The church provides us options this weekend for the readings for the feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Collectively, the readings touch on different aspects of family life such as mutual respect, patience, progeny and suffering. The first reading from Sirach is directed at children and encourages them to show lasting respect for their parents, especially as they begin to fail us in health. All of us will grow older and experience time’s effects. It is very difficult and there really is no preparation.
The inspired words of Sirach say this to the children of aging parents, “My son, take care of your father when he is old; grieve him not as long as he lives. Even if his mind fails, be considerate of him; revile him not all the days of his life; kindness to a father will not be forgotten.”
The challenges of aging parents were not lost on the ancient peoples and they did not have nursing homes. They made space in their own homes and hopefully their hearts to the reality of life growing older. They had to wrestle with the face of pain, sorrow and aches. For many, this was trying, but it also grows compassion, appreciation for the gift of life and the prioritizing of values. It can grow love, real love.
Nursing homes are assists to the care of aging parents and loved ones, not replacements. Too often, they become drop offs and places where the loved one is forgotten or visited occasionally. Who wants to be rejected like that? In fact, even when diseases of the mind begin to veil the reality of the human soul fully alive, the person is still there. Our visits to parents or loved ones who may not track our thoughts and words are still full human exchanges of communication and love. The soul is still there and we love the person who is present before us, only now veiled by a tragic disease or process. Our presence is real love at these moments. No one ever becomes a “vegetable.” We are always fully human and alive.
The second reading of St. Paul to the Colossians encourages the family to practice great patience with each other. No one in a family is fully the saint they will one day be in heaven. Great patience and trust in God’s work within each member is needed sometimes to keep from going off the deep end. As St. John writes, “who will one day be has not yet come to light.” Families are crucibles of potential holiness as all of our rough edges serve to chisel down each other’s jagged points.
The Gospel gives us the memory of Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus in the Temple. A prophecy is given to Mary that speaks of the bond of love that is hoped for by God between any mother and son, “and you yourself a sword shall pierce.” Families not only share joys, but they also share sorrows, especially suffering. Mary will feel deeply the pain of her son because of her great love for him. So, too, with all moms and dads as they see their children suffer, love brings deep tears and a desire that suffering pass; these are hallmarks of love. These words tell us that God is aware of this hurt and has taken it up into his mysterious plan of salvation. This hurt, too, will one day be addressed and one day fully healed by God.
Fr. Vander Steeg is pastor of St. Bernard Parish, Green Bay.