Merciful, Like the Father

Homily at St Philip Evans for the Feast of the Holy Family, Year C.

Is your family a holy family?This is the logo for the Holy Year of Mercy, which opens Dec. 8 and runs until Nov. 20, 2016. (CNS/courtesy of Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization) Christ carries a sinner over his shoulders as a shepherd would carry a sheep.

Don’t be fooled by the question. I could have asked a different question – is your family a pious family? We’ve just heard the story of two pious families in the Bible. First Hannah and Elkanah with the boy Samuel, then Our Lady and St Joseph with the 12-year-old Jesus – both families do their religious duty and visit the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. There’s nothing wrong with piety, because the word means paying our respects to God. We’re all doing something pious by being here in church just a day or two after Christmas, and it’s good. God appreciates the sacrifice each one of us has made to be here right now.

But we’re not celebrating today the Feast of the Pious Family. Holiness is more than piety. Saying our prayers and going to church makes us pious, but it doesn’t automatically make us holy. A holy life is a life in balance. A holy family puts God first. A holy family puts each other’s needs next. But finding the right balance isn’t always easy. And above all, true holiness needs us to push aside our sense of what we think we deserve.

Consider this story: a big sister and her little brother were in the kitchen, arguing about a chocolate cake.

“We should cut it down the middle, 50:50”, said Little Brother. “Fair shares.”

“Oh no!” said Big Sister. “My tummy is twice the size of yours so I should have twice as much cake as you.”

But before either of them could wield the knife, Mum walked into the kitchen, packed the whole cake into a tin and said, “Sorry kids – this isn’t our cake, the man next door paid me to bake it for him.”

In my eight years as a priest, I have heard very many stories about family rows which have become lasting feuds. They almost always start in one of two ways – one family member says wounding words, or when a will is read, some of the relatives don’t get what they were hoping for.

It’s easy to become angry when other people don’t do what we hope they will. But do you always do what other people would like you to do? Even our Lord, aged 12, didn’t do what his parents were expecting. When they found him in the Temple, Our Lady said that she was most vexed, and took him home. Now, there was no sin here – only two very different sets of expectations. We may have high hopes for what other people will do. But unless they have promised to do it, our hopes may be dashed. Even when there is a promise in place, circumstances beyond their control might get in the way. I have learned, the hard way, that when I have been let down it is always more useful to ask “What stopped you?” rather than the more accusing question, “Why didn’t you?”

Often enough, people say to me “I can’t forgive so-and-so.” But I think what they mean is that they can’t feel warm towards the person who has hurt them. Forgiveness doesn’t require us to change our feelings – that’s not within our power. Forgiveness is a choice – a choice to act with kindness towards those who don’t deserve it. If someone has betrayed a secret, it is wise not to entrust them with another one until they’ve earned your trust back. If someone has spent your money irresponsibly, don’t be quick to entrust them with more funds. But forgiveness means that we don’t punish the other person by doing anything beyond taking sensible precautions.

If your family is a holy family, you will treat every inheritance as an undeserved gift. If you act as if you deserve nothing, then any free gift will be a bonus, and a reason to thank God. But if, like the children in my story, your heart desires the largest share which might reasonably be yours, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.

If your family is a holy family, when there is a major bust-up, you won’t be asking “”Who started it?” but rather “Who’s going to act first to stop it?” Perhaps in your family there is someone you haven’t spoken to for 20 years after a disagreement. Or perhaps you had words with someone around your table this year on Christmas Day. The Lord is inviting you to be a peacemaker!

To finish the story: When Mum got back from delivering their neighbour’s cake, she opened the oven and showed Little Brother and Big Sister that she wasn’t done with the baking. For each child, there was one of their favourite cakes, a carrot cake and a sponge, each just the right size for its intended recipient. Little Brother and Big Sister replied with one voice in the only thing you can possibly say in such circumstances: “Thanks, Mum!”

St John says that in the future, we shall be more like God. Let’s not wait until heaven! Whenever you forgive, you are doing something divine. So let’s, each one of us, choose to be holy within our family.

Holiness is loving those who have let you down.

Holiness is expecting nothing as a right, but rejoicing in everything received as a gift.

Holiness is forgiving not because the other person says sorry, but because forgiveness is our way of life.

We are in the Year of Mercy. Now is the perfect time to become, as the banner says, “Merciful Like The Father!”