13 Oct 2013
“…but bring [your children] up with the training and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph. 6:4)
In the name …
Today is the Feast of the Christian Family throughout our church denomination. This liturgical innovation was created by the delegates of the 1914 Synod; and as I have explained many times before, I think its birth has a lot to do with the turmoil that was just beginning over in World War I Europe. I don’t think we can appreciate any longer how scary it must have been for those delegates as they worried about family still overseas. Today people are in constant communication with each other. We even have a new danger behind the wheel. People are texting and trying to drive at the same time, and it’s leading to about a quarter of a million accidents this year. Everyone knows it’s dangerous, but there are studies showing that people do it anyway because smart phones have reprogrammed us. They’ve entered into people’s subconscious. Smart phone people can’t stand it if they don’t immediately know whose texting them or what’s on the internet. The addiction overrides restraint.
But back 99 years ago, especially with a World War beginning to rage, there was little or no communication. Families here couldn’t know if parents or siblings or even whole families in Europe were alive or decimated. If we miss a text message today, the urge in our subconscious is so overpowering that we are even willing to take the chance of trying to watch the road and simultaneously look down at a tiny little keyboard to type our reply. We’re willing to tempt an accident so that we can immediately answer some frivolous text. Take that feeling and try to imagine what it must have been like in 1914 to not be able to hear from your loved ones for months or years at a time, to wonder if they were alive or dead. That anguish, I think, is what led to the Feast of the Christian Family. Family was on everyone’s mind as they gathered in the church hall of All Saints Cathedral in Chicago.
A friend of mine once told me that as his father was in the slow process of dying that what he wanted most of all was to sit back and enjoy a pizza and a beer. His body wouldn’t let him do that anymore. This was something so ordinary, something that any of us could do this afternoon during all of those long hours of football games, but also something so special when it couldn’t be enjoyed any longer. Sometimes we take the ordinary for granted and we don’t realize how special it is until it’s not there any more. And sometimes too we treat the family like that. Family is what surrounds us. It seems to always be there, and sometimes it seems like there’s no break from it. Just ask any teenager, they’ll tell you. But let’s hope and pray that it’s not like the pizza and beer story. Let’s hope and pray that we don’t realize how much we really need and love our families until it’s too late. That’s one of the reasons for today’s feast day. It gives us a chance to celebrate now the gift that is the family.
But today’s feast is not only about the family, it’s about the Christian family, and I think this is why the 1914 Synod plunked this feast day right in the middle of the month of October. This month was observed as the Marian month of the rosary when the Synod voted to place this feast on its second Sunday. There was a great deal of emphasis at that time upon Mary’s special sanctity and it had a lot to do with her perpetual virginity. The Bible, however, doesn’t talk about Mary’s perpetual virginity. It talks about Jesus’ brothers and sisters. But celibacy became a trademark, a sign, of exceptional spiritual devotion and so it was retrofitted into Mary’s life story.
Celibacy has a strange pedigree. In the Bible, Paul says that all Christian men and women should refrain from marriage because he thought the world was coming to an end, maybe even in his lifetime, but definitely not some thousands of years later. If the world won’t be here tomorrow, he said, then why bother getting married? And even today on the Feast of the Christian Family, there are not a lot of warm, cuddly, inspiring messages to be taken from the New Testament about the family because even Jesus seems to have thought that time was running short. He embraced the children, but He doesn’t say much about the family because when the end is thought to be around the corner you don’t spend much time laying out the groundwork for the generations of Christian families that will eventually come along. That’s why the best we can do is a message about children honouring parents and then fathers training and instructing their children, and all topped off with a corresponding example of how slaves and masters interact. This is not going to make it into any Hallmark card that’s for sure. So celibacy was thought of as practical if the world was coming to an end.
O.K. then, but what if the world didn’t end as quickly as they thought. Well, Peter Brown put that story into his book The Body and Society. A lot of the early talk about celibacy was, well if Jesus hasn’t come back yet, maybe we can help. If we can talk every Christian into celibacy, then the human race will cease to exist, and if it does, then we can force Jesus to come back. Hodur knew this history. And he didn’t see celibacy as the great sign of spiritual effort. He saw the Christian family as that sign. At the same 1914 Synod that adopted today’s feast day, they also had a brouhaha over letting our priests get married. Some unnamed delegate from Scranton stood up at the Synod and said that a married clergy would “be a model and example for human society.” Our spiritual example wouldn’t be celibacy. It would be a strong Christian family from the parish rectory out to all of the homes of our parishioners. The Christian family would be one of the ways that Christ would reach out into the world. The Christian family would become our spiritual paradigm. So on this unique feast day let us be careful to not take our families for granted. Let us see in them, as ordinary as they may be in our lives, a gift from God. And let our families also be Christian families where Christ and church are important and are examples to all around us of shared lives that honour God. For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo