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The Deacon's Bench

I’m struck every year by the timing of this feast, celebrating the Holy Family.

It comes on the first Sunday following Christmas, and at a time when I think most of us – after the parties and cooking and visiting and obligations and expectations and disappointments — have started to have about as much “family” as we can take.

Right about now, a lot of mothers and fathers start to look forward to having the kids go back to school.

But then comes this feast to remind us of what it means to be a family.

I got a lesson this Christmas, when I had the good fortune of spending most of last week with my wife’s family in Maryland. This was the first time in about 25 years that all four siblings were together for Christmas. It was not just my wife and her sister and two brothers, but also their spouses and children, all converging from around the country at my in-laws. There was every age and size imaginable, from toddlers to 70-somethings. The house was full of laughter and music and squealing and, throughout everything, a wonderful sense of life being lived.

I was reminded of the beautiful line at the end of the novel “The Diary of a Country Priest,” when the title character sums up life with his dying words: “Grace is everywhere.”

Looking at that house full of stuffed animals and toys and diaper bags and crumpled wrapping paper and yelping dogs and laughing grandparents, I thought: “Yes, grace is everywhere.”

I don’t mean to make it sound like an Andy Williams Christmas Special. It’s far from perfect. 2007 saw two of the marriages end in divorce. The wounds are still raw, and real. For those families, the new year can only be better than the old.

But despite everything, the bond of love and loyalty runs very deep in my wife’s family – along with a strong sense of faith. Faith in each other. And faith in God.

Which brings me back to the Holy Family.

Like every family, the Holy Family had difficulties. There is a great temptation, I think, to idealize them – to turn them into plaster figurines, placed on a shelf.

But as much as this family was holy, it was also human.

They had to live in the same world we do — with deadlines to meet, bills to pay, and setbacks to overcome. More than a few times, their patience and their love were tested. This was a family, after all, in which the father had planned to divorce the mother; a family in which the young son, during a trip to the big city, disappeared without telling anyone; and a family which that same son, when grown, had some sharp words for his mother at a big wedding down the road in Cana.

But through it all, this was also a family that loved. And prayed. And trusted. At one time or another, every one of them – Mary, Joseph and Jesus – actively surrendered themselves to the will of God.

Mary consented to conceive a child out of wedlock.

Joseph listened to his dreams and fled to another country, turning his family into refugees.

And Jesus gave everything on the cross.

Two thousands years before the recovery movement, this family really did “let go and let God.”

One of the things that made them so remarkable is that they were so unremarkable. They weren’t rich or influential. Their name wasn’t Gates or Rockefeller or Trump. They were just Jesus, Mary and Joseph: the carpenter’s family, from a place called Nazareth.

The great mystic and monk Charles de Foucauld had a deep affection for Nazareth. He visited there often, and meditated on the meaning of that place in the life of Christ.

He wrote of the town: “Jesus came to Nazareth, the place of the hidden life, of ordinary life, of family life, of prayer, work, obscurity, silent virtues, practiced with no witnesses other than God, his friends and his neighbors. Nazareth, the place where most people lead their lives…”

What a beautiful thought. The fact is: each of us is living in our own Nazareth, a place of everyday life, and everyday problems. And we pray each day to find in our own Nazareth some kind of grace. In Jesus’ day, the town was a place of scorn. In the scriptures, someone even mocks it: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And the irony is: of course.

It is the place were our salvation came of age.

Where an ordinary existence nurtured an extraordinary life.

Where a carpenter plied his trade, and a mother kept her house, and a little boy grew into a man.

It is where a man who dreamed, and listened, went to raise his family.

A holy family. And, almost certainly, a happy family.

On this feast, we are challenged to ask ourselves: what good can come out of our Nazareth? What grace can we find in our daily lives?

We can find an answer in Paul’s beautiful letter to the Colossians.

This passage that we hear today is often read at weddings. Like Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, it speaks eloquently of love.

But Paul wasn’t writing about romantic love. This letter we hear today is about how to form a healthy and holy Christian community.

And from his words, we can draw lessons about how to form a healthy and holy Christian family — a family like the one in Nazareth.
Put on compassion, Paul tells us. Kindness. Lowliness. Meekness. Patience. Forgiveness. And love.

It is all that simple — and all that difficult. I’m sure the Holy Family had moments when living those virtues seemed hard, or even impossible. But they did something most of us don’t. They listened to angels. They dreamed.

And they let go — and let God.

We could do nothing better than to follow that model: to live faithfully, each in our own Nazareth, remembering the example of the Holy Family.

And remembering, as well, to open our eyes and our hearts to what is around us, in our kitchens and living rooms.

Cherishing every ordinary, mundane, stressful, joyful moment.

Add that to your list of resolutions for the new year. And if you do, your family may discover something the Holy Family knew, as well:

“Grace is everywhere.”

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