HOMILY OF ARCHBISHOP MICHAEL NEARY ON THE
3rd SUNDAY OF THE YEAR, IN THE CATHEDRAL OF THE ASSUMPTION,
EXPLAINING THE RELEVANCE OF THE ICON OF THE HOLY FAMILY.
This visit of the Icon is a good opportunity to reflect on our own families, the family into which we were born, within which, to varying degrees, we grew to maturity to take our place in society today. We think not only of parents, brothers and sisters, of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. We may have mixed feelings about our family, for some these are positive, for others much less so. Today we give thanks for all that was good and wholesome in our families, for the care that nurtured us, when we were weak and enabled us to find our feet. We give thanks for the many sacrifices that were made so that we might avail of better opportunities in life, for the sense of home that was created and gave us a feeling of security. For the love that left us free to move on and yet always welcomed us back home. The occasion of the visit of the Icon is also a time to ask the Lord to forgive what needs to be forgiven in our experience of family life.
We are all aware of the way in which parents and families rejoice in the birth of a new baby, on the occasion when they are baptised or receive their First Holy Communion and Confirmation. We see it in the way that parents and families rejoice at weddings, at the success of a son or daughter in examinations, sports or in securing employment and yet the family is also there when things are not going so well – where there is disappointment, when we are not successful, when we make bad choices and take wrong roads.
Family is the place where we were first welcomed, accepted and nurtured. It was there we began to utter our first syllables, tried to put words together, and gave our first smile, uttered our first cry and shed our first tears. There we knew we were loved and lovable. Through the family we learned how to relate to others, to use words and communicate. We witnessed the reaction to different situations and began to react similarly. We noticed the difference between right and wrong, good and evil and are able to differentiate between what is appropriate and inappropriate, between the important and the unimportant.
None of our families is perfect; each is a mixture of all sorts of conflicts, compulsions, and contradictions which test our love and forgiveness.
The World Meeting of Families challenges us to return to that which is basic to a community of growth, namely; care, love and a healthy respect for one another that includes mutual correction which is done in a spirit of kindness. On this occasion we are challenged to ask ourselves what is wholesome and holistic in our families. Do we simply reject our religious values claiming that they are now irrelevant in a sophisticated and secular world, or do we take the wisdom that comes to us from our religious tradition and apply it in a new way to the living situations which we cope today?
The icon as you will see is divided into three sections. On the right you will see the Wedding Feast of Cana, the place where Mary’s maternal instinct came to the rescue of the bridal couple as the wine was running out. She brought it to the attention of her son, this reminds us of the way in which mothers frequently detect when something is going wrong and brings it to the attention of Jesus. On the left of the icon you have the healing of the daughter of Jairus. Frequently parents and grandparents feel helpless in the presence of seriously ill child. In this situation the father Jairus brings the crisis to Jesus who responds by healing and raising his daughter.
The central scene is of the Holy Family, Jesus, Mary and Joseph sitting down for a meal as suggested in Gospel of St. Luke, chapter 2. It looks strange because they are all sitting on the same side of the table and looking out in the same direction. If you saw this in real life you would think that they are not talking to each other! The reason they are sitting like this is because they are looking out at you and me. The side of the table facing out is empty. It is an open space for you to come in and join the Holy Family. This is a beautiful thought. The Holy Family is always open to us. The scene also teaches that families are not meant to be closed in on themselves.
As we reflect on the Holy Family in this icon we realise that their faith is celebrated in their home. Their trust in God was remembered at table. It is in our own home that the reality of God-with-us is communicated and passed on to future generations. Perhaps we remember saying “Grace before and after meals”, morning and night prayer in our homes. You will notice how Mary’s hand is wistfully held up to her face. It communicates to us how Mary our Mother knows the heartache the worries and burdens all parents experience with their children. As our mother, she makes our trials her own concern. With her other hand Mary is also directing us and showing us the way to Jesus her Son.
As we focus on St. Joseph we see that he echoes for us the responsibility and the dilemma of every parent wanting to nurture and protect their child whilst at the same time letting them be free to become all they can be in God’s eyes. In the icon Mary and Joseph surround Jesus with their love and care, but they do not smother him, they do not impose themselves. Both leave him space to be who he truly is. In this icon the Holy Family have a place at their table for us. They invite us to join them. They are no strangers to the trials of family life. They themselves have been refugees fleeing from the violence of Herod. They have known great anxiety.
Families are the crucible of society. They are the miniature world in which we learn how to face the wider world. The Family is in fact the seed-bed of the future. By supporting marriage we are in fact contributing to the support of the social structure on which humanity depends. Of course some relationships will fail, yet the family unit is probably one of the most valuable supports in tough times as well as in good times. On this occasion we pray for all families, for those who are rejoicing, those who are carrying the cross of serious illness, loneliness, bereavement or broken relationships. May the Lord support all of us as we endeavour to fulfil our respective vocations as members of families and together as members of God’s family.