Feast of the Holy Family at Mississippi Abbey

[Scripture Readings: Sir 3:2-6, 12-14; Col 3:12-21; Lk 2:22-40 ]

One of the first things we learn in family, something that is useful to us for our whole lives, is how to dress ourselves. It is the first thing we learn in the monastery when we are formally admitted into the community at novitiate. And on this solemnity of the Holy Family the first thing St. Paul teaches the Colossians is how to dress themselves.

Paul likes the layered look. So do we Cistercians. The first layer, he tells us, is to “put on heartfelt compassion.” We take our life experiences that have hurt or made us fearful. Rather than letting them close us off in self-protection, we use them to help others. We show empathy.

The next layer is kindness. This is guided by the Golden Rule. Because we are “beloved of God,” this seems to come to us naturally. These first two layers are about our relationships which is the chief characteristic of family.

So growing out of these first two layers is humility, understood as not thinking less of oneself, but thinking of oneself less. In the family, whether of origin or monastic, this means that our common welfare must come first. Personal growth depends on our unity.

Gentleness is the next layer. A fruit of the first three layers is a certain freedom from the bondage of self that frees one from bitterness, cynicism, and self-will so that we can be “for” others in an inviting way. Evagrius cites gentleness as a chief characteristic of monastic's. It is demonstrated by compassion, kindness, and humility.

Patience is the fifth layer. It literally means “large-heartedness.” It means we look at the incomprehensible and unwanted events of our lives … and keep an open mind. We are to forgive as we have been forgiven and to bear-the-cost of our relationships. In short, give the other gal a break!

Then Paul says, “Over all of these put on love,” that is, put on God, who is love. We love God so that we can love others. Love seems like both an overcoat and a belt that binds all of these virtues together and perfects them.

Finally, “Let the peace of Christ control your hearts.” This peace, Christ told us, is not the peace that the world gives. The world gives peace through scapegoating: a process whereby two or more people are reconciled by assigning blame to someone else for whatever disturbs or frightens them. They claim all will be well when the other is eliminated. And when the other is eliminated or marginalized, a certain peace comes over them. Herod tried to achieve peace through the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Religious leaders tried to achieve peace through handing over Jesus Christ.

The peace that Christ gives, that Paul would like to see control our hearts, is the peace “into which we are called in one body.” Our reconciliation is through Christ, rather than through some random victim. It is the peace that comes from living these virtues. We put them on to cover the nakedness of our defensiveness and self-justification.

The peace of Christ is unity. It is because we are gathered together in one body that the peace of Christ can control our hearts.

Feast of the Holy Family at Mississippi Abbey

[Scripture Readings: Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14; Col. 3,12-21; Mt. 2:13-15, 19-23]

In one comic strip Charlie Brown overhears Lucy muttering to herself, “Rats, phooey! Everything is hopeless! Who cares?” He asks her, “Lucy, what in the world is the matter with you?” She raises her voice and repeats in a disgusted tone, “RATS! PHOOEY!” In the last frame as Lucy walks away she casually comments, “Of course you realize that I’m experiencing my post-Christmas letdown.

We celebrate the birth of the Son of God in human flesh at Midnight Mass. We tell the story, we receive the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, we sing our Christmas carols, we feast on rich foods and fine wines, we have parties and movies. And then it’s over. Like the shepherds who went back to their fields to do what they always do, we have to go back to our daily tasks. The wise men from the East will come and go at the Epiphany. The Presentation of the Child Jesus in his Father’s House is not far away. But today’s liturgy jumps ahead and anticipates the Holy Family’s own great post-Christmas letdown after all these stupendous events.

A nightmare! A sudden awakening. Joseph sits up with a start, with a wrenching feeling of urgency, with words of warning still ringing in his ears: “Flee! Herod is searching for the Child to destroy him.” Then and there he rouses Mary, he sweeps the snuggling Child into the cradle of his strong arms, and they leave with haste. It is night, the hour of darkness. Here, at the very beginning of Jesus’ life, soldiers are seeking to kill him. This night foreshadows that other hour of darkness over thirty years later, when soldiers will again seek and find Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. This night in Bethlehem was, in its turn, foreshadowed by the prophet Nahum describing the terror of an attack by armed horsemen, prefiguring the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. He writes, “Crack of wipe and rumble of wheel, galloping horse and bounding chariot, horsemen charging, flashing sword and glittering spear, piles of dead, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end” (Nahum 3:2-3).

The Holy Family takes flight, leaving behind the sounds of galloping horses and the cries of women wailing. Like so many families across the centuries they become exiles, refugees in a foreign land. The ten day journey to Egypt on foot was long and arduous. But their post-Christmas letdown is much more significant than being one more displaced family. It is the mystery of God descending into the full consequences of the Fall of Adam and Eve. Just as humankind’s first family was driven out of Paradise, now the Holy Family is driven out of the Promised Land. The sinners, Adam and Eve, were exiled from the Garden of Eden where they once walked with God in the cool of the evening. Now, God incarnate, Jesus with Mary and Joseph, is driven out of the Promised Land by sinners. The arm of Cain is once again raised against his brother Abel to kill him, and in the end, he will. The patriarch Joseph once again goes to Egypt to save his family in the person of St. Joseph. The villainy of King Herod who slays the male children of Bethlehem repeats the treachery of Pharaoh who ordered all the male children of Hebrew women to be slain. In each case one child, first Moses and then Jesus, narrowly escapes death and comes back to save his people.

The Son of God experienced the great post-Christmas letdown, going into exile from the Promised Land, but with a difference. By descending into our sinful misery and taking our punishments upon himself God’s holiness saves us. It’s like this: Dom Bruno Ryan was a holy abbot, New Melleray’s superior from 1917 to 1944. Once he reproved a novice in the chapter of faults and for a penance told him to kiss the feet of monks during their noon meal in the refectory. The novice said in front of everyone, “I will not!” There was an audible gasp from the community. But Dom Bruno replied meekly, “Very well.” Then at dinner time the abbot himself got down on his hands and knees and began kissing the feet of the monks in the novice’s place. The poor novice was so shamed that he repented, got up and did his penance. God goes into exile with us to grace us with his holiness so that we may have the joy of returning with him into Paradise. With the journey of the Holy Family from Egypt back to the Promised Land light begins to overcome darkness.

At Nazareth the Holy Family became a school of love, a new Garden of Eden where God in Jesus once again walked and played with us. In Christ every family and monastery and individual becomes a domestic church, a Temple, a place to encounter God. The descent of Jesus into the depths of our emptiness at baptism brings each of us into the enclosed garden where we can walk and talk with God, to grow in wisdom, age and grace with each other in the body of Christ.

The hardest post-Christmas letdown, however, was not that of Bethlehem’s Shepherds, or the retreating Magi, or the exiled Holy Family. It was that of wicked King Herod. Someone overheard him muttering, “Rats, phooey! Everything is hopeless!