Feast of the Holy Family at Mississippi Abbey

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

Have you ever wondered why the Gospels never show Jesus laughing or even smiling? Wasn’t the Holy Family in which Jesus grew up a happy family as well? And isn’t a smile the most natural sign of happiness? The Gospels tell us about many emotional moments: like the terrifying flight of the Holy Family to Egypt in the middle of the night, and their cautious return to Nazareth. We read about Jesus’ anger at the money changers in the Temple, his amazement at a centurion’s faith, and his compassion for the crowd. We witness his hunger and thirst, his sleeping during a storm at sea, and his look of love upon a rich young man. We see Jesus weeping over the death of Lazarus, and shedding tears over the city of Jerusalem, and sweating blood during his terrible agony in the garden. But there’s not one word about a little laughter or a smile by Jesus, or anyone else in the New Testament, except for the wicked whose laughter will turn into mourning. Why?

Was it, perhaps, the custom of those times that a written account of someone’s life should be entirely serious? Something like the custom of people a hundred years ago who never smiled for photographs. If their pictures were all we had to go on, we might think people in those days were quite somber, maybe even morose. But, no, it was the custom to pose for photographs with great seriousness. I imagine that after their pictures were taken they all broke into smiles and relaxed, with everyone starting to talk at once. Perhaps for a similar reason, the Gospels always show Jesus acting with the utmost gravity. Consequently, we rarely see a piece of art that shows Jesus laughing or smiling.

The poet, Elizabeth Browning, very timidly suggests that Jesus might have smiled, but only inwardly, when she writes:


 “There might have been a smile unseen

When He bowed His Holy Face, I ween
To bless that happy child.”

But if the natural expressions of a good and happy heart are laughter and smiles, then Jesus must have smiled and even laughed. We know he was full of joy because he prayed that his joy might be in us, (Jn. 15:11; 17:13). Well then, when might the face of Jesus have reflected his joy with a smile on his lips, or even laughter?

When Mary took the infant Jesus in her arms and looked lovingly upon him, certainly the little babe smiled at her. As a growing boy how many times did Jesus fetch a pail of water from the village well for his mother or foster father and smile happily as they thanked him? And when Joseph took Jesus’ hand in his own and walked with the twelve year old boy through the beautiful gate into the magnificent inner courtyard of the Temple in Jerusalem, certainly they smiled with joy when they looked at each other. When Jesus was at the wedding feast in Cana, and turned water into wine, must he not have smiled and been tickled at the astonished looks on the faces of the chief steward and his assistants as they tasted that best of all wines? Or, when he was at Jacob’s well talking to the Samaritan woman and revealing her past, he had to smile when she blurted out that gross understatement, “Sir, I perceive you are a prophet.” What about the time when his friends reluctantly lowered their fishing nets into the lake after a frustrating night of catching nothing, and suddenly took in an amazing haul of fish? Did he not smile and maybe even laugh at their tremendous excitement, falling over each other in their effort to pull in the heavy net of thrashing fish?

Again, when Jesus stood over the bier of the widow’s only son who was lying so cold and pale and stiff in the grip of death until Jesus raised him to life, did he not watch with joyful anticipation as the color returned to the boy’s face and he sat up and rubbed a few grains of grit from his eyes? Could Jesus have resisted smiling or even laughing with happiness at the widow’s tears of joy and relief? Did she embrace her boy and then Jesus? Finally, when he looked up at the young woman who had been caught in the very act of adultery, now that each of her accusers had dropped their stones and slunk away, did Jesus have a twinkle in his eye and a look of amusement on his lips when he said to her, “Woman, where are they, has no one condemned you?” By the warmth of his smile and the overwhelming radiance of his love he wins her heart, and turns her life around. And when our turn comes to be judged by Jesus, what do we hope to see? His smile, and to hear him say, “Enter into your Master’s joy” (Mt 25:21). When we enter into the joy of the heavenly Holy Family we will for the first time be able to smile and laugh from sheer happiness without any mixture of sadness.

St. Paul expresses the purpose of life in these words: “…we make it our aim to please him” ( 2 Cor. 5:7). Once a young girl was asked how she made her thanksgiving after receiving Holy Communion. She replied, “Oh I pray a few Hail Mary’s, and then I tell Jesus ghost stories.” No wonder our Lord wanted little children to come to him. They made him smile and laugh.

So, smile. It’s an inexpensive way of improving one’s looks and giving joy to our families and friends, as Jesus did.

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!