Can't choose your family!

SIR3:2-6, 12-14 ; COL 3:12-17 ; MT 2:13-15, 19-23

Whenever I hear these readings from today, I have flashbacks to when I was a child sitting in the pews during the feast of Holy Family. When the readings said that children should honor, respect and obey their parents, my dad would elbow me a little bit and my mom would lean over and say “now listen carefully”. When the readings spoke about how a husband and wife should behave towards each other, spouses around the Church would look at each other, perhaps each thinking that the other should be paying closer attention.  Since Christmas is such a special time for families, it is very fitting that we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family right after Christmas. It gives us the opportunity to reflect on the fundamental role family plays in our life as Christians.

Family is of vital importance in helping us to fulfill our ultimate vocation. Family has a fundamental role in helping each of us become what God wants us to be. But, what is our ultimate vocation anyway? What are all people in the world called to be whether they are the Pope, a religious sister, a married person, a priest or a single individual? Blessed John Paul II explained it this way:
“God created man in his own image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:26, 27): calling him to existence through love, he called him at the same time for love. God is love (cf. 1 Jn 4:8) and in himself he lives a mystery of personal loving communion. Creating the human race in his own image and continually keeping it in being, God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion (Gaudium et spes, 12). Love is therefore the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being” (FC, 11).
Our ultimate vocation is to become more loving and more capable of living in community. This is something that we must learn, it will not happen automatically. Family is not just a group of people who happen to be related, whether they like it or not. Family is a school in which we learn how to be a better human being. We learn to love, to make sacrifices, to be patient, humble and to put others ahead of ourselves. Family plays a central role in helping us to fulfill our ultimate vocation.

As we all know from experience, family life poses its share of difficulties and challenges.  Though it has many joys, living in a family at times is often tough. We may think that the greatest pressures for a family come from the outside. For example, we see in the Gospel today that the Holy family was threatened by Herod and were forced to flee. Today, many families suffer similar challenges that are outside their control: war, poverty, excessive busyness due to work or school or an illness in the family. Are these the external pressures the greatest risk to a family? It would seem not. Many families pass through such difficulties and come out stronger in the end. The greatest challenges facing families often come from within. Members of a family usually have different personalities and temperaments. As the saying goes, “you can choose your friends, but you cannot choose your family”. Disagreements, arguments, misunderstandings and hurt feelings are a daily, if not hourly occurrence. Families can be torn apart when there is unwillingness to forgive, enter into meaningful conversation and put other people’s needs in front of one’s own. Family life is full of such difficulties.

It is precisely these challenges, however, that help form us to become more loving. In particular the interpersonal conflicts among members of a family can help transform them for the better. I once heard a very helpful analogy for how this work.  Family life can be compared to a “rock-tumbler”.  A rock tumbler is a small, hollow, machine that you put small stones into.  Each stone has its own jagged edges.  After the stones have been placed in the machine and your turn it on, it begins to spin.  As the machine turns over and over, the rocks tumble inside, hitting each other and grinding one against the other and the sides of the machine.  Slowly but surely, the jagged edges of the stones rub one another smooth.  After some time each stone becomes polished and beautiful.  In this analogy, we are the stones.  Just as the stones have their rough edges, each of us have our own weaknesses and idiosyncrasies, for example, impatience, pride, or laziness.  As we live together, we have confrontations and frustrate one another.  We smash into each other like the stones inside the rock-tumbler.  Overtime we begin to see that the weaknesses and idiosyncrasies of those we live with are opportunities for growth.  With God’s grace, family life can make us more patient, sympathetic towards others and capable of cooperation.  Like the stones inside the rock-tumbler, we become more polished – our weaknesses become smoothed.  Through the interpersonal struggles of community life, God is forming us to become more loving.

In order to grow, we must respond generously to the challenges that come with living in a family.  God can only form us if we cooperate generously.  In the “rock-tumbler” analogy, the stones will become polished overtime whether they want to or not.  This is not the case with us! Just because we are given opportunities to grow, doesn’t mean we make use of them. Often we pin the blame on others. We can think “if only my husband/wife/child would change then everything would be fine”. Perhaps the best thing to do, however, is to look at ourselves. How can we respond more generously to the challenges of family life? The first and second reading from today give some ways we can do this: showing honor, respect and obedience to one another. Here are three areas in which can be generous in responding to the challenges of family life:
  1. Generosity with our time. Since everyone is so busy its takes a conscious choice for family members to spend time just being together in each other’s company.
  2. Generosity in communication. This includes being open and honest with others about what we are feeling and going through in life as well as listening and trying to understand where other people are coming from.
  3. Generosity in making compromises. We often must put the needs of others ahead of our own if a family is to work well.
In order for God to use family life as a means to transform us, He requires our generous response.

We have all probably seen those road signs that say, “caution, work in progress”. When we see this, we are meant to slow down and be patient. Perhaps, every member of a family should wear such a “work in progress” sign. Family life, together with its many challenges, is meant to transform us.  Today we can reflect on our personal situation and ask if there is one area in which we can be more generous. Perhaps we can choose to spend more time with our family, even if it means cutting back in other areas. Maybe we need to work on one particular relationship by listening more and being slower to judge. Perhaps we can be more flexible in putting the needs of others ahead of our own. Whatever it is, let us respond generously. Family life is not easy. It is however a wonderful school. Let us learn our lessons well.