Homily: Holy Family – Cycle A
A crucible is a device developed in ancient times that is used to heat metals to a very high temperature. Usually made of ceramic or porcelain (or another material similarly resistant to extremely high temperatures), a crucible is used either to purify metals (by burning off any impurities from them) or to create alloys (which are mixtures of metals created by heating them together and, thus, allowing them to mix). In the crucible, metals are both tested for purity (when heated to its extreme limit) and forced to change (when mixed in with other materials). Because of these characteristics of the uses of a crucible, the term “crucible” has come also to be applied to any situation in which one is tested severely or is forced either to change or to make a difficult decision. For example, we might say of many of our war veterans that “his or her character was formed in the crucible of war.”
Perhaps we might not immediately think of it this way, but the family is a type of crucible. This has become increasingly apparent to me after the last year and a half that I have spent listening to confessions here at this parish. Week after week I hear the same or similar things from people: “I’ve been impatient with my children”, or “I was angry with my spouse and yelled at him or her”, or “I’ve been mean to my brothers and sisters”, or “I’ve not respected my mother and father.” What you all are confessing and asking forgiveness for are the limitations to love and charity that you are finding within yourselves and which are brought forth to the surface within the crucible that is your family. In other words, we all have an ideal of how we should live and interact with each other as a family, but when the heat and pressure begin to build through our daily interactions with each other, our character is tested and impurities begin to show. We are challenged to change and many of you come to the confessional looking for forgiveness for your failures and for the grace to make the necessary changes.
The Holy Family, whom we celebrate today, is an example for us of how to survive and to thrive in the crucible of the family. For Joseph and Mary, there was testing from the very beginning of their relationship. Not sooner than Joseph was betrothed to Mary did he find out that his new wife—whom he had yet to receive into his house—was already with child. If it wasn’t for the angel’s intervention in a dream, Joseph may have divorced her straight away and the Holy Family would have been a broken one from the start.
Then, as the day for Mary to give birth came near, the command came from Caesar that all must be enrolled in their ancestral hometown. Thus, Joseph and Mary (with Jesus still in the womb) had to travel to Bethlehem—the little town that, obviously, became overcrowded with visitors—in which Mary was left to give birth to their son in a rudimentary barn carved into the side of a rock. If that wasn’t enough, a week or so later word came to Joseph and Mary that the child was in danger of being murdered by the king and that they needed to flee from there without delay. And so the family picked up the very little that they had and went off to Egypt, where they lived as foreigners, outcast and despised, for the next seven years.
Remember that Joseph was probably twice as old as Mary when they were married and that Mary was barely 15 years-old. These were challenges that even the most veteran families would have difficulty dealing with, but they had to deal with them in the first year of their relationship. We honor them today as holy, not because they lived lives of perfect peace and harmony, but because within the crucible that is the family, they persevered in charity and in following the way of the Lord: the way of righteousness.
Saint Paul seems to understand this. In his letter to the Colossians he offers us a list of virtues for how to live as “God’s chosen ones”, that is, as God’s family. He describes the virtues like they are a set of clothing that you wear. “Put on … heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another … and over all these,” he says, as if it was some sort of ‘spiritual overcoat’, “put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.” While most of us could look at this list and say, “yes, that’s how it should be,” I would guess that many of us (myself included) have a very difficult time putting this into practice. Well, Paul understands that, too. And so he continues in his letter: “let the peace of Christ control your hearts … and be thankful.” How can we achieve this lofty level of virtue? By letting the peace of Christ control our hearts and by being thankful. In other words, there’s no magic here, just hard work of grace within us.
Paul, then, describes a way that we might begin. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.” With the word of Christ with you in the crucible, Paul seems to say, the hard work of putting on the virtues will lightened; and when you give yourself over to praising God in “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs”, you focus less on whatever difficulty or conflict you are having and instead remember that Christ has saved us from our limitations so that we can “bear with one another” in peace.
We are rapidly approaching the New Year. Perhaps some of you have been thinking about resolutions that you’d like to make for yourselves to make 2014 a happier and more fulfilling year for you. Perhaps some of you have given up on that idea many years ago. To all of you I am suggesting that you take this passage from Saint Paul’s letter to the Colossians and meditate on it: asking God to show you how you can incorporate its teachings in 2014. Begin by asking God which of these virtues you are lacking and then for the grace to begin to practice them. Then, look for ways that, as a family, you can make 2014 a year in which you will “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” by reading the Bible together as a family and then using that time to acknowledge and give thanks for the blessings that you’ve received. (Grandparents, this is a great way to bond with your grandchildren as well!)
If you and your family can begin to do these things, I guarantee you that you will be happier in 2014, in spite of whatever trials may come. With the Holy Family as our guide, and with the strength of the grace that we receive in this Holy Eucharist, we can emerge in 2014 from the crucibles of our families happier and holier; if only we would entrust ourselves to God to do it. Joseph and Mary did and their family is now called holy. May 2014 be the year in which your family earns the same name.
Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – December 28th & 29th, 2013
The Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph