Deacon Cornell's Homily


Sirach 3:2-6,12-14
Colossians 3:12-21
Matthew 2:13-15,19-23


December 29-30, 2001, Feast of the Holy Family, Cycle A

Several of the commentators that I read in preparation for today did not really think that the Gospel story of the flight to Egypt was very appropriate for Holy Family. One went so far as to say that it was out of place on todayís feast because it did not give us as good a picture of the happy family in Nazareth as Lukeís story of the twelve-year-old Jesus at the temple.

While the message of peace and love of Christ in our families, both immediate and extended, is an important and much needed message, I suggest that to imagine that peace and love only happen in a tranquil, quiet family setting is a mistake.

Both the first reading from the Book of Sirach and Paulís letter to the Colossians recognize the fact that families of any size are not always tranquil or perfect. Fathers get old and their minds fail. Family members argue and have grievances against one another. There are hurts and bitterness and disobedience and contention and tears. And there is laughter and babies crying and singing and hugging.

While I would guess that most people would recognize their families in the description of chaos of emotions and relationships I just listed, I would also guess that there are quite a few that would describe that reality as less than desirable. Quite a few of us picture the ideal as less chaotic, more ordered, more under control and tranquil.

Take the birth of Jesus as it is projected in our art. So many of the wonderful Christmas cards we received this year depicted the ideal scene: Mary and Joseph standing serenely over baby Jesus in the stable with either the Magi or the shepherds kneeling quietly off to the side. Everything is pristine in the bright light and you can almost hear the hushed tones. Silent night, holy night. All is calm; all is bright! A Kodak moment!

But what was the reality of the Holy Family? Last Sunday we heard the story of the holy family start with the shock of Maryís unexplained pregnancy and the confusion and hurt that this caused Joseph. Then just as Mary is due to deliver, Joseph and Mary have to make a difficult trip to Bethlehem. They end up in a stable surrounded by the sounds and smells of livestock in a town that is jammed with travelers. Have you ever been to a place where lots of travelers converge? Do they tend to go to bed early and stay quietly in their rooms? Of course not! And Luke tells us that during the night shepherds came right from their fields to visit the stable. Shepherds were the lowly of the low in that society primarily because they smelled so bad. And then today we hear Matthew tell us of the Magi coming to honor Jesus, which provokes Herod to a fury that drives him to kill all the male babies under 2 years old in Bethlehem. This holy family has to flee to Egypt for their lives.

It is a story of chaos and hurt and struggle. What we lose sight of sometimes is that this is how God chooses to be among us. Our Catholic faith is an incarnational faith, which means that it is a faith lived out in the midst of real life with all its chaos and pain and struggle rather than some ideal vision we have only in our minds. This child, who is God-with-us, is with us in the most ordinary as well as the most extraordinary aspects of our lives.

In our story of salvation the ideal family, the holy family, is not the one that is always under control and tranquil but the one that serves Godís plan for salvation in the midst of the chaos and struggle. The peace and the joy announced by the angels on Christmas night are not often found in the absence of noise or confusion or conflict, but can be found only by placing our selves in service to Godís plan. Mary and Joseph model this faithfulness so well. In todayís Gospel we see them submitting themselves to Godís plan for salvation in protecting Jesus from Herod. To do that they abandon everything they have to flee to Egypt. To picture this realistically all we need do is read the stories of the millions of Afghan refugees in danger of starving or freezing to death this winter.

Our story of salvation tells us that the peace of Christmas day is to be found in respect for authority, and compassion, and kindness, and forgiveness in the midst of all the struggles of family relationships. Our story tells us that this peace comes with the courage to submit to one another, husband and wife, parents and children, friend and friend, and sometimes most especially friend and foe. Our story tells us that this peace comes from being thankful to God for what we have been given, be it great or small, and doing everything in the name of Jesus.

So I suggest that today's gospel story of Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt and then returning home years later is a perfect story for the feast of the holy family. It is a story that reminds us that the peace of God's promise does not come primarily in hushed tones or tranquil scenes but through service to God's plan in the midst of conflict and pain and suffering. That is something we need to be reminded of again and again.

I would like to close by reading you a poem that written by Sr. M. Doretta Cornell about the rescue efforts at the World Trade Center in NY. Sr. Mary Doretta is a poet, and nun, and professor of English at Pace University in NY. She is also my sister. It is titled, September 11, 2001: The Rescuers but I think it speaks strongly to what it means to be a Holy Family.

September 11, 2001:
The Rescuers
Sr. M Doretta Cornell

At the altar, it is easy
to accept the Body given up
for us, all linen and flowers,
the Host small and flat, bread
that dissolves simply in saliva.
But there in the rubble
bodies were given up
for each other, strong hands
hauling others through
the first debris, not falling
until the towers fell
and bodies became ash and air,
the creamcolored dust still
drifting to windowsills,
filling our lungs
as we walk slowly past,
watching the rescuers
giving their bodies
to the smoldering heaps,
the long silent liturgy of hope
in the dark ruins.


Here Christ comes
to life among us
risen in these dead
and these living,
their bodies given
in labor and exhaustion.

Here the Spirit draws us
beyond this destruction
to love stripped to bone,
given over and over
to open this tomb
to learn the hard
giving and forgiving
that will become
our resurrection


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