what are we to do? Is all this chaos somehow antithetical to a normal family becoming a Holy Family? If miscommunication can happen in the sinless family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph what hope is there for my own family? How are we to approach all the frustrations that mark our families without losing hope that our family can in fact be a place of holiness?
The answer that I have frequently given is this: there is no growth without resistance. Um, what? Yes, there is no growth without resistance. Many of us work out. And we recognize that the only way to grow in strength or conditioning is by steadily increasing resistance. So, if you are a runner you know that you start out running a short distance and then slowly, over time, you add a bit more distance as your muscles and your lungs adjust. Or, if you are like me, I prefer to lift weights. If a person were to only lift a one pound barbell it is obvious that they would never grow in strength. Rather, a person grows in strength by starting at a weight somewhat difficult to lift and then each week steadily increases the weight causing one to get stronger. The increase of resistance causes an increase in strength.
So it is with families as well. Notwithstanding all the good times in a family’s life, at other times families can be places of resistance: spouses frustrating spouses, children unnerving parents, and siblings entering into that proverbial rivalry. In my years of pastorally working with teenagers I would often times ask teenagers, “If you treated your best friend the way you treat your siblings how would your friend react?” Inevitably they would reply, “They would stop being my best friend.” Why? Because at times siblings can be atrocious to one another. Isn’t it funny how inside the four walls of our homes each member of the family can become the worst version of themselves in a way that they would never want to be publically seen? Why is that? Well, first, this is a positive thing. We can be the worst version of ourselves in our homes because we trust this one fact: my family won’t leave me; they will love me even at my worst times. This is a wonderful freedom; but a family’s unconditional love does not excuse us from always striving to be more virtuous and tolerable.
But the second thing is this: if it is easy to be the worst version of oneself within the family then the family is the best place to experience the resistance that allows us to grow in virtue. Remember, there is no growth without resistance; and within the real situation of family life each person in the household is daily faced with the choice between virtue and vice. When one spouse misunderstands the other spouse, when a child gets at their parents, or when a sibling comes dangerously close to the nerves of another sibling: this is the moment of resistance where one chooses between virtue and vice. In this Christmas season it’s not so much the decision between naughty or nice as it is the decision between snotty or nice! And this is a split second decision. Every member of the household has the ability to control their attitude. And the fact is this: my bad day is not everyone else’s problem. Remember, if miscommunication happened even within the Holy Family then it can happen even in our own family. But those moments of miscommunication are moments of growth in virtue. You see, the family IS the gymnasium of virtue; and in a gymnasium there is no growth without resistance. So don’t despair when there are family squabbles. Don’t think that the normal frustrations of family miscommunication stand against the holiness of your own household. Rather realize that challenges to peace and harmony within the four walls of your house are critical moments where one can choose virtue over vice; respect over disrespect; nice over snotty.
So, perhaps your family, like mine, is not as pristine as this crèche scene; but that does not negate the fact that our homes are gymnasiums of virtue. They are places where we grow in holiness precisely because of the resistance we experience in the four walls of our own homes. It’s up to us to choose virtue over vice and turn our homes into places of holiness.