December 28, 2014
Today we rejoice in the part that Mary, Joseph and Jesus all play in God’s plan for his people. Each and every person is made in God’s image (cf. Gen 1:27), but we are not made in isolation – we are all members of a family, and in our love for one another we reflect the love of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Jesus’ Birth was the outpouring of God’s love into our troubled world, in which the hopes and fears of all times and places are met; but every new life is, in some way, a sign of hope for us – and Jesus, like all of us, was born into a family. We often talk about Jesus, Mary and Joseph individually, and think about how important they are to our spiritual lives, but today’s Feast is different – we pray to them together, as a family. So today is a celebration of love – of God’s love for us, of our love for one another, and of the love that creates our families and binds them together.
When the love of a family overflows, so that what begins as one person’s love for another is made flesh in the gift of a new life, the love which that couple shares goes beyond them. In welcoming the gift of a child, that love becomes a sign to their children, family and friends of God’s creative work. That is why marriage is fundamental to our society.
Married life is an adventure, and a risky one at that. We can see that in the Holy Family. Mary’s loving acceptance of her God-given role in his redemptive plan led to the Birth of Jesus, in whom God’s love is made flesh, ‘made visible’ for us (Rom 8:39) – but she could so easily have been swamped with hatred and disdain by those who knew her. Joseph’s love for Mary meant that he took a great risk in marrying a pregnant girl; it threatened his reputation, but Joseph, the just man, stood by Mary in her hour of need. Even Jesus himself was at risk, with King Herod seeking to destroy him, and we must never forget those many people throughout the world who have died out of man’s inhumanity to man, suffering as God’s holy innocents even today
But marriage is also a vocation; it builds our society, and enriches it with loving relationships that knit us together ‘till death do us part’. The unity and indissolubility of marriage remind us of God’s love for us, a love that is total, unconditional and everlasting. Whether we are single or married, we all hope to be one in Christ in the future, and marriage gives us a clear sign of this call to deep communion with God in the present time: in Christ, God has made ‘a new and eternal covenant’ with us, and that covenant is reflected in the love of husband and wife.
Of course, what I have described is an ideal that is only achievable by deep commitment and the grace of God. Many couples are not able to live up to this calling and for all sorts of reasons their marriages break down. This is not only a tragedy for the family in question, especially the children, but also has far-reaching consequences for our society.
Last October, Bishops and other delegates from around the world met Pope Francis in Rome for a special Synod of Bishops to discuss pastoral challenges to the family in the context of evangelisation. Some of the most powerful speeches at the Synod came from married couples, who were able to speak to the Pope and Bishops about the joys and sorrows of family life in the world in which we live. The work of that Synod will continue this year, with a further meeting of the Synod of Bishops in October 2015; that meeting will look at the vocation and mission of the family in the Church and in the contemporary world. In this time between these two Synods, our Holy Father has asked us to reflect on both these themes with true spiritual discernment.
The Church always acts under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Please ask for this in your prayers: think about the situation of the family today – your own family, and families across our Diocese, country and world; pray for families and ask God to enlighten the Church so that we can work to support married couples and family life. Above all, pray for your own families, that they may be strengthened in love by the gift of God’s spirit.
It may also be useful for you to join together in your parishes, praying together and discussing the issues that face the family today. I want to take this opportunity to encourage you to gather in your parishes, schools, chaplaincies and homes to have these conversations between now and Easter Sunday (5April 2015), so that your deliberations can be compiled and submitted by Pentecost Sunday ( May 2015). Your parish priest will be able to give you questions for discussion and other guidance that the Bishops of England & Wales have produced to help us.
The views and experiences of married couples and single people, those who have had long and loving marriages, those have suffered the pain of divorce and separation, and those who have alternative lifestyles, are all necessary for the Synod to discern, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, an effective pastoral approach for those called to marriage, as well as the role of marriage in the Church’s mission to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ in its fullness.
The Church must always defend the sanctity of human life, and support marriage and family life as the bedrock of society. For this reason, I believe that married people have an important mission in the world. It would be good for you to reflect upon how your family, by the grace of God, is ‘salt of the earth’ and ‘light for the world’ (Mt 5:13,14), a place of nurturing our young people, caring for our older people, and handing on the faith to our children and our neighbours.
I hope that your conversations will inspire your prayer and action on behalf of all families, especially your own. I join my heart and prayers with yours, asking God to bless all families, so that they may be a sign of God’s kingdom coming and his will being done on earth as it is in heaven.
When you look at the Holy Family in your Christmas cribs at home and in church, please ask Jesus, Mary and Joseph to be with you and your families this coming year, to guide you, strengthen you and bless you. Let us consecrate to the Holy Family our families, parishes, schools, chaplaincies, convents and all the other organisations and societies which make up our archdiocesan family, so that we may reflect in our lives the love which we celebrate on this beautiful Sunday.
With my prayers and every good wish for you and your families for a peaceful Christmas and a happy New Year,
Most Rev Malcolm McMahon OP
Archbishop of Liverpool