The Seven Word Sermon: Families eat together. Be together. Pray. Date.
They say you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.
Now, it’s true that we can’t choose the ancestors we’re born to. The parents we’ve got are the parents we’ve got.
Until recently, we had no control over the children born to us. Modern medicine tempts us with the possibility of designer babies – but because we recognise that every child is a gift from God, we understand that it would be a sin to reject any child once conceived. (There are other moral problems with IVF, too, which effectively rule out pre-selection of eggs or sperm.)
But in one very important respect, we do choose our family. Every new household is based on the choice which two people make, to come together for life. Usually, in our Western culture, that’s a totally free choice made by two people who have fallen in love, though sometimes it’s for the sake of a child conceived before a couple have made a deeper commitment. Some of us come from other traditions, where marriages are arranged by our extended family.
It doesn’t matter whether that first choice was made by our parents, our passions, or our progeny. The choice that matters is the daily choice to be family.
In today’s Scriptures, Abraham sets out for unknown territory, trusting only in God. Mary and Joseph walk in obedience to God’s law. Every marriage is a journey into the unknown future; God’s law for marriage, given in the opening chapters of the Bible, is that husband and wife must cleave to each other and become one flesh – one mind, one heart, one family. During the next few months, our bishops will invite us to reflect on family life as a call, a journey and a mission, in preparation for the second phase of the Vatican Synod on Family Life.
Too often, when the church talks about family, we focus on those parts of our Catholic faith which are full of don’ts.
- Don’t seek a new partnership after a true marriage has broken down.
- Don’t use artificial contraceptives.
- Don’t dignify same-sex relationships with the holy title of ‘marriage’.
We fail to see that behind these don’ts lies a rich and positive vision of marriage. At heart, it is about two very simple choices: the choices to spend time with one another, and with God.
So today I am going to ask four questions about what you do do as a family. Here goes…
Do you have a dining table?
If you don’t have a dining table, it’s not easy to bring a family together around a meal. Without a dining table, it’s easy to slip into habits where each family member eats at different times, in front of a telly or tablet. A living room tends to form a semi-circle around the television. Only in the dining room does a family form a full circle focussed on each other. This is so important that I know of some churches which have helped struggling members to buy a dining table!
Does this matter to God? It’s worth pondering that our Catholic Church began around a dining table!
Do you make time to be family together?
A dining table on its own won’t transform a family. In a world of after-school clubs and sports teams, where each child wants to be part of something, it’s easy to fall into the trap of spending every evening being Mum’s Taxi. If you don’t plan to spend time together as a family each week, it won’t happen. How many Hollywood films fall into the cliché of the Dad who’s working so hard to provide for his family, that he never spends time with them? Don’t be like the proverbial boy who asked what his Dad’s hourly rate was so he could buy some of his time! If spending family time together is important, that means that a little work time, a little income, and a little space for personal pursuits must be sacrificed. When, during the week, will every member of your family be in the same place for a meal or some shared activity? The earlier this is built into the life of a family, the easier it will be to embed it.
Do you pray together as a family?
If your husband or wife is also a Catholic, or another kind of Christian, rejoice! You have a life-partner who can pray for you and pray with you! If you don’t already pray for one another, then I encourage you, for a minute when you get up or go to bed, ask God to bless and protect your spouse in the day to come. If you do already pray, but not together, why not make it your New Year’s resolution to give this a try? Whatever kind of Christian your husband or wife is, you could at least pray the Lord’s Prayer, and yes, it is OK to say the bit about “the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory” if your other half is more comfortable with that. (The reason we usually drop it as Catholics is that Bible scholars say it isn’t original to Jesus, but the way they always ended prayers in those days.) Some couples become very comfortable speaking to God informally in each other’s presence; for others, it might be easier to stick to set prayers. What matters is to find a way to pray together.
If your partner isn’t a believing Christian, I acknowledge that things are harder. If you are in a marriage recognised by the Catholic Church, you will have made a promise to bring up your children as Catholic. When they are young, this is as simple as making the sign of the Cross on their forehead at bedtime, and asking Jesus to protect them. As they grow older you can teach them the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and gather them for one decade of the rosary before bedtime. Their godparents or the Catholic School can teach them some useful things, but only you can show them how to make prayer a normal and natural part of family life.
There’s a lot worth pondering in that old saying, The family that prays together, stays together!
Do you date your husband or wife?
Sometimes, when a married person comes to me for counsel, I ask them, “When was the last time you went on a date with your husband or wife?” If they’ve had children for any length of time, they often struggle to remember. Even if all their children have grown up and flown the nest, they often haven’t got back into the habit of enjoying each other’s company. I’ve got news for you. In marriage, dating is not an optional extra!
Remember, you can choose your family. You can choose your husband or wife! You can choose them each day of your life! You can choose to say, “I love you” in whichever way works best for you! And as often as you can carve out the time, you can choose to go on a date! If something is important, we choose to make time for it – and at the heart of every marriage is your declaration that nothing is more important than your significant other.
Before I finish, a word to you who do not have a life-partner. What I have just said may seem less relevant – but if you have living family members, you can also choose to strengthen your relationship with them. You can apply the questions I have just asked to the way you engage with your parish, since the church community is meant to work as an extended family – if we choose to make it work. I would also ask you to support the married couples among your extended family and friends – perhaps even by offering to babysit so they can go on a date night!
So this weekend, I invite each one of us to be mindful of the Catholic Church’s positive vision of family. Building a true family is not easy.
- It needs a dining table.
- It needs time spent being family together.
- It needs you to pray together as a family.
- It needs married couples to take time for romance.
God says you can choose your friends, but you MUST choose your family. God’s right!