Friday, December 30, 2016

6th Day of Christmas: Holy Family, Pray For Us

Today is the Feast of the Holy Family, celebrating the little family group of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. This is a very recent observance, as Holy Days go: the Church added it to the liturgical calendar less than a century ago, in 1921, because she was beginning to discern some troubling trends facing the institution of the family in the modern world.  The Feast of the Holy Family reminds us that the family as traditionally understood is an integral part of God’s plan for humanity, and also that the family was sanctified by the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity when he came to us through that institution.

The Holy Family: The Flight into Egypt,
Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld
   It will perhaps not shock you to hear that the trends that merely troubled Mother Church a century ago have become so powerful that they now threaten to overwhelm the institution of the family all together.
The fact is that even the way we commonly think of family, and children, is very different than it was for most of humanity before us.  
   Here’s an interesting example of how attitudes are changing.  It’s a tradition in our family that together we read Charles Dickens’ 1843 Christmas Classic A Christmas Carol every year at Christmas time. We also watch the 1951 film version of the same story, featuring Alistair Sim as the main character, Scrooge.  The film adds some detail about Scrooge’s early life, but in general sticks closer to the original book than is common in the movies.  There is one change that always gives me pause.  When the Ghost of Christmas Past is showing Scrooge scenes from his earlier life, we see him breaking off an engagement to a beautiful woman named Belle because she doesn’t share his growing obsession with money.  The spirit later shows Scrooge the same woman years later.  In the original book we see her happily ensconced with a loving husband (not Scrooge) and a big bunch of raucous, happy children; the implication is that Scrooge could have been enjoying this delightful domestic scene himself if he had chosen another path.  In the film, however, we see no husband or children: instead, we see Scrooge’s former fiancee (here named Alice) ministering to the needy in a shelter.  The message for Scrooge in this case is, look at the wonderful woman you lost through your greed.

Young Scrooge & Alice, from the the 1951 film Scrooge
   Now, there’s nothing wrong with the film version of the story; charitable works are quite commendable (and, of course, required of Christians: see James 2:14-26), and charity is in fact an important theme in the original story.  But why the change? Most likely by 1951 the makers of the movie were afraid that a house full of children, with which Dickens’ mid-19th century audience would have connected immediately, simply wouldn’t have the same impact.
   This is something I’ve noticed before, in another context.  Let’s go back (briefly) to a decade or two before the Holy Family came together, to 17 B.C.  That year saw the publication of Vergil’ Aeneid, one of the world’s great literary works  (which also claims the distinction of having made the young St. Augustine cry; look it up if don't believe me). At one point in the the story the devious goddess Juno is trying to bribe the wind god Aeolus to help in one of her schemes, and promises as his reward the most beautiful of nymphs, who will be his forever and, she promises, “make him the parent of beautiful offspring” (pulchra faciat te prole parentem).  Later in the same story, Anna, sister of Queen Dido of Carthage is trying to persuade her royal sibling to abandon the vow of chastity she had made after the death of her first husband so that she might marry Aeneas, the hero of the story. Anna urges her to forgo “neither sweet children nor the rewards of Venus” (nec dulcis natos Veneris nec praemia noris).

Juno and Aeolus at the Cave of the Winds, Antonio Randa

I’ve read the Aeneid with high school students many times over the last couple of decades, and the same thing always happens.  They get the appeal of the good looking nymph, and they live in a social and media environment that is constantly trumpeting the “rewards of Venus”. But “beautiful offspring”? “Sweet children”? In a society that all too often depicts children as mere hindrances, and where even the President of the United States is on record as refering to young women being “punished with a baby”, we need to explain a thing which was obvious both to the pagans of ancient Rome and Victorian Christians eighteen centuries later: that a child on the way is indeed a “blessed event”.
The difference between the genuine pagans of 2,000 years ago and today’s neo-pagans is telling.  The family is part of God’s original plan for humanity, and so people all over the world have always recognized it as a natural good. Beyond that, when Jesus chose to come into the world as part of a human family he made the institution itself holy, just as he sanctified humanity through his incarnation. When modern day secularists reject and even attack the traditional family, they are not simply denying the obvious worldly benefits of an age-old institution, they are opposing something that they, unlike Vergil and his compatriots, know has been established and hallowed by God.  It’s of a piece with Satan’s defiant Non Serviam!, “I will not serve” . . . and is therefore diabolical.

St. Joseph with the Infant Christ, Clemente de Torres
That’s the challenge the family faces today, and as the family goes, so goes society. It’s an all-out spiritual assault.  The Holy Family, fortunately, not only gives us the model, but also provides some powerful intercessors. We all know, I think, that we can always call on the Blessed Mother, but we shouldn’t forget St. Joseph, a Holy Advocate we need more than ever:

Glory of home life,  
Guardian of virgins,  
Pillar of families,  
Solace of the afflicted,  
Hope of the sick,  
Patron of the dying,  
Terror of demons,  
Protector of Holy Church, pray for us.