Want to Be a Holy Family?

When speaking of saints Thomas Merton reminds us that all you have to do to become a saint is to want to be one. Being a saint is simply to become the best version of who you already are. And I can think of no better image for a Holy Family.

But are we always that best version? No and we’ll fail miserably at that from time to time. We’ll be grumpy and short tempered sometimes. We’ll be impatient with spouses and children and pets. We’ll fall short of both obligations and expectations. We’ll even hurt those closest to us.

I tend to have a lot of patience for many people. I work with college students and am a spiritual director for many people. Patience is part of the gig. But why then, do I have so little patience at home? I get quick tempered with my wife some days, feeling irritated at every little thing she asks. I can’t stand the randomness of the dog barking. Some days I wonder what I’d do with a crying baby , if I had one…and for those of you with children, I can understand how sleep deprived and cranky you can become.

Ok, but while we can understand these frustrations, they are not just peachy keen either! They are far from the best version of ourselves. They make us a less “Wholly” Family and cause divisions and harm. So we have to do something about this.

The first thing I find that recently has been helpful to me is the opportunity to find some time for quiet. Even just 15 minutes. I drive my wife to work in the morning and then have some time to come back home and eat and cultivate that habit of silent prayer time. The house is silent and the dog is usually curled up and asleep. I can do my examen over a bowl of oatmeal and fruit, actually chewing an appropriate amount instead of gobbling something down in a rush. I might even have more time to just sit and be. I end up relaxed and able to give those frustrations to God and make it easier for me to be patient throughout the day.

When I don’t have formal time to do this, I need to do the mini-version. In the car, in my office, walking on campus, wherever I can steal a few seconds for an aspirant prayer for God to give me strength and patience.

The upside of all of this is that it’s contagious. I find that calm and patient people often attract the same. Parents especially will notice that the calmer they appear, the calmer their children are, even in an emergency. Both my mom and dad were great at this in my younger years. I came home after having the point end of a football punted into my eye one afternoon in a schoolyard touch football game and even though it looked horrendous and I needed to be hospitalized, my parents stayed calm. My mom said things like “Oh it doesn’t look that bad, come sit over here and dad will come and take you to the doctor.” I never got that scared about it and I very nearly could have lost my sight in that eye.

And Jesus himself serves as the model for this for us in the Gospel. Mary and Joseph are like us, frantically searching for Jesus in the caravan. (Ever lose a kid in a mall?). When they find Jesus, he calmly says to them, “Didn’t you know that I would be in my father’s house?” But then Jesus also becomes obedient to Mary and Joseph. There’s the realization of human weakness by God. And in that we see calmness pervade this Holy Family, so much so that the gospel writers don’t even write anything of note about them throughout Jesus’ childhood.

Perhaps Jesus can have that same calming effect on us? And maybe that’s why we come here. Like Hannah in our first reading, can we be overwhelmed with gratitude for our families that we come to this place to give that thanks to God? And for those of us who may have experienced family life that hasn’t always been good, can we come here in search of healing, forgiveness, a calmness in our storm?

Yesterday, we laid to rest a parishioner, named Viola, Vi for short. Vi sang in our choir and she always had this serenity about her, even in the midst of chaos. She worked with many people in harm’s way as a social worker, prisoners, troubled teens, mentally ill folks and became the calm in the storm for them. But she really loved being that calming influence on her family and they appreciated that about her. In that calmness was a vitality of life that was given to others and helped them all become the best person they can be.

Can we all learn from her example? Maybe we can’t be the one who is ultra-calm all the time, but can we look to others for that serenity and can it help us become better people? Can we look to Jesus and take those moments of peace when we need it each day? And in a world where we often see chaos and distress, can we believe that God can offer us everlasting peace no matter how chaotic things might become?

If we can do that, we might just be a Holy Family. And that might be enough to unite all of us to one another….and to God.

The Holy Family

So today is the feast of the Holy Family and I always end up thinking about how Joseph and Mary interacted with Jesus in tow.

Joseph, the silent saint, who has no words recorded in all of scripture and Mary, who doesn’t have much more, are much like our modern day families. They have to take a trip while Mary’s pregnant and it’s a disaster. It seems they didn’t anticipate that they’d be unable to find lodging. I can imagine the scene:

Mary: “What do you mean there’s no room?

Joseph: “There’s no room! What do you want me to do, build one?”

Mary: “Well you are a carpenter!

Both Laugh hysterically and the fight is over. But then, Mary’s water breaks. I imagine people in the front of the inn looking on and wondering what they’re going to do. Finally the innkeeper takes pity and says:

“Look you can have the back area for the night–I made up a makeshift crib out of the manger. Those animals can go without a meal for one night! Mazel Tov and I’m sorry, but it’s all that I have.”

Joseph: “What more do we need? Thank you for your generosity. A blessing on your house.”

I can hear the two of them complaining as they await the baby. I wonder if a midwife came out to help or if Joseph had to deliver the baby? Either way, it had to be a crazy, haphazard, confusing situation.

All the craziness: Mary discovering that she’s a pregnant virgin. Joseph thinking that the law gives him the right to stone Mary for getting pregnant while being betrothed to him. Joseph having a crazy dream that must have stunned people when he took Mary into his home. Was that an admission of guilt?—“I’m the father.” Imagine his bravery as people would chastise: “Sex out of wedlock? The old guy couldn’t wait to get his hands on the virgin.”

And the dreams continue for Joseph, who can’t possibly know which end is up. “Take the child to Egypt–NOW!” They lose him in a caravan. “OMG…I lost the Son of God.”

This family has nothing on any of ours. Strange soccer fields. Bad grades. Puking kids. Dogs and cats. We don’t get to hear about Jesus’ teen age years. Too bad, that must have been some adventure. And somewhere in there Joseph presumably dies. I often like to think that this is when Jesus begins his public ministry. After all, he’s the man of the house now and he has to become who he is.

A family—just like all of our families. Chaotic and often haphazard we love our families despite it all.

And so does God.

God chooses to become a person in a family–a poor family, rife with the troubles of the day. Imagine Joseph showing the son of God how to plane a piece of wood knowing that he could do it better without trying as hard as he does. Imagine Mary watching her son die on the cross. Imagine Jesus knowing not only that he would suffer and die for the sins of humanity but that he’d also put his mother through all this pain and his father would have to struggle to raise him. His family would not be rich–in fact, they’d live in abject poverty.

God’s family–a poor family. A chosen family by God to be God’s.

I imagine Mary and Joseph meeting again in heaven and Joseph embracing his wife. And Jesus smiling at the reunion and the redemption of all that has been suffered.

And the family lives on…in peace.

Named After St Joseph

As a parishioner of St. Joseph’s University Parish in Buffalo these days, I was particularly disappointed to not be able to go to mass there on the Feast of the Holy Family. After all, St Joseph has no lines in the bible and has a feast day that is royally overshadowed on March 19th by the great feast of St Patrick just two days earlier. So Joseph is inclined to take any feast day that he gets a mention!

One of the more remarkable stories that I’ve heard on the Feast of the Holy Family comes from my good friend, Fr. Ron Franco, CSP. This Sunday, since we were visiting friends and family in NYC, I went to the Church of St. Paul the Apostle (the Paulist motherhouse and the church that Marion and I were married in) and was hoping that perhaps this story would get a repeat performance in his homily. Alas, the good Father was not presiding. However, I will do my best to recall his story.

Back in the day, Fr. Ron’s grandmother was pregnant and she decided that she was going to name the baby after St. Joseph. Unfortunately, she miscarried. Pregnant again, she again vowed to name the baby after the foster-father of Jesus. But after a second miscarriage, she cried out, “That St. Joseph is a jinx! Never again, will I EVER name a child after St. Joseph.”

Who could blame her really?

When she became pregnant again the question presented to her was how was she going to decide the name of the baby since St. Joseph was persona non grata?

“That’s easy,” she replied. “I will just name the child after the saint whose feast is on the day that she or he is born!”

A simple solution, to be sure. However, when the baby was born on March 19, that idea presented her with a conundrum. St. Joseph’s Day. The dreaded jinx. But true to her word, Fr. Ron’s grandmother gave her little girl the promised name. And so she became Fr. Ron’s Aunt Josephine.

But even more remarkable was that Fr. Ron’s grandmother renwed her faith with a great devotion indeed to St. Joseph.

I too, have been quite close to Josephs in my own life. My parent’s were married in St. Joseph’s Church in Yonkers and I too, was baptized there. My college roommate and close friend is named Joseph. My financial adviser is named Joseph. And the young man who has been such a joy for me to listen to in spiritual direction as his director when I often feel very close to God the most is in fact, also named Joseph. And now I embark on a new phase in my life at a church where Joseph is the patron.

An interesting character, St. Joseph has no lines spoken in the gospels. We know he was a craftsman or artisan of some kind, some say a carpenter, but others say he was a bit more than simply a worker of wood. And indeed his life was one insurmountable task after another. It’s no wonder that Fr. Ron’s grandma was able to reacquaint with the great saint after some time of trouble.

Joseph was promised that Mary would be his wife and then, one day, out of the blue, she ends up pregnant. Joseph’s first reaction is to say simply, “Oh well. I’ll just end this marriage deal quietly and fade out of the picture.” We gloss over the fact that by law, Joseph had the right to stone Mary to death. Instead he shows mercy and restraint. I like to imagine Joseph tearfully, considering whether he should stone this woman that perhaps he has come to love, that in his old age he was looking forward to marrying. He can’t bear to even think of doing that and so he walks away. It is great foreshadowing for a later gospel story of the woman caught in adultery who Jesus forgives and in fact, saves from stoning.

Joseph chooses to simply back out. But during what was no doubt a restless sleep, Joseph’s insecurities play out in a dream. God comforts these insecurities by telling Joseph those words that we hear more than any other words in the bible: “Do not be afraid.” In this case, God tells him to take Mary into his home and to raise this son who he will name Jesus.

The man who wanted nothing to do with this relationship, who was dismissive of the whole thing, now becomes the protector of God himself. God places His human body in the strong sure hands of a simple carpenter who indeed designed the plan that would keep both Jesus and Mary safe indeed, especially in a poor society where infant mortality was very high and where people didn’t always live into their 30s.

Besides all this, imagine having to teach God! Imagine throwing a baseball to God and telling Him that he throws like a girl that first time out? Imagine teaching him how to make a chair–when you know full well that he probably knows 27 better and faster ways to do it? Imagine worrying if you were teaching him anything at all, or if you were actually doing a good job of protecting God from the ills of society? Would Joseph have to punish Jesus for being late? Would he have to help him discern his vocation in life? Would he be upset at his new ideas and his choice of ministry?

Joseph indeed has it tough.

But the fact that Jesus and Mary live as long as they do in no small way is due to this hidden saint. Joseph the silent provider does his job without any fanfare. We don’t hear much about Joseph after the infancy narratives. We presume him to be dead during Jesus’ passion and death because he is not with Mary at the foot of the cross. Joseph doesn’t live to see God’s plan fulfilled. But in my imagination, I often fantasize about Joseph sitting at the right hand of God the Father after the Ascension and after standing up, he runs, embraces his son and says, “Here you go, Son, I made this chair just for you.”

Could we be that unassuming? Could we trust that God has the plan for us when we can barely understand what is going on around us, when all seems strange and unexpected?

Could we take such good care of God and moreover, do we let God take good care of us?

Today my prayer is one of imagination. I imagine Joseph in his old age being comforted by a sad Jesus at his deathbed. I think it is there that Joseph got a special gift. He got to see God seconds before his death and then again seconds after it. May we all be comforted by Jesus in our final hours and each day that we live to serve God with all that we are…

Even when times seem difficult.