December 27, 2009
Feast of the Holy Family
1 Samuel 1:20-28; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:41-52
Like everyone else I’ve spent a lot of time at parties and family gatherings recently, and at some of them I’ve felt great, and at some of them I’ve felt homicidal.
Sometimes I just don’t want to be a husband and father and grandfather and uncle and brother and friend and deacon and colleague. I just want to be left alone.
Sometimes I’m really disappointed with people and mad at people--and I’m disappointed and mad at myself for feeling that way.
But this is what is family is for and what community is for. What’s holy about the family is that it continually reminds us of our limitations. Of our need for grace.
Community, Jean Vanier says, is a “terrible place.”
It’s the place “where our limitations and our egoism are revealed to us,” he says, where we come into contact with our “monsters”: our inability to love, our capacity for judgment and violence, all our inner frustrations and desires and patterns of sin.
And until we admit this about ourselves, we can’t be healed.
We can run from this truth. We can hide from it in busyness and in projects that make us feel useful and better than others. We can hide in prejudice. But until we honestly admit to ourselves that we are in need of grace, we can’t receive that grace, and what’s essential about the family and about community more generally is that it provokes this realization. It confronts us with who we really are.
What’s powerful about Vanier saying this is that he’s the founder of L’Arche, these group homes around the world where people live together with the developmentally-disabled. He’s someone we think of as saintly and heroic, and he is. But exactly because he doesn’t pretend to be.
I’ve been thinking about the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. The teaching that Mary herself was born without sin. Because it’s one of those mysteries of the Church that I just don’t understand. I just don’t get.
But maybe one of the lessons of the Immaculate Conception is that Mary never earned the grace that fills her. It was given to her, at birth. From the beginning.
Maybe even Mary isn’t a spiritual athlete. She’s a vessel.
And until we’re ready to accept our own weakness, we can never accept the weakness of others. We can never really understand: they’re just like us, just as afraid and insecure, just as flawed. “In community life we discover our own deepest wound and learn to accept it,” Vanier says. “So our rebirth can begin. It is from this very wound that we are born.” And born again that way, we turn to others, and we no longer expect them to be perfect. We no longer expect them to take away the hurt that only God can take away, to fill the void only God can fill. “As the Lord has forgiven you,” Paul says to the Colossians, “so must you also do.” We have to “put on” that forgiveness and put on that love, and I don’t hear Paul being naïve and sappy here. I hear him being deeply realistic. He knows what it’s like to live together with other people. It’s a mess. And so we have to work on it and accept the messiness and trust that the Spirit will come into the situations we can’t solve and bind us all together in the only way we can be, through humility and forgiveness.
It’s a matter of realism. It’s a matter of seeing:
"Too many people come into community to find something, to belong to a dynamic group, to find a life which approaches the ideal. If we come into community without knowing that the reason we come is to discover the mystery of forgiveness, we will soon be disappointed."
I keep thinking I should be better and I keep thinking that the people I’m around should be better, the people at OSU, the people at St. Mary’s, the people in my own household. But no. We can choose our friends but we can’t choose our family, the saying goes, and that’s right, in a profound way. But we can’t even choose our friends, really. We are given who we are given. We could wish them smarter or better looking or nicer, but no. These are the people God has chosen to send into our lives, and it is with them that we are called to live out our vocations.
If we’re not standing next to someone we can’t stand, C.S. Lewis says of the Church, there’s something wrong.
Mary and Joseph in the Gospel today, wild with worry. Confused. But even in their anxiety they stand there and they see. They see their son, discoursing with the rabbis. They see their son, not doing what they expect him to do, not following the conventions, but being who he really is, and they accept this. They accept this without understanding it, without trying to solve it. Mary ponders these things. Mary keeps these things in her heart. She is the figure of the worrier and of the thinker and of the person who reflects and she does this over time, day after day, and she doesn’t impose a solution, doesn’t try to label all this and put it into a box. She lets it unfold. She accepts the reality of the given moment and she stands ready, in faith and confidence, for whatever will happen next, because she knows it’s not she who is writing the story. It’s God. It’s not she who gets to choose. It’s God. And he will choose, and he does, and whatever happens is what’s supposed to happen, even the suffering and the pain. It’s all meaningful in ways we can’t really understand in the thick of it.
The boy Jesus, in the temple. Hannah in the temple, with Samuel.
My niece and my daughter, sitting next to each other on the couch. Laughing and joking. Two beautiful young women.
My oldest son, home on leave. My new daughter-in-law and her sons.
The dogs barking and running around.
Outside it is dark and wet. It is the Solstice. The earth is slowly turning. Already the days are getting longer, minute by minute, and that’s something else we can’t change. We can only become aware of it. Or not.
Reality is lovely, Anthony De Mello says, it’s absolutely lovely, and sometimes through grace we feel that, despite all the darkness inside us, despite all the resistance and fear. Sometimes we can see.
That every family is holy, every home, every community, in the darkness and in the light. That everything is good. Holy and blessed and good.