Over a number of years I was asked to preach in the church close to my workplace on Family Sunday (the Sunday after Christmas Day). Because I worked with these families as a nurse and they often shared their worries and troubles with me, I knew them quite well and I knew their needs. Some of them were in irregular relationships and were in fear of God’s wrath. They were good people for whom life wasn’t easy and I wanted to let them know through the following sermon that God loved them anyway:
“Way back in history, as far back as four thousand years ago, there was a man who had a wife and he also had a problem. He had been promised an inheritance for his children and his children’s children; an inheritance of a very large tract of fertile land. The problem was, he had no children and his wife was too old to have any now. The wife suggested that her slave girl could have a child for him. He agreed. He lay with Hagar, the slave of Sarah, and they had a son. Later, God sent a message to the man that his wife would have a son of her own the next year and so she did. We now had a family consisting of Abraham, his wife Sarah, the slave girl Hagar and their two children. Now, Sarah had a problem. Hagar’s son, Ishmael, was older than her son, Isaac, and according to the law of the land stood to inherit everything. Sarah nagged at her husband until he banished Hagar and her son from the family.
A generation or so later there was a man called Jacob. He married two sisters, Leah and Rachel, who were also his first cousins and he took on two concubines named Bilhah and Zilpah, the slaves of his wives. Between the four women they produced twelve sons and several daughters. So, you had a family consisting of Jacob, his two wives, his two mistresses and many children. These twelve sons became the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel. You will remember the youngest son, Joseph, he was famous for his coat of many colours.
Many, many generations later in the year 6 BC there was a fifteen-year-old girl named Mary whose marriage had been arranged to a carpenter called Joseph. They were engaged. But she became pregnant and Joseph wasn’t the father. There was a fierce amount of panic around the situation. She said an angel of God appeared to her but Joseph knew nothing about this. She could be stoned to death if the authorities got to know about it. However, the angel also appeared to Joseph and explained things to him. Joseph accepted the story and not particularly wanting to see Mary stoned, decided to stand by her. Thus you had a family consisting of Mary and Joseph and their child Jesus who wasn’t fathered by Joseph. Joseph is thought to have been considerably older than Mary and to have come to the marriage with some children of his own.
Jesus grew up eventually and one day while he was resting by a well outside a village he got into conversation with a woman. During the conversation it was revealed that the woman had several children by six different partners. Jesus did not condemn her and she, realising who He really was, became one of His disciples and went back into the village to tell the people.
Now, I am not making any judgement about the different groupings of people who come together and call themselves family. Only God could look deep into Mary’s heart and know that it was His own Son who occupied the womb that lay beneath it. It was He who chose the fragile structure of the human family in all its creative forms to pass knowledge of himself down through the generations to the present day.
During the last two thousand years when the Church Jesus founded to teach, guide and encourage us in His Way, itself became disabled by its own power, wealth and pomposity, it was the family, guided by the Holy Spirit, who pulled us through. In times of oppression and persecution by foreign states or hostile regimes, it is the family that keeps the flame of Faith burning in secret. We have evidence of this in many parts of our world today through the stories coming from the underground Church.
The family is the most important unit in society, no matter how it is made up. The reality today, as in times past, is that there are families which are made up of groups of people other than the conventional mother, father and two children. Each family unit is precious to God and loved dearly by Him and this has been so since humankind was created.
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are the fathers of the Faith, it was to them God first made Himself known and through them and their families, generation after generation, that he gradually revealed Himself and His Will for humanity. God didn’t exclude them because their family structure was a little unusual or creative. In Jesus, God assumed the human form, and freely entered into a human family, to offer the ultimate Sacrifice, which saved us, and freed us from our bondage to sin. Faith is a gift from God to each individual who is open to receiving it. It is within the family that the foundation is laid, a foundation of knowledge and example in the Christian way of life, on which the seed of Faith can be nurtured and grow.
The ideal family is the husband and wife who commit themselves through the Sacrament of Marriage to God and to each other for life and who raise children who will leave the nest when the time is right. We don’t live in an ideal world. Families are not perfect. Only God knows what is in our hearts. Our hope is in our children, therefore each one of us, married or not, aunt, uncle, neighbour or friend has a responsibility to support and nurture the family in every way we can”.
Author: Mary, Ireland, Province of Ireland