It is not difficult to demonstrate that most of our modern problems center around struggles and misunderstandings regarding marriage, sexuality, and the family. Collectively as a nation and the culture, we have departed significantly from the teachings of God and common sense, when it comes to our thinking and behavior regarding these three fundamental pillars.
Today’s Feast of the Holy Family presents us an opportunity to reflect, and provides a rich tapestry of Scriptures. Many of these teachings are not “politically correct,” but for that, no apology should be made. They remain God’s teachings and it is hard to argue that modern notions of sexuality, marriage and family have produced anything short of catastrophe and disaster. And as is usually the case, it is the children suffer the most.
Any look at statistics, show facts and trends that are not merely alarming, they are downright astonishing, especially given how steeply and suddenly they have occurred. Currently more than 40% of children in this country are raised without two parents. Numbers have declined even more steeply for minority communities.
In 1961, the year of my birth, 80% of black children were raised in a two parent family; today that number is 20%. And for whatever assertions may be made regarding racism and poverty, the fact is these numbers are demonstrably improved over those of 1961. Even with far greater social stressors and pressure, Black families used to stay together and work out their difficulties. Today with far greater affluence, this is no longer the case. “White” families and other ethnic and racial derivations may have numbers that are only slightly less shocking, and when we factor in age and generational differences the numbers are not that far apart.
The two-parent, heterosexual family is becoming quickly and endangered species. Along with this decline many grave social consequences follow, to include: lower SAT scores, and graduation rates, higher rates of juvenile delinquency, teenage pregnancy, cohabitation rates, sexually-transmitted diseases, higher rates of homosexual inclinations and a higher tendency to divorce. Clearly as the model of the stable faithful heterosexual marriage becomes rarer, the capacity of young people to form stable families becomes less and less likely.
And whatever attempts to make the claim that this disordered state of affairs is probably just fine, and that “alternative family arrangements” are just as good as traditional ones, most people know that this is a lie. It just makes common sense that psychologically, the best environment for any child is to be raised in what nature, and nature’s God has set forth. Namely: that there should be a father and a mother, a male and female, who form a stable, committed, and lasting bond where their children can be formed in a safe environment of trust and learn the male and female genius of being human. A mother alone, or a father alone, or two fathers, or two mothers or any other combination is far less than ideal, and to intentionally subject children to this is an injustice.
Yet such departures from God’s plan for marriage and family are increasingly the norm today. There is much about which to pray and reflect on this Feast of the Holy Family
Having stated in a kind of general way the problems and misunderstandings regarding sexuality and family life today, let’s take a look at some of the highlights of the readings and see five basic teachings or themes sets forth.
I. Honor – the opening of the first reading says God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons. (Sirach 3:2). The reading goes on to state the blessings that come from this honor and obedience.
Yet, in modern culture, honor directed toward parents and elders has increasingly disappeared. The steady diet of most children on TV, music, and other media is that they are the “wise” ones, and that adults and parents are “out of touch.” A typical sitcom or commercial on television presents the children as all wise and up on the latest things, whereas the adults are usually pictured as quite clueless. And if there is a father in the picture, he is presented as a total buffoon.
When I was a child, my father forbade us to watch The Flintstones. He said that he would not allow his children to watch a cartoon the presented adults looking stupid, because this would not help them to respect their elders. He was right. Of course the Flintstones is quite mild compared to the steady diet of most youngsters some 50 years later.
The fact is, God teaches and commands that children should honor their father and their mother. Without respect and honor, there can be no teaching or handing on of wisdom from previous generations. The lack of honor and respect for parents, elders, and authority in our culture goes a long way to show why and how we are making foolish mistakes, and repeating errors long since discarded by previous generations.
While previous Christian generations and eras were not sinless by any means, it is evident that we are going steeply backwards, such that the folly and sinfulness described by Paul in Romans 1 regarding the pagan world have reemerged on a wide scale. But our folly is even worse, for we, unlike them, do have access to the gospel and our culture had emerged from the Judeo-Christian wisdom. But in a kind of teenage rebellion, we have collectively cast off the respect and honor that is due our elders, and the traditions and wisdom that they and the Church can offer us.
We must restore honor to our parents, elders, and lawful authority such as the Church if we want to see our families and culture strong again. Parents and those in lawful authority must also learn to teach and act as those worthy of respect and honor.
II. Hierarchy – . Although it is politically incorrect, the Lord through the Scriptures teaches the family must be hierarchically ordered. The father and husband used to have headship. The text from Colossians today says clearly
Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord. (Col 3:19-21)
Now headship is required of every body, and every group. A body with two heads is a freak, and a body with no head is dead. It is the same for organizations and groups. Even if there be consultative bodies, headship and leadership is required. God sets a husband and father as head of the household, the domestic church. This is consistently taught in scripture (Col 3:18; Eph 5:22; 1 Peter 3:1, inter al).
And while it is clear that this authority he has is for service, not domination and that he exercises it among those of equal dignity before God, nevertheless he has this authority and it ought to be acknowledged and observed. He is not to be bitter to his wife or Lord it over her, but he must with love be willing to manifest headship in his household. I have written more of this here: A Unpopular Teaching on Marriage
In our times many have preferred to set this teaching aside and the result is that many marriages resemble more of an on-going power struggle, than a loving and cohesive unity. It is true that it is not necessary or even wise for a husband to micromanage everything in his household. He does well to keep deep communion with his wife and often defer to her judgment in many matters. But there are simply some matters that require a final “decider;” some one that everyone looks to and, like it or not, accepts their decision and direction. Scripture consigns this role to the husband and father.
Further Scripture says, Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord (Col 3:20). And again, God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons (Sir 3:2). And while we have commented on these verses in terms of respect, he ought to note them here in terms of hierarchy. Children are to respect the hierarchy of the family. They are not on par with their parents and should not act toward their parents as if they were on par with them.
When I was growing up, my Father made sure to confirm my mother’s authority over us and would not tolerate us being disobedient or disrespectful toward her. A good husband and father with be careful to do this.Even when I was an adult my father would not tolerate me speaking ill of my mother or being disrespectful toward her.
Thus, while all the members of the family have equal dignity before God, not all have the same role in relation to each other. Hierarchy is important in the family for good order and teaching. God sets it forth and it ought to be observed carefully.
III. Helpful virtues – The first part of the second reading today from Colossians 3 provides a veritable encyclopedia of virtues to cultivate. Notes some of them here:
Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another… put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts…And be thankful (Col 3:12-15)
I spend an entire session with couples that I prepare for marriage looking at this passage. All the virtues here are essential for good family life.
Note how many of the virtues emphasize compassion mercy and forgiveness. The fact is, families are composed of sinful human beings, who have issues, and struggles. Life too can be difficult, and cause stresses and strains on marriage and family. How essential then to develop these sorts of virtues.
Every now and again, when someone comes to me and tells me they have difficulty preparing for confession, and want advice, I often refer them to this very passage. I asked them to read Colossians 3 and assure them that if they will read it carefully they will have plenty to confess before they are halfway through!
So many stresses and strains could be either avoided, endured, or handle charitably, if the virtues of Colossians 3 would only be cultivated. Is impossible to comment on them all here.
IV. Holy teaching – The text from Colossians goes on to say, Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. (Col 3:16)
Nothing can be more essential in having a godly and holy family, that having godly and holy teaching.
With rare exceptions, we have utterly failed in this regard. Nothing can be considered more important than instruction for eternal life. Yet in how many families is this instruction seldom or never given?
If the child is failing math or some other school subject, most parents react with alarm, realizing that their child’s future may be at stake. They will often spend money to get tutors and other help. But if their child knows little or nothing about God, why they were made, what is the purpose of their life…well, who cares?
Parents will put bumper stickers on their car boasting at their child is on the honor roll at Somewhere Middle School, but will have little interest or pride in whether they can recite the Hail Mary, or the Glory Be, let alone know how to find a Bible and know the difference between the Old and the New Testament. Where’s the bumper sticker that says, “My Kid knows the Lord!” or “My Kid is smart enough to pray!”
Tens of thousands of dollars will be sent to the college so the kids can get the degree, to get the career, to get the house and the car. Yet little or no inquiry will be made as to whether their child attends Mass at college or is living anything close to a Christian moral life.
This is a tragic modern situation where the ladder of success is leaning up against the wrong wall. Great effort is expended on things which pass away, and almost no effort on things which will last forever, come heaven or hell.
Scripture is clear, the home must be a place where godly wisdom is taught and lived, modeled and proclaimed. Parents should read their children Bible stories every day. They must be taught God’s law, right from wrong, and to walk in the holy fear and reverence of God. Family members should not only teach one another, they must admonish one another. To admonish is to warn, to recall, or summon one back to what is correct, right and true.
The principal educators of children in the ways of faith are to be the parents. While much is rightly said in terms of critique that not enough teaching takes place from the pulpit, 7 to 10 minutes a week is not going to accomplish what is necessary or called for in a text like this. Even if the pulpit of a particular parish contains a poor preacher, there’s nothing to prevent a parent from carefully studying the catechism and teaching their children; or to prevent them from taking a children’s Bible and reading them stories every day, and teaching them God’s word. Holy teaching should be the hallmark of every family
V. Heroic Sacrifice – In this matter we look to the Gospel, and we see St. Joseph. The Gospel focuses on Joseph’s instruction by God through an angel that he must protect his child and his wife by taking them to Egypt immediately for King Herod six the child.
How many fathers, indeed parents in general in our culture struggle to get their priorities right? Too often career eclipses their vocation. And thus, for many fathers, their work takes priority over their role as husband and father. And while the two are not directly opposed at most times, there are times and tendencies for one’s career to damage one’s capacity to be husband and father.
In the Gospel today what Joseph has to do in going to Egypt will clearly have an impact on his career and his agenda. Scripture speaks of him as a “tekton.” And while many think this means Carpenter, it really means more literally, “builder.” Joseph probably worked in the building trades.
Now going to Egypt in the middle the night is clearly going to impact his business. It is further likely that he would prefer not to go to a foreign land. And yet his child and wife need him. He is their protector and the husband, father and head of the household.
Heroically, Joseph obeys God and immediately takes his wife and child out of harms way. He does not count the personal cost. This is the kind of heroic sacrifice sometimes required of parents and family members. Joseph thinks as a husband and father, not a businessman, or a company man.
Now this is hard, and it is heroic, for many men strongly identify their ego with their work. Like any human being, they also fear losing their livelihood. But Joseph heroically trusts God and heroically witnesses that his vocation as husband and father is more important than even his paycheck.
We need more ever heroism of the sort today when money and lifestyle too often trump essential work of being a parent and spouse. Our lifestyles are often far too costly, requiring double income and often long hours and overtime. But honestly, and we know this, children need their parents at home more than they need a great-room and granite countertops. Having a Beach house is nice, but having your parents at home is better.
In our era, too many parents are willing to let strangers raise their children so they can earn more money, and for what? Is it for the kids? Really? Then why are they so often marginalized by something that is supposedly for them? Life is complicated, this is clear. But every now and then it is good to re-examine our motives and priorities and be willing to make heroic sacrifice for what is more important than what we merely want.
Here then are some teachings on marriage and family from today’s feast. We do well to heed what the Lord teaches. Our families are currently and collectively in a real crisis. Individual choices have led us here and individual choices will have to lead us out.
God has a plan for marriage and family: One man for one woman in a stable faithful and fruitful union, raising their children in that context and bringing them up in the Holy Fear of the Lord. We do well to heed this plan as a Church and culture or suffer the consequences.
Finally there is the tendency when we hear teachings like this, but have struggled to live them well, to react either with anger (and say, “The preacher is judging me”) or react with sadness and think that all we can do is be silent since we would be a poor witness. Please do not do either. All of us, whether we have been able to keep to God’s teaching or not, ought to proclaim it. Perhaps you have not been able to get married and/or stay married. Perhaps you wanted to, but your spouse was unwilling to stay or cooperate. Perhaps you had a child outside of marriage. All the more reason to speak clearly to your children and grandchildren and urge them to seek God’s graces early. God has a plan, and it is for our good not our ill. Teach it boldly and with courageous love!
Here is a video that describes typical family homes in Jesus’ time.