In ages past, separated families had only letters and word of mouth for keeping in touch with their loved ones when separated by oceans and continents, or even the distance of a few miles. “Keeping in touch” took days and sometimes weeks and months. Then the technological and industrial revolution begun in the nineteenth century ushered in an era of ever-increasing facility of communication. Today, contact is virtually instantaneous. Zoom and its rivals have allowed us to conduct meetings, classes, and family gatherings in cyberspace. Personally, I never envisaged using a laptop computer to conduct a class, but as the Covid-19 virus ravaged the country, it proved to be a blessing, not least in helping families stay in touch – if “touch” is still the right word for it.
Even so, our desperation to join our families during the holiday season led many of us to expose ourselves, and our families, to infection by the new virus. Hundreds of thousands of family members have died as a result of the contagion that followed. Such is the strength of our love, even if it would be better served by distancing ourselves from close physical contact until the pandemic has passed. It is helpful to remember that the heart-break of enforced physical separation of spouses from each other, of children from their parents and grandparents, of cousins, uncles, aunts from all of us during the dark night of their final moments is also a testament of love – love bruised and wounded, but no less revealed in its power and nobility in the face of overwhelming sorrow. We could all use a hug.
At this somber moment in our history, today’s observance of the holy family reminds us of the importance and value of family life, perhaps all-too easily taken for granted in a country blessed by so much wealth and power, however unequally it is distributed. As a consequence, we have become prone to overlook the fragility of this most fundamental of human associations, the cradle of civilization itself. This was nowhere more vividly impressed on me than when I visited Iraq several times during its bleakest hours, when family life, so endangered by rockets and bombs, was virtually the only lasting and trustworthy bond most people had to rely on.
Nor should we pass too-quickly over the momentary shadow in the prophecy of Simeon related in today’s gospel reading as his gaze turned to
the blessed child’s mother: “a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). Known throughout the centuries as “the sorrowful mother,” Mary’s vigil at the cross and the retrieval of her only son’s body, so frequently painted and carved in stone, presaged the agony of countless numbers of mothers and fathers called upon to witness their children’s death, not only by falling prey to a strange viral inflection and other illnesses, but as victims of hunger, senseless gunfire, and, increasingly, hit-and-ran drivers. This is their day of remembrance also.
In our celebration of Jesus’ birth, we should also recall that soon after, when the mad jealousy of King Herod descended lethally on the little town of Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary had to flee as refugees seeking safety in a foreign country in order to protect Jesus’ life. That should give us cause for reflection as we witness refused entry and the forced separation of thousands of families of refugees seeking safety in the United States from oppression and violence, even murder, in their native villages and towns. The massacre of innocents did not cease when Herod’s militia left Bethlehem. It is present reality.
There would also be moments of parental anguish as when the boy Jesus seemed to have become lost after a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and Mary and Joseph retraced their way back in a panic. All this will be the matter of liturgical memory in the days to come. Here and now we have respite, a time for rejoicing and celebrating the redemptive gift of love. And Luke tells us in his gospel that Jesus returned with Mary and Joseph to their home in Nazareth where for the next twenty years they lived in peace. Artists have loved to dwell on imagined scenes of their home life. We actually know nothing about it, except that after those three days of agonized searching and eventual reunion, Jesus “went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (Luke 2:51-52).
In his letter to the Christians in Colossae, St. Paul seems to have had something like this mind, and it is still excellent advice when he urges mutual love, obedience, and forbearance, including a wry and always pertinent bit of counsel: “fathers, do not nag your children lest they lose heart” (Col 3:21). The beautiful passage from the Book of Sirach used as our first reading presents us with whole litany of good counsel. It is worth noting that it is mainly about children’s respect for their parents, especially when they are aged and in need of support.
So as we look forward hopefully to a New Year in which peace and compassion can once again flourish with good will toward all, especially refugee children and their parents, we would do well also to recall the words of Sirach: “Those who honor their father atone for sins, and those who respect their mother are like those who lay up treasure.”
May you have a healthy and joyful New Year. Mask up, wash your hands frequently, observe appropriate social distance. The vaccines are only very slowly reaching the majority of potential victims of the coronavirus. It won’t be easy, but it will make life once again safer and more peaceful for all.