The most important prayer we know – the one that all parents ought to teach their children – begins: Our Father, who art in heaven. I was taught it by my mother at the age of five and I taught it to my children in turn. It’s a family prayer, because we pray not to someone called “God” but to Our Father. We are praying to a person, rather than to a concept or an idea or a thing.
It was the plan of God the Father to bring Jesus into the world within a family: the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Significantly, God is at the center of this family, which makes the Holy Family a model for family life. And notice I have not used the term “normal” to describe the Holy Family. In my experience of life and as a priest I have yet to come across a “normal” family, whatever that means. All families are, to a certain extent, imperfect and dysfunctional. If we are not to reject families outright, the task is how best to manage and live within them.
Good advice on this subject is found throughout the Bible, especially in the books of Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus, but I like this passage from the Letter to the Colossians:
“Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.” (Col. 3:13-15)
The key word here is “forgive”, which is also the key word in the Lord’s prayer. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. We all know, either from our own experience or from observation, just how destructive for families a lack of forgiveness can be.
Successful families – by which I mean ones where there is a great deal of unconditional love on offer – are creative schools for life. And families which worship and pray together have a great advantage over those that do not. God fearing families learn the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, learn to watch out for their neighbors, learn to love and honor God and place God at the center of their life together. And in Jesus Christ, who himself grew up in a family, we have the perfect example of Godly living. He is the best type, not because he is conventional, which he isn’t, but because Jesus shows us the meaning of true freedom, which consists of obedience to the will of the Father. The strength and unity of the Holy Family derives from the fact that all of its members are obedient to the will of God. Your kingdom come, your will be done.
For Mary it meant saying to the angel Gabriel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” She followed God’s will although it meant giving up her own will and enduring much heartache and suffering. For Joseph it meant allowing God to direct and influence his own life through the power of dreams. For Jesus, obedience led to the crucifixion, through which he won for us salvation and the hope of eternal life.
The example of the Holy Family helps us to reflect on the nature and extent of our own family life, and its relevance in the context of a Christian life. Ask yourself these questions: “how are my relationships with my other family members?” “Have I kept God out of my family?” “Apart from my own family, who am I father to, or mother to? Who is my brother, or my sister?”
God found a home in the family of Joseph and Mary. Although they were saints, it doesn’t mean they were perfect or led perfect lives. They were faithful people, who I imagine faced the same or similar challenges to parents today. It isn’t the easiest job in the world, but you can do it with love. You always make mistakes, but you learn to forgive yourselves. You find strength through the prayers you make, and God blesses you in many extraordinary ways. You also find heartache in being a parent: Mary’s heart was broken when her son died.
However, we know that true love never dies, and that love has a power to save, even when all appears lost. Here’s the thing: if there is any comfort in this world of heartache and suffering, it is to know that the love of the Father for his children never ends. We are God’s children, and he loves us. We have a brother in Christ, who also loves us, so much so that he gave up his life for our sakes.
That prayer I learned from my mother when I was five years old has been a constant companion throughout my life. It’s a prayer that takes me out of myself and into the heart of God. It is a strength and comfort in times of need. Deliver me from evil. In this world of sin, the family ties help to keep me on the straight and narrow. I am thankful for family, despite or perhaps because of the difficulties they have brought me. With families, there is always room for improvement. If I have learnt anything from the many different families I have known, it is, as the letter to Colossians says, to learn to forgive. Forgiveness is the balm which soothes and heals the wounds of family life.
With blessings for a happy and holy 2020.