The Family is Where We Go to Learn the Word No (Homily)
Feast of the Holy Family
The Christmas commercials would have us believe that in a good family everybody is happy. In a good family everybody is always getting what they want.
But I think that’s really wrong.
I think the family is the place where we learn the word no. I think the family is the place where we learn to say the word no and to hear the word no. And I think that’s what the gospel is about today: that for holiness there must be obedience.
Last term a really angry student stormed into my office complaining about his midterm. And when I refused to change the grade he started yelling and swearing. This is baloney, he shouted. You’re a really bad person. (Or words to that effect.) And he kept shouting and calling me names as he jumped up and stormed down the hall, past a line of other students waiting to see me.
I walked to the door, looked out, and said, next?
Another student emailed me a complaint: why did I get a D on my paper?
I sent a one sentence reply: because I’m easy.
Now, I’m not telling this story because I take any of this personally, but because I don’t. I’ve been teaching a long time, and I know that much of what I get from my students is transference, positive or negative, that when a student treats me the way these students did I’m getting a taste of how he treated his parents and how his parents treated him. This isn’t about me, it’s about the failure of our families to say the word no, and believe me, I can tell, in class after class, student after student. I experience the results of our bland assumption of niceness again and again.
The family is where we learn to be holy, and we can’t learn to be holy unless we learn that the world doesn’t always bend to our needs. Holiness depends on humility, and it’s the family that’s supposed to teach us that. Not every urge needs to be satisfied, or can be, not every itch needs to be scratched, and in this sense it’s the parents who stand in for God, who do his will.
And it’s not just children who need to be denied. It’s parents. It goes both ways, as it does in today’s gospel. Yes, Jesus finally obeys Mary and Joseph and goes back home, after his seminar with the rabbis. But Mary and Joseph have to obey him, too. They have to listen to him.
“Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
I remember very clearly when this happened with my daughter Maggie. I don’t remember the reason I was yelling exactly, but I’ll never forget Maggie standing there in the kitchen, looking up at me, and saying very calmly and very rationally, no, Dad, you’re wrong. No, Dad. And I was. I was way out of line.
There’s a fine little book called Boundaries written by a couple of ministers back in the eighties, and it notes that everything in the development of a child depends on whether or not the parents can accept her necessary assertion of independence. It has to come, and we have to accept it, and if we don’t, the child will always be wounded, unable to resist the pressures and demands of others, however unhealthy and wrong. We are all Abraham and we are all called on to sacrifice our beloved children, to let them go.
In this way, too, we are conduits for the grace of the divine Father and Mother, the divine Parent, we reflect and express the divine, or should, because that’s the greatest gift of all the gifts God gives us, the gift of freedom, of distance, of separation. He allows us to say no to him. He wants relationship, not blind, robotic trust. He wants to be in relation with a person who freely chooses to be in relation with him, and so there must be distance, there must be the absence of coercion, there must be the possibility of rejection. No hell, no dignity, Flannery O’Connor says.
The real Holy Family is the Trinity, the unity among diversity of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, each person giving himself away to the others again and again but without losing his own individuality, his own unique identity, and this is what family is supposed to mirror. Kids shouldn’t be chips off the old block. They should be their own blocks.
And notice. In all of this, the Lord says no to us intellectually. He says no to our demand for certainty. He says no to our desire for complete comprehension. Even Mary and Joseph don’t understand what Jesus is telling them, Luke says. Even Mary and Joseph can’t pretend to grasp the reality of the Son. How can we?
So the rest of this Christmas season, I ask you to think about the no’s in your life.
I ask you to reflect on a particular issue, a particular situation in which you have failed to say no, especially in the family. The Gospel today is calling you to risk the enormous love involved in the saying of no, and in the accepting of whatever rejection and unhappiness might result.
I ask you to think, too, of some situation in which you have failed to hear the word no, in which someone has to say no to you, or has tried to, and you haven’t listened yet, especially a spouse or a child. I think the Gospel is calling you to try again, to start the conversation a second or a third time and just to listen, and to accept. To let go. To believe the boundary.
Who knows what might happen?
That student who yelled and called me names came back about an hour later, shaking. Maybe he was playing me. I don’t know. But he slumped in the chair by my desk and apologized, tears in his eyes, and I believed him. He was having a tough term, everything was going wrong, and what he really wanted to know was what he could do to improve, what the next step was.
I’m not trying to take credit for this little breakthrough. I don’t say no often enough--I am easy. In this case it was the young man who was getting the point and making the effort. And of course, it doesn’t always work out this way. Too often the person never comes back, he just walks away forever, and we have to be prepared to accept that and the sadness of that.
But this time, through grace, it all worked out. This time, we got to the right question, the right point.
I think there’s a conversation like this waiting to happen for everybody here. I know there is. And I know that the grace I experienced will be there for you, too. It’s always there. It’s the yes beneath the no, the great and enduring yes of God’s great and enduring love.