The Feast of the Holy Family is a celebration of the perfect faith and hope in God that Jesus, Mary and Joseph lived. To this some of us may be tempted to say to ourselves that in contrast to the perfect faith and hope of the Holy Family, I am facing so much pain and trials in my life that I find it difficult to even trust God as He does not seem to answer my prayers, and that I may be losing my hope in Him.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, despair is the opposite of hope. It is probable that the trauma, pain and confusion of our lives can rob us of our hope in God. Despair can convince us that God has abandoned us; that our sin is too severe; that we will never change; that the problems we have been facing for so many years will never be solved.
While such emotional feelings are understandable, Christian hope is precisely our need to believe that God can be trusted; that He has not abandoned us; that we must thus hang in and hang on there because He will be there for us. St Paul tells the Christian community in Corinth that “God is faithful, and He will not let you be tested beyond your strength . . .” (1 Cor.10:13).
Let us remember that as the Holy Family lived a “perfect” faith and hope in God, they did have a fair share of the problems, pains and persecutions of their faith, during their lives. In fact, Jesus, Mary and Joseph went through greater and more severe challenges in their lives than any of us.
I would like to illustrate the challenges of family living with the true story of John Evans. John’s memories of his childhood were experiences of brutality, pain, condemnation and ridicule from his father. Even when John was at the age of three, his father was already calling him very hurtful names. This was worse when he came home drunk. John and his siblings lived in constant fear; it was not only verbal, but also physical abuse. His dad would punch, slap and once even broke his nose when he smashed a wrench across his face. At the age of five, John was sexually abused by the son of a family friend. Then, at his early adolescence, John was molested by an adult in the Scout troop.
In all of these, John somehow blamed himself. By mid-teens, John could no longer cope with his poor self-image, and was convinced that he was a homosexual; he turned to drugs and alcohol to ease his pain. However, at the age of 21 he was surprised by the fact that he could fall in love with a woman, whom he married within a few months of their whirlwind romance. With two children later, John was happy and convinced that the past was over. But, his bliss proved to be short lived.
John began to have financial problems that caused him much worries. However, what worried John most was his son. He was not able to be a “father” to him. He was afraid that he would “rub off” his problems on to his son. And so, he avoided his son; though no hurtful names escaped his lips and no physical abuse occurred, such a distancing from his son caused John much pain.
To cope with such pain, John drank and did drugs. He began an affair with an older man. For three years these activities continued. But, nothing brought him relief. John was disgusted with himself and with his double life of infidelity to his good wife. He saw no way out and was on the verge of committing suicide when he cried out, “God, save me, as I can’t hold on any more!”
God answered his plea. John suddenly felt a deep peace that is beyond understanding, coursing through his body, mind and spirit. He experienced the Holy Spirit setting him free from the bondage of sin, and felt the deep love of God the Father flowing into his heart, healing the deep wounds and giving him the courage and zeal to set his life straight.
Realising what had happened John immediately rushed off to the church and sought the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He joined AA and became sober. He began to work on his family life and went for therapy. Through the constant love and support of his wife, through counselling and through the unconditional love of God the Father, John’s life was totally transformed. John was able to cooperate with God’s Spirit and live the truth of St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians which says, “Put off you old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the Spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Eph. 4:22-24).
My brothers and sisters in Christ, I am sure the challenges we face in our family life is very different and not as colourful or as painful as that of John, but let the truth of the story reminds us that God’s love for us is always unconditional. That when we are faced with insurmountable pains and problems, all the more, we are each called to allow the power of God’s Spirit to free us from the bondage of our sins, so that like John we can once again experience the deep peace and joy of the Spirit in our hearts and homes.
The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph too experienced great pains and persecution throughout their lives. From the very moment Mary said, “Yes, to obeying God the Father’s Will, her faith was severely tested and her life was cruelly threatened. Indeed, from the moment of her conception of Jesus up to the time when her Son was Crucified, Mary continued to live in the deep commitment that God’s Will and Providence will protect her from harm, and provide her for all her needs. This too was to be the case for Joseph and Jesus who lived the Father’s Will perfectly.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, like the Holy Family and John, our hopes in God matures when we are tested. St John Chrysostom wrote, “Trees that grow in shady and sheltered places, while externally they develop with a healthy appearance, become soft and yielding, and they are easily damaged by anything at all; whereas trees that grow on the tops of very high mountains, buffeted by strong winds and constantly exposed to all types of weather, agitated by storms and frequently covered by snow, become stronger than iron.”
Christian hope is a virtue that is forged in the face of almost certain defeat; it fills us with strength in our weakest moment, steels our nerves in the direst state, and tempers our fear in the face of death. Christian hope buoys up a drooping spirit, inflates a flagging heart, and lifts up an overwhelmed soul, simply because the source of our Christian hope is Christ Himself who will surely triumph in our lives, if we dare to trust Him fully.
I would like to conclude by saying that escapists run from the challenges of life. Optimists paint them with a rosy hue. Pragmatists analyse them according to the cold calculations of cause and effect. Fatalists give in to discouragement and despair.
But, a Christian with strong faith and hope in the Lord, faces the challenges of pain and trials in our lives without fear, denial and excuses, but instead takes the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph as our model, and eventually like John Evans, in our illustration, finds that God will never fail us if we want to live in His Love and Ways. Do we? The choice is ours; God’s Love is unconditional.
(Ref: Adapted from: “Living Life Abundantly,” by Johnnette S. Benkovic; pub.: St Anthony Messenger Press: Cincinnati, Ohio: pp, 66-70 and Experience Grace in Abundance – Ten Strategies for Your Spiritual Life: pub.: Simon Peter Press: Olsmar, Fl.: pp. 138-146.
Fr Philip Heng,S.J.
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