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. Every statistics and study shows that married couple with children is the best possible environment for a child to succeed. Even if the family if far from perfect it is the environment every child should have.
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 and superficial busyness can be just as effective, and I need hardly point out the sources of the mindless noise and busyness I am referring to.
A holy family is always a place of discipline and leadership, 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 Commandments 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 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. That commitment and loyalty matters! 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.
We are aware that the family as an institution is under attack. Despite the attack, the Catholic Church’s teachings have not changed. The Church has not changed the definition of marriage as a covenant, and not a contract. The Church maintains that marriage is a union between a man and his wife. The Church has not changed her teaching that life begins at conception. The Catholic Church has not changed her teaching that parents have the right to bring their children up in the ways of the Lord. The Catholic Church has not changed her teaching that children are obliged to provide for aged parents.
What can we learn from the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in order to keep our families from falling apart, and also keep our families as sacred as God made them to be from creation? Pope Paul VI described the Holy Family as a school of Nazareth where we learn true science of life and the higher wisdom of divine truth.
The first and second readings tell us about Abram’s faith in God, while in the Gospel we see the faith of Simeon and Anna. Mary and Joseph were persons of great faith as already mentioned above. We are, therefore, encouraged to put faith in God all our considerations and actions. Faith in God is the master key to a happy home.
When a family puts their faith in God, the Spirit of God easily ministers to the members to support one another, encourage one another and be present for one another. Love for one another increases with time when members of a family put their faith in God. When they lose faith in God, love for one another decreases with time.
Faith in God makes us, humbly, listen to God through listening to one another. Faith in God makes us realize that life is better as ‘us’ not as ‘me.’ Faith in God encourages us to value self-denial and sacrifice for the good of those in need. Faith in God enables us to be obedient to God and to one another.
Members of a family experience peace when they respect and obey each other. Disobedience is one of the vices that disintegrate families. One of the signs of faith in God is prayerfulness. A family that prays together, stays together. There is power in prayer. A prayerful Christian is a faithful Christian and a powerful one.