Sirach 3:2–6, 12–14; Colossians 3:12–21; Luke 2:22–40
Family prayer should take place in three settings: the personal, the group, and the communal.
Some time ago Reader’s Digest carried a “family quiz.”
It contained 12 questions addressed to parents. One of the questions read: “With guests at your Christmas dinner table,
would you feel comfortable asking any of your children to say grace?”
That question calls attention to one of the key concerns of every family: its prayer life.
There are three settings in which the family’s prayer life takes place.
First, there is the personal setting. In this setting
family members pray to God on their own.
For example, a father prays on his way to work.
A mother prays over her sick baby.
A boy or girl prays before going to bed.
There are several ways to pray alone.
We can pray set prayers, like the Our Father, reflecting on the words as we go.
We can pray from Scripture,
reading a paragraph and meditating on it.
We can pray in our own words,
speaking to God freely from the heart.
Jesus often prayed alone.
He prayed at his baptism.
He prayed during his preaching ministry.
He prayed in the garden.
One of the most precious gifts a parent can give to a child is an appreciation of personal prayer. And there’s no better way to do this than by example.
whom the New York Times called “the most influential person
in the history of American Catholicism,” says that one of her first attractions toward Catholicism came as a child when she saw an adult Catholic at prayer. She writes:
“It was about ten o’clock in the morning that I went up to Kathryn’s to call on her to come out to play. There was no one on the porch or in the kitchen. . . . I burst in. . . .
“In the front room Mrs. Barrett was on her knees, saying her prayers. She turned to tell me that Kathryn and the children had gone to the store and went on with her praying. And I felt a warm burst of love toward Mrs. Barrett.”
That’s a beautiful scene, and I’m sure many of us can relate similar examples of adult Catholics at prayer.
The second family prayer setting is in a group.
In this setting the family members pray together.
For example, they pray around the table at mealtimes.
They pray together before retiring for bed. They pray together at other appropriate times.
Jesus prayed often with his family.
Jews put the highest priority on family prayer,
especially at family meals. An ancient Jewish proverb says that whoever eats food without giving thanks steals from God.
Jesus prayed often within the context of a meal.
he prayed when he fed the hungry crowds on the hillside.
(See Luke 9:16.)
He prayed at the Last Supper. (See Luke 22: 19.)
He prayed when he ate with the two disciples at Emmaus.
(See Luke 24:30.)
Again, one of the most precious gifts a parent can give to a child is an appreciation of group or family prayer. In his biography of General Douglas MacArthur, Courtney Whitney quotes the general as saying:
“By profession I am a soldier and I take pride in that fact.
But I am prouder—infinitely prouder—to be a father. . . .
It is my hope that my sone, when I am gone, will remember me not from battle but in the home repeating with him our simple daily prayer, ‘Our Father who art in heaven.’
Finally, there is the communal prayer setting. It this setting the family gathers with other families on the Lord’s Day around the Lord’s table.
Of course, it is not always possible for families to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together, as a complete family. But there should be times when the family makes an effort to do this.
Jesus prayed often in this setting. Commenting on Jesus’ practice of praying in community with other families, Luke says:
“Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up,
and on the Sabbath he went as usual to the synagogue.” Luke 4:16
Today’s Feast of the Holy Family invites us to ask ourselves about the quality of our family prayer life.
In particular, it invites us to ask ourselves how well
we—fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters— are contributing to the prayer life of our family.
Recall the way the family quiz posed the question to parents: “With guests at your Christmas dinner table, would you feel comfortable asking any of your children to say grace?” If our answer to that question is no, then today’s Scripture readings
have an important message for us.
Let’s close with a prayer. General Douglas MacArthur wrote it in the Philippines during the opening days of the war in the Pacific.
Though it is a prayer for sons, it is equally appropriate for daughters. Please pray along with me in silence:
“Build me a son, O Lord, who will be strong enough to know
when he is weak, brave enough to face himself when his is afraid. . . .
“Build me a son whose wishes will not take the place of
deeds. . . . Lead him, I pray, not in the path of ease and comfort, but under the stress and spur of difficulties and challenge.
“Let him learn to stand in the storm; let him learn compassion for those who fall.
“Build me a son whose heart is clear, whose goals will be high;
a son who will master himself before he seeks to master other men; who will reach into the future, yet never forget the past.
“And after all of these things are his, add, I pray, enough of a sense of humor so that he may always be serious yet never take himself too seriously. . . .
“Then, I his father, will dare to whisper, ‘I have not lived in vain.’ ”
Sirach 3:2–6, 12–14; Colossians 3:12–21; Luke 2:22, 39–40
There’s a Reason
No family is a stranger to pain, but pain can draw families closer to God.
Erma Bombeck was a journalist. Her column appeared in 900 newspapers across the country. Like many columnists,
she got lots of letters from readers. Typical of the letters she received is the following, which is based on an actual letter from a mother.
“Even though the courts have given up on my son,
I have not. He’s my son; how can I give up on him?
I pray for him; I cry for him; I encourage him. And, above all, I love him.’’
And here’s another example, based on an actual letter written by a 12-year-old girl:
“I am a substitute mom. When my own mom is working at the restaurant, I baby-sit my three little brothers and sisters.
“I take them to the bathroom.
I wipe their noses.
I give them supper.
I put them to bed.
I do everything a real mom does.
“But instead of thanking me, my brothers and sisters hate me.
Sometimes I wish I were dead.
“I’ve thought of running away, but I don’t know where I’d go and what I’d do.
“When I grow up, I don’t ever want to be a real mom.
It’s the worst job in the whole world.” Based on Erma Bombeck, Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession
Both of these examples make the same point. Being a parent or a child in a family isn’t always easy. Sometimes it’s downright painful.
The Gospel shows us that even the Holy Family wasn’t immune to such pain.
For example, Mary and Joseph suffered greatly when they discovered that Jesus was missing. Nor did their pain end when they found him. Mary said to Jesus:
“Son, why have you done this to us?
Your father and I have been terribly worried trying to find you.”
He answered them, “Why did you have to look for me? Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?” Luke 2:48–49
That was a painful response to Mary’s question. And how did Mary respond to it?
She didn’t confront Jesus.
She didn’t press him for an explanation.
She simply filed his answer away in her heart. The Gospel says:
But they did not understand his answer. . . .
His mother treasured all these things in her heart. Luke 2:50, 51
Sometimes keeping silent is the only way to handle explosive situations. Touching on this point, Erma Bombeck writes in Motherhood:
“I suppose every child remembers some special virtue their mother has—some piece of wisdom that has saved them
from disaster or a word that made the path infinitely easier.
“I love my mother for all the times she said absolutely nothing.’’
It takes a lot of self-control to remain silent when our emotions are churning inside us.
But it’s at times like these that silence really does speak louder than words.
If Mary’s role in the Holy Family wasn’t easy, neither was Joseph’s.
A retreat master had just made this point in a talk to fathers.
He ended by saying,
“Joseph is the perfect model for all of us.’’
After the talk a father came up to the retreat master
“With all due respect, Padre, Joseph’s situation was totally different from that of us ordinary fathers.
“First, he was a saint.
Second, his wife was sinless.
Third, his son was the Son of God.
I’m no saint, my wife isn’t sinless, and my son’s not the Son of God.”
The retreat master responded:
“What you say is true, but let me ask you something, in all seriousness.
“Did your wife become pregnant just before your marriage,
and you didn’t know by whom? Or did your son ever leave home for three days and you didn’t know where he was?
Both of these things happened to Joseph.”
The point is clear. Not even the holiest family is immune
But this brings up an important point: Suffering is not something that is always totally bad.
In fact, suffering can become a blessing if we accept it rightly.
It can do something for us that we could never do for ourselves. It can bring us closer to God.
History and theology show that suffering is often the path
by which many people are led to God. If it weren’t for suffering, they would never find God.
And so God doesn’t always remove our suffering.
But neither does God fail to give us the strength to bear it.
And God doesn’t always take away the darkness that surrounds our faith. But neither does God fail to give us the courage to keep walking in the dark.
God doesn’t always heal our hurts. But neither does God fail to use these hurts to draw us to our loving Creator.
Let’s close with a poem about suffering. It expresses in a beautiful way what we have been trying to say:
For ev’ry pain we must bear,
For ev’ry burden, ev’ry care,
There’s a reason.
For ev’ry grief that bows the head,
For ev’ry teardrop that is shed,
There’s a reason.
For ev’ry hurt, for ev’ry plight,
For ev’ry lonely, pain-racked night,
There’s a reason.
But if we trust God, as we should, It will turn out for our good. He knows the reason. Anonymous
Sirach 3:2–7, Colossians 3:12–21, Luke 2:22–40
Changing your life
Do a little bit more than you think you can.
With my own eyes I have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all people.” Luke 2:30–31
Josh McDowell is a well-known author and lecturer.
One of his books about Jesus is called More than a Carpenter.
In it he also talks about his own teenage years. He writes:
I hated one man more than anyone else in the world.
And that was my father. . . .
To me he was the town alcoholic. . . .My friends would . . .make jokes about him. . . .They didn’t think it bothered me . . . but it did. I was laughing on the outside, but crying on the inside.
Josh goes on to say that on one occasion, some friends were on their way over to visit his family.
To save everyone from embarrassment, he took his drunken father out in the barn and tied him up. Then he parked the family car around the back of the barn.
When the friends arrived, he told them that his father had been called away for something.
When Josh left home for college, he began thinking seriously about his life and where it was going.
That inner dialogue within himself triggered a change in his life. It wasn’t an overnight change.
Rather, it was slow and gradual. Josh had a lot to work through.
Eventually, the process ended in his making a complete surrender of his life to Jesus.
Then things really changed. He writes:
A love from God through Jesus Christ entered my life and was so strong that it took my hatred and turned it upside down.
I was able to look my father squarely in the eyes and say, “Dad, I love you.” And I really meant it.
Then came a major surprise. Josh’s change of heart had a dramatic impact on his father. It brought about an end to his father’s alcoholism, which was even more dramatic than his own conversion.
Commenting on his father’s change, he writes: “It was as if somebody reached down and turned on a light bulb.”
Josh concludes: “I’ve come to one conclusion. A relationship with Jesus Christ changes lives.”
That brings us to an important point about families.
Often a change in one family member will work a change in the whole family.
And that one family member—as we saw in the case of
Josh—can be any member of the family.
It goes without saying that doing this is not easy for any family member. It takes a strong member with a strong conviction.
But the big secret in changing ourselves is the secret Josh unveils in his story. It is turning our own life over to Jesus.
And when we do this, miracles can and do happen. Why?
It’s because the power of Jesus, acting in and through us,
can do what they could never do alone.
Here it is also important to keep in mind the point that Josh makes in his story. His own conversion did not take place overnight, because he had a lot to work through.
On the other hand, it is also true that the grace of God is so powerful that it can, indeed, work suddenly and powerfully, as it did in the case of Josh’s father.
That brings us to another important point to keep in mind.
Of all the family members whose change in their own lives can work a change in the whole family, is the change that can take place in one or both parents.
And that brings us to the feast of the Holy Family,
which we celebrate today.
In many ways, it ranks high among the most important feasts
of the liturgical year.
It is certainly one of the most practical feasts. Why?
Because it goes to the heart of God’s will for 95 percent of the people in the world. So often a priest hears a parent of a family—or a grandparent—say,
“I’m not sure what God’s will for me is.”
I wish the answer to all questions was as clear-cut as that one.
God’s will is being a good father or a good mother. It’s being a good son or a good daughter.
This is the primary calling for the vast majority of people today.
And if family members took that calling seriously, it would change not only our families but also our world.
I’ll never forget a front-page photo that appeared in USA Today some years back.
It was the photo of Lady Bird Johnson holding a bouquet of yellow swamp flowers on her ranch on her 75th birthday.
When the interviewer asked her if she had any advice to give people on her 75th birthday, she said, “Yes!” Then she added,
“Each day, do a little bit more than you think you can.”
I like that advice. It’s the kind of advice the Holy Family might give if we asked them for one simple suggestion.
They might well say:
Each day love a little bit more than you think you can.
Each day forgive a little bit more than you think you can.
Each day be a little bit more patient than you think you can.
Each day be a little bit kinder and gentler than you think you can.
I f each one of us in this church made that resolution, it would be one of the best and most practical gifts we could give ourselves and one another.
It would bring joy to ourselves,
joy to our family,
joy to our friends, and
joy to the world.
Then, in addition to singing “Joy to the World,”
we would be doing something about it.