At mass on the Feast of the Holy Family, I was in particular struck by the readings. The first reading, from Sirach, deals with relationships between parents and children:
God sets a father in honor over his children;
a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons.
Whoever honors his father atones for sins,
and preserves himself from them.
When he prays, he is heard;
he stores up riches who reveres his mother.
Whoever honors his father is gladdened by children,
and, when he prays, is heard.
Whoever reveres his father will live a long life;
he who obeys his father brings comfort to his mother.
My son, take care of your father when he is old;
grieve him not as long as he lives.
Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him;
revile him not all the days of his life;
kindness to a father will not be forgotten,
firmly planted against the debt of your sins
—a house raised in justice to you.
The second paragraph here is one that has always particularly struck me, as it emphasizes that honor to one’s parents is not simply a matter of “they have good ideas, so you should listen to them” but rather that parents deserve honor because they are parents. “Even if his mind fail… revile him not,” is something I had cause to remind myself often (though judging from my actions, not always often enough) during the time we spent caring for my Dad’s mother in her last days — a women who wanted things done her way at all times, even as simple things like making coffee and putting things in the fridge became impossible for her to do herself.
The second reading is the passage from Colossians 3 which is nearly the same as the Ephesians 5 passage which was discussed at some length a few weeks ago.
And the gospel chronicles St. Joseph’s unquestioning obedience to God’s direction as he took the Holy Family from Bethlahem to Egypt and from Egypt back to Nazareth.
Somehow these readings brought together for me two very disparate lines of thought I’d had over the last few days.
One is the thought every father gives to how his children will be affected by what he does — thrown to prominence at this particular time as we move into a new house, in a new state. Will this be the house they look back fondly on? Will the large yard and rambling house be the place they spent numerous happy days as children? Will the large rooms they play in now also provide the privacy and refuge that they want as older children and teenagers? Will they be happy here? Or will this be Mom and Dad’s big project that took up time and family finances for years which they just remember as too big to clean, too cold in the winter, too hot in the summer, a big house that always felt empty?
Are we doing the right thing?
One of the intriguing aspects of being a parent is that sometimes one experiences, usually in a moment of extreme frustration, a sudden recollection of some long ago event along with an intense understanding of just why one’s own parents reacted to a seemingly innocent escapade (such as securing the window against potential burglars by means of a whole spool of dental floss) with such inexplicable anger. Yet while these moments bring about a new-found kinship with one’s parents, they also make one realize how distant we are from our younger selves, and likewise from our young offspring. Here we are trying to do what is best for the young lives entrusted to us, and yet much of how our choices will affect them in the long term is necessarily unknown to us.
The seemingly unrelated line of thinking relates to the argument one often hears out of “social justice Catholics” that thinking of salvation and holiness only in terms of the individual is a narrowing of the Gospel message because the human person can only exist in community. There is enough discussion in roughly these terms in actual Church writings that I don’t think it can be totally ignored, but I am at the same time quite sure that it does not mean what salvation is to be achieved through the imposition of The Perfect Government System Which Will Create Love And Joy For All, which is what said “social justice” types often seem to imply it means.
All of these injunctions for how to live our lives relate to living in community at the most granular level: husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and workers, etc. Why? How do these human relationships relate to our relationship with God?
Because as creatures who live in community, our beliefs, our actions and our dispositions are affected by all those others we interact with: family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, strangers, even enemies. As members of the Body of Christ, we constantly affect the other members, often in ways we are barely aware of.
If you’re known around the office as the “guy who goes to church”, yet you’re constantly heard on the phone arguing with your wife or belittling her concerns, your actions don’t merely affect your relationship with your wife, they may well help form (or malform) your coworkers ideas about God, Christianity and marriage. While it is certainly true that it is our own actions that we will be judged for at the end of our lives, those actions are not isolated actions in a void, but actions which affect, perhaps in some cases deeply affect, others’ relationships with God.
In this sense, it is particularly important that we approach our relationships with those we interact with the most, our spouses, children, parents and neighbors, as Christians, because it is often through how we interact with those people that they understand what being Christian is. When we teach love through our actions, even to people who are not Christian or don’t know we are Christian, we teach the nature of love through action. When we teach selfishness or hatred through our actions, we inspire similar actions in others.
Most certainly, others have the choice whether to return love for hatred, or selfishness for love, but our actions are never without effect on others, and as such we are constantly making it easier or harder for others to know, love and serve God through our success or failure in doing so ourselves.