FAMILY COMMUNION: A COMMITMENT AND A CALL

Catholic Homily/Reflection
Feast of the Holy Family

The first two readings today almost sound Pollyannish – an ideal situation, a too-good-to-be-true kind of thing that many people in our times may find close to impossible to attain, let alone, aim after. At a time when, in many places in the world, 50 % per cent of marriages end up in divorce within the first ten years, when we can easily delete one another’s presence in our lives as fast as we can delete each other’s names from our electronic address books and PDAs, marriage – and family life, for that matter – do not appear as rosy and saccharine as how Sirach may paint it to be. When the average number of years marriages last in America has fallen down to only seven years, in a culture where adults long to remain young, and young people cannot wait to “grow up,” and fly the roost, and build one’s own nest by age 18, Sirach’s exhortations just cannot compete with what the age of reality TV offers, day in and day out.

In third-world countries like the Philippines, where families bond remotely (or try to), through “texting” (cell phone short text messaging service), where parents who work thousands of miles apart from each other and from kids, try their darndest best to form their children and instill in them the “impossible” dream of family communion, mostly by proxy, that is, through the real heroes in my country next to overseas workers – the grandparents, Sirach’s reminders for children to honor and revere their cyberspace father or mother, may be asking for too much.

Having been an educator over the past 31 years, a priest for 25, I have seen first hand how family communion and intimacy are values that are hard to come by in our times – for both affluent and so-called developing countries. Where I am right now, by the southeastern American seaboard, I am an almost daily witness to the far-away looks and eloquent, talking sad eyes of boys and girls, who, I surmise through my pastoral counselor’s clinical gaze, are sorely missing either father or mother in the first decade of their otherwise promising lives. On closer look, I am often proved right. As a classroom teacher for many years, a counselor to young people by as many, I have seen from close ranks the pathos, the drama, the sob-stories of young people whose initial pining for parent – a natural desire for attachment – becomes replaced by either insecure, or avoidant patterns of attachment for either parent, or both, whom they never got to know, whom they simply will never learn to warm up to. Having been a formator in the seminary setting for at least ten years, I know for a fact, from first-hand experience, that many a vocation to the priesthood or religious life, gets dashed to smithereens in the shoals of insecure, undifferentiated, family-of-origin engendered lack of a sense of self, and inadequate self-definition. For a number of them, whom we painstakingly exerted effort and patience for, there was no vocation in the first place. There was only an unfulfilled desire and longing for family intimacy and communion they never had, which they thought would be supplied for in the seminary. As one who also has been in leadership for 8 years, I also stood witness to so many interpersonal and intrapersonal problems that are traceable to early family-of-origin experiences, or the lack of them vis-à-vis parental or authority figures.

The family is surely taking a beating for these past decades. Some people blame reality TV for it. No, TV merely reflects reality that is already there, and caters to people already immersed in situations that only are waiting for symbolic representations. For decades, all of human society has been busy constructing reality for itself. We all have been part and participant of the grand narrative that we are weaving with what we read, what we do, what we watch, what we talk about, what jokes we say to each other, and what songs, and shows we produce. Hollywood alone (Mother Lily and company in the Philippines, including the dynamic duo of Philippine TV, GMA-7 and ABS-CBN) does not produce these narratives. They serve as sounding boards, verbalizers, and codifiers of said reality – the story that all of us write in our daily lives. The Days of our Lives, Passions (soap opera daytime features in America) and the teleseryes and telenovelas in the Philippines and in the rest of the Latin American inspired world, merely tell the stories that people live and write daily. (Years ago, in the Philippines, Rosanna Roces captured the national attention of people in the Philippines, particularly the men, because she was bold and brazen enough to say aloud in street-smart terms, what people were merely whispering in hushed, repressed tones!)

The family is a big story that we write. And that story is something that could use a little help from another meta-narrative (a big story) that is based on God’s story. God’s story, His story, is History – the history of a people loved and called by God for all time to intimacy, to relationality, to relationships, and to communion. That story began with a call to relationships … “It’s not good for man to be alone.” That story grew with a series of other calls to other relationships … “and God brought everything to man to see what he would call them … the man gave names to all the cattle, all the birds of the air, and all the wild animals …” That story progressed to even greater callings … that of Abraham, called to be father of a multitude of nations; that of Moses, called as leader of a pilgrim people; and that of so many others, all the way to the time of Joseph and Mary, called to take part in a momentous portion of this saga of salvation.

The family is a story that we all ought to weave together. Thus, in Sirach’s exhortations, sons and daughters are enjoined to respect parents. Paul, for his part, refuses to wallow in people’s little stories of “grievances against one another,” “bitterness,” and “discouragement.” Such petty stories, the daily trivia that mar and tar our serenity and peace, our closeness and healthy attachment to each other, ought to be reframed by “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another.” The “murder that we write,” can be replaced anytime with the love that we make into an ongoing narration in our lives as family, as community, as nations.

But now, some of you my readers (or hearers) might well complain … aren’t we back to saccharine idealisms? Is this really possible? Can we really revise the stories that we tell each other, that meta narrative that we write with our lives? Is it indeed possible?
And this is where the reason why Holy Mother Church added today’s feast in the liturgical calendar lies. The Church presents the story of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as an alternative to the story that we write with our daily lives. Their story is not one for the imagineering world of Disney and Disneyland. Their story is one that started with terrific trials and tribulations – much like the stories that each of us can narrate.

Joseph’s family, like the family of today, was battered and bruised as they were just starting the first chapter. The life of their newborn infant child was threatened, soon after birth. In our times, lives of babies are threatened much earlier – even before they are born! Cozy and feeling safe in his sleep, perhaps throwing himself into bed after hours of planning for his fledgling family of three, he was challenged in a dream by something that was not exactly welcome news: “Rise, take the child and his mother to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you.” Before teary eyed and sorrowing mothers and fathers flew to far-off lands to work for their children’s future, exiled by lack of opportunities back home, before migrant workers dismantled families in the Philippines, the whole family of Joseph already experienced being rudely uprooted, displaced, and banished afar owing to the murderous envy of a powerful man who wanted to rewrite history in his own terms.

The story of the holy family is no saccharine and polyannish ideal that is written only in fairy tales of “Neverland.” Neither is the story of each and everyone of us: a story of imperfect parents, rebellious teen-agers, less than satisfactory growing up conditions, petty stories of misunderstandings, etc. But precisely because our stories are marred by imperfections, we would do well to give a close look at the story of this fledgling family, unified by a call to compassion, a call to conversation with a God who reveals Himself in dreams, a call to communion, and to commitment, understood as dedication to each other’s welfare, to each others’ equally imperfect stories. Only then can we dream God’s ultimate dream for us His people – an eternal celebration with God who is family, who is love, who is all about relationships. Glory be to God who is Father, glory be to God who is Son, and glory be to God who is Holy Spirit – Giver, Gifted, Gifting – since then, till now, till then.

His story still unfolds. His story becomes us, and, as we take part and cooperate with His will, His story becomes, ever so gradually, ever so subtly, history!

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