Ars praedicandi: Feast of the Holy Family, Cycle B, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

David Lose is an exceptionally gifted preacher and commentator
whose work I often consult
in the process of my homily preparation.

What especially impresses me
is not only his ability to see something new
in familiar biblical texts
or Christian festivals,
but also his rhetorical gifts
in naming this newness.

In doing so he displays more than linguistic cleverness
and rather something more akin to poetic insight,
crafting uncommon language
to break open sometimes hidden truths.

Pastor Lose did that for me again this past week
when I ran across his reflections on today’s Gospel
which he titles, “The oddest of Christmas Carols.” [1]

That title draws its inspiration from the lyrical passage
that Luke places on the lips of the prophet Simeon
who does not sing of angels and mangers
or hymn of dazzled shepherds and visitors from the East,
but instead intones a song of departure
of letting go, and even of death
in the presence of this freshly wrought family.

At first glance, one might wonder
what kind of perverse sense of humor
would prod Luke into launching such a morbid tune
in the midst of what should be natal festivities
filled with joyous odes and festive airs.

On the other hand, gospel nativity tales are haunted by shadows
of an inhospitable barn for birthing
and livestock for midwives;

Of a manger that folklore remembers
as constructed from enough wood
for fashioning a fair size cross;

Of unkept shepherd peasants
constituting the first wave of worshippers;

And mysterious visitors from the East
bringing gold and incense
and an aromatic spice
portending of death and entombment.

On the one hand, one could commend Luke
for at least being consistent
and maintaining a kind of literary integrity
of the opening chapters of his gospel tale …

But more, it seems necessary to recognize
that Luke is more than a gifted storyteller
and is here revealed as a prophet of the first magnitude,
announcing fundamental truths about this first holy family
as well as declaring parallel truths about our own
often less than holy families.

There is no little irony that this feast of the Holy Family
occurs in this tensive holiday season.
Evidence suggests that even in the most ordinary of years,
if those actually exist,
this is a season of increased stress and heightened anxiety,
especially in and with our families.

All indicators are that this celebrated stretch of December,
with its unexpected pandemic overtones,
is generating even more stress and anxiety.

While unlettered in the ways of psychiatry
and about 2 millennia early on any tips from Freud,
Luke nonetheless offers a unique strategy,
one might say an early Christian strategy,
even a Jesus strategy, for facing and embracing
the tensions of family living.

Simeon the old is nonetheless Simeon the bold,
even Simeon the remarkable,
when he chooses the unlikely prophet path of stepping aside,
of moving out of the way,
of deciding to diminish, so that the Christ light might dawn.

We ordinarily think of John the Baptism as the one
shouting prepare the way of the Lord
or supplying that wisdom that he must decrease
so that the Lord can increase,
but it is Simeon who is the real herald here
in reminding us that sometimes our most helpful move,
sometimes our most respectful move,
sometimes our most reverent move in care and concern
ios actually to get out of the way.

Admittedly I don’t know much about raising children
and have relied upon decades of observation of
siblings and their offspring,
of listening to friends and their experiences,
and of absorbing second hand the wisdom
of gifted sages on the topic.

One celebrated colleague of mine, a parent and pastor,
who has written extensively about family systems
introduced me to the wisdom of the early 20th century
poet and philosopher Khalil Gibran on the matter.
who writes:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow …
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable. [2]

That sage advice strikes me as fundamentally incarnational,
A poetic reimagining of the Godhead
bending that cosmic bow and releasing a Christic arrow
that pierces the heart of humanity
even as humanity will ultimately pierce his own.

The paradox of this self-less act on the part of the Godhead
as revealed in the death of the only-begotten
is that without this Holy release,
without dispatching the Christ from the heavens
and humanity’s dispatching him on the cross,
our own call to take up the incarnational vocation
might never have occurred.

By stepping into humanity and then stepping aside for humanity
Jesus elevated our purpose
and divinely enhanced our human dignity
by ordaining us as incarnational agents,
appointing us as heralds
of God’s enduring presence in the world
and created us as a holy vanguard
commissioned to uphold the dignity of every child
the embodied proof of God’s own enfleshment
and unbreakable bond with humanity.

Part of our evolution, both biologically and psychologically,
programs us to hang on to life – to cling tightly to power.
Such instincts for survival are built into our DNA.

And so we hold fast to our influence, our control
whether in the White House or in our own house,
whether in the family or in the workplace,
whether in the classroom or in the Church,
where we are reluctant to chant any Nunc Dimittis,
our own version of Simeon’s hymn,
fearful that such will diminish our value and
erase the self-worth in which we have invested so much
subvert our purported legacy.

Legacy is an interesting word, most often used
to designate something leftover from a previous era
but the always informative Oxford English Dictionary
notes that an earlier definition of legacy was
“a body of people sent on a mission or as a deputation”

A poignant example of this missioning definition
that puts more emphasis on the future than the past
is illustrated by the work of a former student
who studied the legacy of women’s religious communities,
most of whom are in steep decline.
What my student documented in vivid terms
as that even though some of these communities
are teetering on the edge of ecclesial extinction,
they are actively engaged in creating fresh legacies,
gifts to the future in land and programs and funds
and not simply enshrining memories from their past.

The feast of the Holy Family in the spirit of Simeon’s unsettling carol
is an invitation to rethink our own legacies
in the multiple families that enfold us
and in in the grips of whatever diminishment confronts us.

And in a year, when so many have been forced
to give up so much so quickly
with untold scarcity touching so many,
we are invited to discover
whatever grace might lurk in such diminishment
and how our own stepping aside
in preference and power,
in opinion and persuasion
might not only shape our true legacy
but be a source of life for others.

In her 1991 novel, Saint Maybe, [3] Pulitzer prize winner Anne Tyler
weaves an unusual tale of family and legacy.
Ian is an affable 17-year-old who lives a comfortable life
though in the shadow of his older brother Danny,
the football star and all-around golden child.
Nonetheless, early in the novel, Ian imagines
that his future biographer will narrate his life
as having made a difference.

A turning point in this placid family history
is when Ian suggests to his older brother
that the sister in law has been unfaithful
and while this is only Ian’s suspicion,
it triggers a series of two tragic events:
first the death of the older brother
and then the death of his sister-in-law
who together left behind three young children.
When Ian discovers that his suspicions were incorrect
he is plunged into guilt
for his role in their deaths.

In his guilt, Ian stumbles across a church –
“The Church of The Second Chance”
and when he confesses his actions to the pastor
expecting to be absolved of his guilt,
the Pastor instead advises him to drop out of college
and help raise the three young children.

Though shocked by the advice, Ian takes this difficult path
and accepts responsibility for raising his brother’s children
along with his aging parents,
eventually becoming their primary caregiver.

Over the next 20 years,
while haunted by the fear that his life has not been fulfilling,
it slowly dawns on this “saint maybe”
That this sacrificial path, his painful letting go,
has not only been a grace,
but allows him to grow into a legacy
that otherwise never would have dawned.
The novel ends with Ian, now married,
holding his own newborn son in his arms,
a son named “Joshua” – or “the Lord is my salvation.”

Ian achieved his own salvation, figuratively and literally
in the nurturing of three young lives,
by stepping aside, letting go,
and there finding true salvation.

While our own stepping aside
might not be as dramatic as Ian’s
nor as final as Simeon’s
nor as absolute at Jesus’
it, too, is our way to salvation.

And so we heed the poet’s call:
to lose the earth you know for greater knowing;
to lose the life you have for greater life;
to leave the friends you loved for greater loving;
to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth [4]
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.


[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2014/12/christmas-1-b-carols-of-thanksgiving-and-lament/

[2] https://poets.org/poem/children-1

[3] Anne Tyler, Saint Maybe (New York: Random House, 1991).

[4] Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t go Home Again (New York: Scribner, 2011 [1940], p. 489.

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