Icon of the Family

Reflection on the Holy Family (Icon of the Family)[1]

Often looked at in quaint terms, with romantic vision, the manger scene is a very important catechetical tool for Catholics.  What seems to be this idyllic scene of the Holy Family surrounded by oxen, ass, sheep, shepherds and magi is much more involved.  First we need to break the scene down because it is an accumulation of events; strip away the magi, they won’t be here until Epiphany; strip away the shepherds and sheep, they arrived later in the night.  What the scene now shows is the Holy Family alone with the oxen and ass – in a dirty manger – hidden from the world.

Biographers have noted that St. Francis wanted the oxen and the ass in the scene. He said to the nobleman of Greccio who was a follower “I wish to evoke remembrance of the child quite realistically, how he was born in Bethlehem, and of all the hardship he must have endured in his childhood.  I would like to see with my bodily eyes how it was, to lie in a manger and to sleep on hay between oxen and an ass.”[2]

What the scene makes real to our eyes among the hardship is the beauty, the simplicity, the faith, the aloneness together, the love within God’s family. In front of us is the icon of the family.  And history has shown, throughout all cultures that it is within this icon that the health of the family is strongest, and by extension the health of a society as well.

However, in recent times we now see the erosion of the icon of the family.  Society, or at least the elites within it would love to see the icon of family remain right where it started, hidden, out of sight of society.  Or if it can’t remain hidden then they will redefine the elements and try to make it irrelevant. Even some within Holy Mother Church have tried to, unwittingly I hope, minimize the current relevance of this icon of the family.

One argument goes like this: Historical as the icon of the family is, it needs to be retooled to fit the times and attitudes of today.  How can the Church be relevant if she can’t relate to her members and neighbors? Just this past October at the Extraordinary Synod convoked to discuss the family this line of thought came alive.  Within the discussions a variant on the principle of Gradualism was resurrected.  This principle champions the idea or policy of achieving some goal by gradual steps rather than by drastic change.  In our case the drastic change is the expectation of acceptance of the totality of the faith and its tenants. They would argue: why force our people to accept the tenants of the church, the values based on our faith, in total – let them gradually come to understand them and embrace them. In short – ignore some sin, in fact try to find something good around it, and hopefully get them to see the error of their ways.

Wilfrid Cardinal Napier, archbishop of Durban South Africa, in an interview this fall commented on the error of these Gradualism tendencies that raised its head at the extraordinary synod: ‘When you are holding up the bar of moral uprightness, you cannot at the same time, sing the praise of the contrary.[3]

With concern for this so-called pastorally compassionate line of thought Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia commented in a speech: “None of us are welcomed on our own terms in the church. We are welcomed on Jesus’ terms,[4] he said. “That’s what it means to be a Christian. You submit yourself to Jesus and his teaching. You don’t re-create your own body of spirituality.[5]

The icon of the Holy Family is not something that can be repainted.  Jesus’ ministry gave us the totality of God’s revealed truths.  Christ instituted sacraments and gave the protection of them to Holy Mother Church under the guidance of His Holy Spirit. As Catholics we have the expectation of being led in the faith by strong and wise shepherds. As Catholics we have the obligation to pray for these shepherds and to actively help them.  Our prayers are needed more now than ever.

Brothers and sisters, in our hearts let’s sit with the Holy Family in the manger in Bethlehem and ask our Lord, lying among the Oxen and Ass to guide us in living the true faith and proclaiming it to others.


[1] Inspired by a Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger article ‘An Ox and An Ass at the Crib’ 1978 that is included in the book Images of Hope.
[2] Ibid – quote attributed to St. Francis
[3] Wilfrid Cardinal Napier – Dec. 23 email interview with the National Catholic Register’s Rome correspondent,
[4] Charles Cardinal Chaput – Speech given for First Things Journal – October 2014
[5] ibid


When Holy Mother Church celebrates Christmas it takes her 8 days.

The Octave of Christmas, eight days to celebrate one feast because there is too much of importance to celebrate in a 24 hour period. We do that at Easter as well, and we used do it at Pentecost; at Easter we start with Easter Sunday and end with Divine Mercy Sunday.

Christmas is that important. St. Francis of Assisi called it the feast of feasts – His first biographer, brother Thomas of Celano (who knew St. Francis), said that he celebrated Christmas more than any other feast with an indescribable joy…because on that day God became small and sucked milk like all children of men. A little graphic but it brings home the significance of Christmas to St. Francis and hopefully for us as well.

However, during this Octave of Christmas there are many other celebrations:

  • We start with Christ’s birth on the 25th;
  • The 26th is the Feast of St .Steven, first martyr who died for his faith in Christ;
  • The 27th was the Feast of St. John;
  • The 28th, today, is the Feast of the Holy Family but normally, when it doesn’t fall on a Sunday today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents;
  • Tomorrow, the 29th is the Feast of St. Thomas Beckett Bishop and Martyr;
  • Next Thursday the Octave concludes with the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.

So, I have to ask the question: why does Holy Mother Church, during her celebration of the Nativity of the Lord ‘busy-it-up’ with these other celebrations?  Doesn’t it dilute the importance of the Birth of our Lord?

Dr. Scott Hahn, in his new book about the Nativity of our Lord (titled Joy to the World), started with what at first seems like an unusual topic.

He talks about the Christmas story, and how it has villains and how it has a hero, Christ. But he goes on to say something, that I thought was very profound:

Yes Jesus is at the center of the drama, but he doesn’t behave like a conventional hero. He doesn’t fit the classical model, He is not acting alone. He is not intruding himself to change the course of events.  In fact, he’s hardly acting at all. He’s passive: nursed and placed to sleep in a manger, found on his mother’s lap by the magi, carried away in flight to Egypt. Like any baby, he exercises a powerful attraction – drawing love from those who draw near. Yet he is visible only because other arms are holding him… The Christmas story has an unconventional hero – not a warrior, not a worldly conqueror, not an individual at all, but rather a family…[1]

He goes on to point out that someone had to wrap Christ in swaddling clothes, someone had to place Him in the crib; someone had to take him into exile in Egypt; someone had to provide for him.  Our Father David pointed out that Christ even needed help to follow Jewish law and customs since someone had to bring him to the Temple for his presentation as we just heard proclaimed in the Gospel.

Dr. Hahn continues this section with: ‘The family is the key to Christmas. The family is the key to Christianity… When God came to save us, he made salvation inseparable from family life, manifest in family life.[2]

The Octave of Christmas is all about Christ, therefore it is all about family.

Brothers and sisters, the importance of the family cannot be overstated.  It is where Christ entered our world. In a very important way it is where God grew up and learned about us.  It is where the boy Jesus learned about the faith.  It where the boy Jesus was bathed in love, learned compassion, was taught about society. It is where He was protected, felt safe, learned responsibility.  It is where the boy Jesus came to understand all about His heavenly father, His true father.  Our hero of salvation was brought into and raised up in the world by His heroes – family.

The story of Christmas is not one of a single hero riding in and snatching us out of the jaws of danger and then everything is all right.  The story of Christmas is an ongoing story, one that is best taught by and witnessed to in the circle of the family. This feast of the Holy Family is a very Christmas Holiday; it reinforces not only joy of family but the responsibility of family and each of the members.  It should encourage us to go out from this Mass and witness to what it means to be a Christian family.  We should be inspired to live family life within our beliefs as Mary and Joseph did.  It means radiating neighborly love and compassion, participating in the celebrations of faith, offering our self to each other while being obedient to the will of God – it means living a life of Trinitarian love.

But in addition, it means proclaiming this Gospel message.  Let’s take up the mission of the Holy Family, live our life with Christ in our midst gazing up at us from the crib and looking down at us from the cross.  There is no better way to bring the light of Christ into the darkness of the world than having a family that shines with the example of the Holy Family.

My brothers and sisters don’t allow the prayer we proclaimed at the beginning of Mass to be hollow – live what we just prayed for and what our Lord came for:

O God, who were pleased to give us
the shining example of the Holy Family,
graciously grant that we may imitate them
in practicing the virtues of family life and in the bonds of charity,
and so, in the joy of your house,
delight one day in eternal rewards.[3]


[1] Scott Hahn, PhD Joy to the World Chapter 1
[2] Ibid
[3] Collect Mass for the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph

Dark recedes, dawn comes

Throughout history mankind has wandered through the darkness of sin.  Our pride caused our fall; our short-sightedness reduced us to acting alone, pushing God away.  And though we were at fault, we were constantly overcome by the feeling of abandonment; God had abandoned us.  Since the Garden of Eden mankind has groped towards the heights of heaven, we strain our eyes looking for the God who left us. ‘Mourning and weeping in this vale of tears[1]

But this morning.

This morning we understand the true import of the words of the prophet Isaiah: ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.[2]

This morning beyond all imagining, beyond all hopes, God made Himself visible to His creation.  God’s face appeared to mankind; the light of His eyes gazed on humanity; Love now radiates throughout history.  It is a light that, as St. John proclaims this morning, ‘shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.[3] This light is ‘true light, which enlightens everyone[4] everyone, none is left in the darkness.

What joy we have knowing that our God, comes especially for each of us; His birth into this dark world was done so that you and I could be bathed in the light of love.  Today, we feel within us, however muted, what the angels know – God is within and will never leave.  We are not alone, we are not abandoned. This little baby proclaims to the world and to our hearts GOD EXISTS! And what is more ‘he has heard our cry.[5] Our cry, each and every one of us has been heard by God.

No matter what our life has brought us or will bring us; no matter what ailments, what problems, what obstacles were with us yesterday and will be with us tomorrow; today we look down upon this newborn baby and look upon eternity who has reduced Himself into time.  Today, we adore God who offers himself to us – for us. Today, we celebrate that nothing can keep God from us and us from Him.  Today, love burns in our hearts again; making them fresh and alive, full of vigor and hope.  Today, the night of loneliness has been banished by God’s light of love.

Dark recedes, dawn comes as we gaze upon the face of Love Himself.


[1] Salve Regina
[2] Isaiah 9:2 (RSV)
[3] John 1:5
[4] John 1:9
[5] Pope Benedict XVI Urbi et Orbi 12/25/2011

Christmas Gifting

In today’s Gospel we see and hear from the Archangel Gabriel.  He comes to Mary to bring a message. This isn’t the first time we see an account of an angel bringing a message, Gabriel came just 6 months earlier to Zechariah and announced that his wife would give birth to St. John the Baptist.  In fact, angel activity has been recorded in the bible many times

  • Abraham told not to kill Isaac. (Genesis 22:11-1)
  • Manoah and his wife told of son to be born. (Judges 13:13-14)
  • Joseph had a message from an angel about Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-24)
  • Shepherds all have message by angels about Jesus. (Luke 2:8-12)
  • Philip told to go to the desert. (Acts 8:26)
  • Paul is told that they would be delivered from the storm at sea. (Acts 27:23-24)

and on and on – there are almost 300 mentions in the Bible of angels!

Angel – the word isn’t a name as much as it is a description of what these spirits do.  It comes from the Greek word ‘anggelos’ and it means messenger.  They are primarily God’s messengers, at least angels and archangels.  There are more – we have put names to them. Pope Gregory the Great tells us ‘There are nine orders of angels, to wit, angels, archangels, virtues, powers, principalities, dominations, thrones, cherubim, and seraphim.[1]  Existence outside of this reality is probably thick with them.  George Bernard Shaw says:  ‘In Heaven an angel is nobody in particular.’   There are many.

I have this vision that as we walk the journey of struggle between our sinful inclinations and our desire to be holy, angels are all around us fighting the agents of evil. I am not alone, St. Ambrose says: ‘We should pray to the angels, for they are given to us as guardians.’  That they are real, that they do God’s bidding, and that they love who God loves should be a given for each of us.  But this information shouldn’t blind us from the historical (biblically speaking) fact that encounters with angels are never a Hallmark Card moment; they are unnerving to say the least, terrifying is probably the best description. Dr. Paul Eymann speaks of this: ‘Angels in the Bible never appear as cute, chubby infants! They are always full-grown adults. When people in the Bible saw an angel, their typical response was to fall on their faces in fear and awe, not to reach out and tickle an adorable baby.[2]

I take this time to discuss angels because of the import this information brings to today’s Gospel.  Mary, devout though she was (the most devout, full of grace, immaculately conceived) must have been very distraught by the visit of an angel, indeed I imagine her terrified[3]. Not only by the appearance but by the message.  This messenger of God tells her that she is to become pregnant, prior to her finalization of marriage – an almost certain death sentence in her time and culture.  All she had to do was say yes to God and her life would be in jeopardy.

And she said yes!

In spite of the traumatic appearance of God’s messenger, in spite of the danger inherent in His message, Mary said yes.  Her trust in God was absolute.  So, like Abraham with his son Isaac; like Job; like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace Mary gives her total self to God’s designs.  In all of these, especially with our Blessed Mother, we see the same holy characteristic – humility; they are humble; they understand their place when viewed from the correct perspective, that of standing in front of God.  Mary’s great unconditional fiat ‘Be it done to me according to your word.’ is the greatest witness of trust and love and the truth it brings – next to her son’s obedience on the cross.  She loves her God and she knows who she is in His eyes. With acceptance of her small and absolutely precious place in God’s family Mary has the peace of mind to accept what He puts to her. Fr. Cantalamessa, the preacher of the papal household, in his 2nd advent homily from last year speaking of this special realization said: ‘It consists in the quiet and tranquil sentiment of being nothing before God, but a nothing loved by Him![4] What freedom is realized with this gift of truth of self!  What power it can bring forth!  What grace can flow from acceptance of self as seen by God!

God gives Mary the gift of His only Son. Mary gives to God her absolute trust in His goodness and love. Both are wrapped in humility.  This my brothers and sisters is the greatest example of Christmas gifting. In a very important way, our tradition of giving gifts at Christmas is a remembrance of this foundational event. May each of us follow Mary’s example and offer to God this Christmas our gift absolute trust. After all, He comes to us and gives us the gift of Himself.


[1] Pope Gregory the Great Homily
[2] http://christiananswers.net/q-acb/acb-t005.html
[3] Luke 1:29-30 ‘But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.
[4] Fr. Cantalamessa, 12/13/13  2nd Advent Homily for Pope Francis


Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete: Dominus enim prope est.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed the Lord is near.[1]

This beautiful line from St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is today’s Introit and gives this 3rd Sunday of Advent its name.  The full introit is:
‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God.[2]

We rejoice that Lord is near as we look ahead to the 25th of December, less than two weeks from now.  With the birth of our Lord we can take strength from He who made us. With His gift of coming among us we see Him and know Him better. We can take on His attributes of gentleness and patience; we can live within His love. We can attain the desire of our hearts. The celebration of the nativity of Lord is getting so very near – we can hardly keep within our skins, as the saying goes.

But for us, this evening, we can repeat: ‘Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete: Dominus enim prope est.’with an even more immediate focus.  We can rejoice that in a few minutes we can meet the Lord and reconcile with Him.  We can take part in His gift of the Sacrament of Reconciliation – we can turn towards Him and embrace Him in humility as He once again embraces us in loving welcome.  No worries should cloud our hearts and minds, He will embrace us!  Our Lord is waiting; His presence is among us and He desires our embrace.

St. Paul, in today’s Second reading tells us:
May the God of peace make you perfectly holy
and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body,
be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The one who calls you is faithful,
and he will also accomplish it.[3]

All we need to do, each of us, to make this hope, this prayer of St. Paul happen, is to return to Christ tonight – allow our Lord to give us His gift of mercy, forgiveness, healing.  Push away any uneasiness about this meeting. It is not a meeting of punishment; it is one of thanksgiving – ours for His gift to us – His for our homecoming.

Let’s not miss this opportunity, this special and beautiful moment of embrace with Christ.

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete: Dominus enim prope est.[4]


[1,4] Philippians 4:4
[2] Philippians 4:4-6
[3] 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24

An Intimate God (small Advent reflection)

Today is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.  When God worked within history to bring about our salvation.  As I was praying last night (on the vigil) I thought back to a conversation I had recently.

A few months ago I was talking with an acquaintance about my faith.  I was surprised to hear that though he believed an entity created the universe this entity was no longer actively engaged with it.  How could this entity (he thought); to be engaged would damage what was created – and besides it was too ‘dirty’ (his words) for this entity to deal with. He actually used a Science Fiction idea – he said for the entity to be in contact with the created universe would be like matter – antimatter interaction!! My first thought was wow – Gnosticism never seems to go out of style. We then went on to discuss how I believed in a personal, interacting loving God who was in fact within this creation – no minds were changed that day.

However, the conversation got me reflecting on God’s continuing interaction with His creation; how it is all around us.  These reflective points won’t convince the unbeliever but I offer them to the believer for your own Advent reflection.

  • The very fact that the universe works that way it does shows His hand. ‘Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.[1]
  • The fact that love exists shows His presence. ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.[2]
  • The completeness we feel when we become one with God in loving obedience shows us His presence is vital. ‘Thou awakest us to delight in Thy praise; for Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee.[3]
  • Jesus Christ coming to us and revealing His Father and His concern and love brought ‘the great and total other’ being among us. And not just to sit as an aloof powerful and fearful king but to truly be in solidarity with us. ‘God made himself small so that we could understand him, welcome him, and love him[4]
  • Christ’s gift of Himself in the Eucharist shows His constant participation within creation.‘…we see how he became small: in the humble appearance of the host, in a small piece of bread, he gives us himself.[5]

My brothers and sisters, as we continue on in our Advent journey let’s always remember that God is always with us, working for our own success in His plan for us.  May this small reflection help you in yours and it has with mine.


[1] Romans 1:20 (RSV)
[2] Jeremiah 31:3b (RSV)
[3] St. Augustine – Confession Book 1 Paragraph 1
[4] Pope Benedict XVI 12/24/06 Homily for Midnight Mass of the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord.
[5] ibid

Advent and a Christian’s Hope

One of the marks of a Christian is the palpable joy that radiates from their being; it separates them from the rest of humanity.

In general, each member of human race moves through their life from one unknown to the next.  We make plans and hope that they come to fruition – the future is in the shadows.  But that is a fearful hope; we are worried it won’t happen and hope the fear does not come true.

Christian hope, on the other hand, is a joyful hope; it is based on knowing what will happen and desiring it; it is based on Christ Himself.  This hope is based on knowing what will happen because of what He guaranteed to us in the past. It is waiting for the promise in His final appearance because of what He revealed in His first appearance.  It is embracing the future now because the future is here – now – His presence isn’t returning – it is here now. The future is not in the shadows; it is light itself.

A Christian’s hope is based on knowing that God’s love surrounds us and guides us and energizes us regardless of what is thrown at us on our journey. ‘Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.[1] we hear from Isaiah today. This is not a proclamation of the fearful hope for those who wait for a shadowy unknown – it is a peaceful, joyful, assuring hope of someone who waits for Christ – with Christ – within His light.

The only fear a Christian will have is that we forget that Christ is with us every moment of our journey – that we fall into the numbing fearful hope that mankind is mired in when they turn within, shutting God’s light out.  This is why Jesus gave us His bride, Holy Mother Church, to make level the path, to keep us from being lost in the shadows of our own making, to lead us to the heights of love so His light will warm us and lead us.

Rise up, Jerusalem! stand upon the heights … see the joy that comes to you from God! … For God is leading Israel in joy by the light of his glory.[2]


[1] Isaiah 40: 11
[2] Baruch 5:5; 4:36; 5:9