“I want to say thank you, to all you parents.” Father Joe doesn’t usually start mass this way, but it seems to me an excellent beginning. The 10:30 Sunday eucharist at my parish, after all, incorporates the children’s liturgy and there are always many families with young children in attendance. “I know it isn’t easy for you to come on a Sunday,” he continued, “so I want you to know we appreciate having you here. Thanks for coming.”
I smile inwardly, applauding his remarks. I vividly remember years ago struggling to get our three, then four, young ones to mass on any given Sunday. To have them cleanly scrubbed, decently dressed and out the door on time was always hard. Things haven’t changed much for families. Parents are tired; children are restless and reluctant; weekends are packed with activities. It remains difficult for them to come to mass and I was glad to hear our pastor acknowledge it. With all the strain and stress on our families, it is both necessary and good for the church to affirm them.
It is also good for us to remember that whatever the shape of our family and the struggles entailed therein, Jesus knows families from the inside out. He was a member of a few in his life and they nourished and sustained him.
At the beginning, there’s his Nazareth family — his mother, father, and, we can presume, a close clan of relatives. We don’t know much about Jesus’ life here beyond the unusual birth and the precarious trip to Egypt while he is still a baby. We know the young family spends time there as refugees before returning home and settling into small-town life. However, that Jesus lives in close-knit relationships can be assumed: his mother and father think Jesus is with “the family” when he goes missing for a few days as they return from their Jerusalem visit. It is in Nazareth, though, in the midst of everyday life, that Jesus “grows in wisdom” at the feet of his mother and father and amidst his relatives.
There is also Jesus’ Bethany family. It’s composed of his close friends, Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus, and we are told by Scripture that Jesus loves these three. It is in their home, as an adult, that Jesus experiences warmth, hospitality and companionship. He and his disciples find respite from the crowds as Martha cooks for them and Mary listens. Good food, good conversation and a place to lay his head: the Bethany family is, we can imagine, for Jesus a haven and a home.
Finally, there is the family Jesus creates around himself. It is the fundamental relationship of his life and its origin is his awareness that he is the “beloved” of Abba. Knowing himself to be at one with Abba and a recipient of the Spirit, Jesus claims divine sonship. He knows, moreover, that it is a relationship to be shared.
In his ministry, Jesus calls all of us into familial relationships with him, God and one another. When we pray, Jesus instructs us, we are to say, “Our Father,” and according to St. Paul, it is the selfsame Spirit as Jesus receives who empowers us to claim God as our “Abba.” The Spirit further fashions us as brothers and sisters in Christ, forming the family of the church. It is birthed at the foot of the cross where Jesus creates a new community with the words: “Woman, behold your son; son, behold your mother.” A grieving widowed mother and a beloved disciple are entrusted into each other’s care, and, sealed and symbolized in a flow of water and blood, the Body of Christ begins. It is characterized by relationships of love as we are all called to be one.
It’s a revelation when we realize we are called to be one family. “We have forgotten we belong to one another,” Mother Teresa is reputed to have said when she looked at the ills of western culture. Family is the one place where we belong. Jesus experienced it and showed us the depth and breadth of our connections. It doesn’t stop with one small nuclear family; it spreads out, over and through all boundaries. “One ohana,” the Hawaiians say: all creation is one family.
Today’s families might challenge us in their diversity. They might be single, married, divorced, widowed, LGBT, with children or without, but the one thing they share is their commitment to love with all its challenges, and the one thing they deserve is our support and prayers.
I look at the people around me at mass. There’s a family across from us where the young father is cradling a young baby while a toddler plays at his feet. Further down the pew, the mother is holding a third child. Behind them are two teenagers with their mom. The teenagers look bored; the mother is praying with eyes closed. Everywhere I look, I see the families, small, large, happy, struggling. “Thank you for coming,” I whisper. “I’m glad you are here.”
Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.