What is a good homily? You’ve listened to hundreds, maybe thousands, of them; what is a good homily? Here are some answers I imagine you might give. A good homily is:
short, interesting, instructive, entertaining, relevant to life, based on scripture, helpful…all of the above.
From my perspective a good homily is one that changes lives for the better. If someone comes to me and says, ‘You gave a homily a few years ago that changed my life’ I say to myself, ‘Well, at least I’ve given one good homily.’
The only homily that can change lives for the better is one that speaks truth; everything else is just entertainment – and usually very forgettable. Truth is powerful, irresistibly powerful, actually. Truth is the only thing that makes sense of our lives and we priests are wasting our time, and Jesus’ time, preaching anything else.
Truth is how things are and how they should be. By this I mean that truth both reveals what we are and calls us to turn back if we have gone wrong somewhere.
Truth is the instruction manual for human existence; it sets us free to be fully human and, in simple terms, this means to know, love and serve God here on earth and to be happy with him forever in heaven. A good homily always points out this end and helps us to achieve it.
The Holy Family Sunday we celebrate today is a significant part of the celebration of Christmas because the feast is actually a part of the celebration of the Incarnation of Jesus.
The Savior took flesh of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit and even though this miracle bypassed natural means of conception it could not bypass the matrix into which all children should be born and raised – the family.
If we cannot speak of a fish without reference to water, it is even more unthinkable to speak of a child without reference to a family. Let me haste to add a family of a father and a mother and a child or children, not a family of two mothers or two fathers.
And so Jesus was born into a human family, just as it is the unchangeable plan of God that every one of his children should be born into a family.
Now having said all this I’m going to present you with some thoughts for your discernment. I want to present you with four thoughts from my personal observations about (holy) family life. I hope you will agree that they are simple truths.
A holy family is always a place of silence. I don’t mean deadly silence, or an uninterrupted, spooky kind of silence – I mean helpful silence, life-giving silence, silence which allows something more to be heard than meaningless noise; silence which allows real listening to real things. Parents and children have time to talk about real things, they know how to listen to each other and hear each other.
Sin is not the only way of pushing God out of our lives, you know, noise can be just as effective, and I need hardly point out the sources of the mindless noise I am referring to.
A holy family is always a place of discipline or, if you like, of good order in the relationships which exist between its various members. Needless to say, God is the first and most important member of a holy family, and all good order begins with our relationship to him. Therefore parents must obey God; I can’t stress this enough.
How often have I felt like saying to parents who complain about the selfishness, nastiness, disobedience and dishonesty of their children, ‘But why should you expect to receive from your children what you are not giving to God? Your children are simply learning from you. You are the first book they read and they are good readers.’
When parents are truly and fully obedient to God and his Church in their lives they are living in the truth and children are generally quick to understand and imitate them.
A holy family is a place of work. It is a clean and tidy place, a place of washed and ironed clothes, of swept and vacuumed floors, of washed dishes and made beds. I am speaking here of an ideal, of course, which we may not always succeed in reaching, but the opposite of this ideal is a disordered mess which encourages a laziness which exalts empty leisure above good order. Most catastrophically, apart from offering opportunities for idle hands, that laziness all too often reaches into the serious duty and hard work of family prayer.
My fourth point recapitulates the other three: a holy family is a place where the Faith will be lived and taught. Listen to today’s Gospel and see how often it is said that the parents of the child Jesus did ‘what was laid down in the Law’. A holy family will always obey God’s law.
Pray together as a married couple and as a family. Go to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day and never miss; get your priorities straight and teach your children to get theirs straight. Go to Confession regularly as a family and teach your children that life is built on forgiveness and fresh starts. Don’t deprive your children of their opportunity to see you acknowledge your sins before God. Jesus was born not only into a family but also into a holy family. A holy family is a family, which has God at its conscious centre.
A holistic and holy family is integrated, not fractured; other-centered, not self-centered; lives in forgiveness, affirms the uniqueness of each of its members; builds up instead of tears down; is mindful of God and not neglectful of His Presence and love.
A holy family is a wonderful thing; it lasts forever. An unholy family is a scourge – to its members and to the whole of society. A holy family is a school of happiness and life because God himself dwells in its midst. He teaches each of its members to love others more than they deserve because that’s how he loves us.
Mary does not hoard grace; she passes on to her children what she receives from God because she is truly our Mother. All that Mary receives from God she passes on to us, to the extent that we are willing to receive and respond to these gifts of grace. Even here she comes to help us. As she formed Jesus in herself so she will, if we ask her, form Him in us.
Let me conclude in a very practical way. If you really wish Mary to be your Mother on your journey through life, so that you may reach heaven your goal, then don’t get into bed tonight, on this first day of the New Year, without having given yourself to her to be her child. Kneel down and say, ‘Mary, all that I am and have is yours, I belong to you. I am your child, Please be my Mother and keep me safe for heaven.’