Today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. We honor the day God led the spouses Anne and Joachim to conceive a baby girl; we praise God for giving us this girl, this woman, who would be the white dawn announcing the rising of God’s Son. Our Lady came to us as the fruit of a marriage, and she became a wife and mother herself, giving the world the infinite fruit both of her divine espousal to the Holy Spirit and her human espousal to the man Joseph. Tonight we consider the gift of the Holy Family, and we look for ways that our families may become holy. The holy family defines marriage and family life. It defines marriage as a sacrament meant to sanctify, as a means to heaven. The title of tonight’s talk is “Sanctifying Marriage.”
Putting God First
In the Holy Family, in any holy family, God is first. No matter what the cost, God is first. Not work, nor education, nor sexuality, nor even the children, but God is first. If any one of those things or any other thing or person comes between God and the soul, it has to go. And how do we know if God is first? By how perfectly we practice obedience. Click here to read more...
First, we must know that Mary and Joseph were really married, and Jesus, Mary and Joseph were really a family. St. Paul’s great chapter on family life in Ephesians 5 describes the roles of husband, wife, and children, and their interrelationships before God. St. Paul defines marriage as two people who mutually submitting to each other out of reverence for Christ:
“Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. …. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, … husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. … each one of you should love his wife as himself, and the wife should respect her husband.”
When Jesus stays behind in the temple at age 12, Mary says “Your father and I have been looking for you for three days.” She impresses his fatherly authority also on her son, and he obeys both of them. Lk. 2:51-52 "And when they had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him.... and He was obedient to them. And the boy increased in wisdom and stature before God and men." (Msgr. Escriva: “God came to earth to obey, and to obey men.”)
Mary is the heart, and Joseph submits to her gentle direction, as even Jesus would at Cana. He loves her more than himself, pouring himself out for her and her son. Realize how his constant changing locals (Nazareth, Egypt, Judea, Galilee) hamstrung his carpentry business and kept him poor. He did this for her. Joseph is given the love of Mary, without absolute surrender to her. She leads him to God, she points beyond herself. Joseph will wed Mary, renouncing his own will. He says "Yes" within Mary's Yes: she had already said Yes for him! As his betrothed, she had included Joseph in her life's plan when she surrendered to the angel.
See how beautifully each submits to the other in the way proper to each one’s call. The wife submits to the husband in matters of the head, and the husband defers to his wife in the matters of the heart. But both submit everything, every aspect of their relationship, to Jesus Christ. This is the natural order of all relationships, and especially of the family.
Joseph obeys God above all—he obeys the angel. He carefully keeps the prescriptions of the Law of Moses, bringing the child for circumcision at 8 days and redemption at 40 days. Every time he has a dream, he obeys the angel promptly. He takes the child and his mother, assuming responsibility, and putting in all the hard work such moves require. The authority he exercises (note the angel appears to him, not to Mary) is not only an act of obedience to God is an act of devotion to Mary and Jesus.
Mary obeys God above all—her obedience to Joseph is an act of devotion to God, who gave him as her husband. She follows Joseph as his helpmate, not only the handmaid of the Lord, but also the handmaid of her husband.
Jesus perfectly obeys his father in heaven. He quietly obeys both parents, that is, the will of his heavenly father. He listens carefully to them, although He is the one giving them speech. His growth in "strength" and "wisdom" is placed in the Bible after his obedience—an effect of his obedience. Without obedience, we are trapped in our own little world, a dark and dirty place. Obedience is Joy, because it is Freedom. Without it, we have not the capacity to love.
The Family’s Natural Order
Original sin reversed this natural order. After the Fall, spouses place pleasing each other before pleasing God, afraid to lose human love, forgetting the primacy of divine love. St. Paul in 1 Cor 7:33: “a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided. An unmarried woman or a virgin is anxious about the things of the Lord, so that she may be holy in both body and spirit. A married woman, on the other hand, is anxious about the things of the world, how she may please her husband.”
To be real, Love must be fundamentally oriented toward God, because spouses are always tempted to idolize each other, and to let themselves be idolized. But spouses can put pleasing each other, and of course pleasing themselves, within submission to God. We can and must seek to rectify the order of marriage (God, then spouse), because the inversion of priorities disables marriage.
Mary does not abandon Joseph to love and serve God; she incorporates service to Joseph into love and service for God. So her "submission" to Joseph is purified, ennobled, as is Joseph's to her: so she draws Joseph more deeply into communion with her. This is true of any friendship, and any service or submission to another. Absolute surrender to God alone. Submission to others within that surrender. There is no true friendship that is an end in itself. Must always be a door, a sacrament to the greater, the absolute love, and end of all human life: love of God.
So Joseph and Mary is a True Marriage, the essence of marriage and human friendship: submission to God first, and deference to each other within that primary surrender.
Schools of prayer
The family is the most basic expression of the Church, the first and simplest form of Christian community. It doesn’t get simpler than Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—three persons living in mutual love, as in father, mother, child.
Above all, the Church is a school of prayer. If a Catholic does not know how, or is not learning how, to pray from the heart, his Church has failed him or he has failed the Church. If a child grows up in a family that has not taught him to pray, the family has failed him. In Novo 33, St. John Paul writes: “Yes, dear brothers and sisters, our Christian communities must become genuine "schools" of prayer, where the meeting with Christ is expressed not just in imploring help but also in thanksgiving, praise, adoration, contemplation, listening and ardent devotion, until the heart truly "falls in love.”
- “Christian communities” does not just mean parishes, or religious congregations, or bible study groups. The most fundamental “community of persons” in the words of FC (1981) is the family.
- Prayer “expresses” the encounter with Christ, with a person, not just a set of doctrines. In their family prayer, your children must meet God; not just learn about God, but learn God, know Him.
- JPII lists the various forms and motivations of prayer: thanksgiving (at meals), praise (singing), adoration (Blessed Sacrament), contemplation (silent time), listening (Bible and saints stories time) and ardent devotion (the way the rosary should be prayed).
JP goes on in the same paragraph: “Intense prayer, yes, but it does not distract us from our commitment to history: by opening our heart to the love of God it also opens it to the love of our brothers and sisters, and makes us capable of shaping history according to God's plan.”
- Intense prayer, intense interior life, that leads us to act, to missionary work (“our commitment to history”). Training children to love God is training them to love each other. Love alone creates, so it best prepares them for their role in “history.”
In sum, our families must teach prayer if they are to be in any way Christian. Catholic schools teach religion, but who teaches children how to pray? That is the role, they would rightly claim, of the parents. And so it is. As Jesus taught his disciples to pray, you must teach your disciples, your children, to pray. “It is hard to pray if we do not know how,” Mother Teresa wrote. “We must pray more if we want to pray better.”
What is prayer?
To teach prayer, we need to know what it is, and how to do it ourselves. Let’s look at the CCC: “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy” (St. Therese).
- Heartfelt: no matter how formal it is; must be of the heart. “Prayer to be fruitful must come from the heart and must be able to touch the heart of God” (M. Teresa). “Jesus in my heart, I believe in your tender love for me. I love you.” Mother Teresa went through 50 years of darkness, when she felt nothing in prayer. So she insisted on this simple prayer: I believe you are in my heart. I love you.
- A Simple Look: no one is excluded from prayer, even the mentally-handicapped
- Recognition: we only respond to God’s initiative—it is he who puts this into our hearts
- Both trial and joy: “unconditional” prayer; “pray constantly” (1 Thess 5:17). “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”
1 John 4:10: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.” God gives and we receive. Life is essentially receiving, and so prayer is listening, receiving, silence. Prayer is a gift, not an achievement. We must dispose ourselves to receive the gift, and then receive it well, with open heart, but it is God’s work in us, not our work in us.
CCC 2567 God calls man first. Man may forget his Creator or hide far from his face; he may run after idols or accuse the deity of having abandoned him; yet the living and true God tirelessly calls each person to that mysterious encounter known as prayer. In prayer, the faithful God's initiative of love always comes first; our own first step is always a response.
Laziness in prayer
We are probably not that lazy, but we do get discouraged. Where to start? Am I making any progress? I can’t see where I’m going. Prayer is hard, but worth the effort. “Love to pray—feel the need to pray often during the day and take the trouble to pray. If you want to pray better, you must pray more….” (M. Teresa).
CCC 2725 Prayer is both a gift of grace and a determined response on our part. It always presupposes effort. The great figures of prayer of the Old Covenant before Christ, as well as the Mother of God, the saints, and he himself, all teach us this: prayer is a battle.
CCC 2726 In the battle of prayer, we must face in ourselves and around us erroneous notions of prayer. Some people view prayer as a simple psychological activity, others as an effort of concentration to reach a mental void. Still others reduce prayer to ritual words and postures. Many Christians unconsciously regard prayer as an occupation that is incompatible with all the other things they have to do: they “don't have the time.” Those who seek God by prayer are quickly discouraged because they do not know that prayer comes also from the Holy Spirit and not from themselves alone.
We all have to fight discouragement, but realize it is from the devil, saying “you can’t do this.” Pray when you feel discouraged, or at least try to pray. “take the trouble to pray,” and count on the presence and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Prayer has to come first, before any other activity. "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?" And he said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Love God first, then neighbor.
- In Order of activities, prayer is first: When there are many things to do in a day, make sure you do prayer first. Before eating. Before study. Before sports and entertainment.
- JPII in Novo 32: “Training in holiness calls for a Christian life distinguished above all in the art of prayer. … We have to learn to pray.”
Basic elements of a Prayer Routine
a.) Prayer is silence, interior and exterior silence. “It is very hard to pray if one dos not know how. We must help ourselves to learn. The most important thing is silence. Souls of prayer are souls of deep silence. We cannot place ourselves directly in God’s presence without imposing upon ourselves interior and exterior silence” (M. Teresa).
The devil throws noise at us: visual, audible chaos. 1000 TV stations to choose from. 10 million songs on one ipod. 20,000 movies to choose from on Netflix. Constant, relentless assault of noise, in order to drown out God’s silence. Noise is the reason why so few men are hearing the call to become priests today—they can’t hear the call.
There must be some silence in your family: sitting in the living room together without anything “on?” Rules for quiet time (no electronics after 9pm)? Even just a simple space of silence like a pause between rosary mysteries.
b.) Four areas of daily prayer practice:
- the Eucharist (Mass, adoration, spiritual communion)
- Our Lady (angelus, rosary, novenas, invocations)
- Reading: Scripture and lives of the saints
- Penance: sacramental and devotional
c.) Elements of a routine:
- morning offering: hit the ground on our knees, begin day on our knees
- daily Mass: a few times a week (at least once a week). Personally, a priest needs to see some folks at Mass who are there more from desire than mere obligation.
- daily rosary and/or angelus: use pictures if helpful
- Bible reading few times a week: can integrate into rosary, or if you teach the catechism to your children. Perhaps reading the Sunday or daily readings with your children. The heart of the “Oratory” is “familiar discourse on the Word of God.” No Christian is literate until he has read the Bible
- weekly adoration hour: training children to sit in silence. Our PSR kids were so unruly until they came to the BS chapel.
- confession every few weeks: Mom would promise us the lighting of one votive candle and sweeten the deal with ice cream afterwards
- daily examination of conscience: St. Ignatius’ non-negotiable. Daily personal encounter.
- annual retreat or youth camp: retreats (change of time and place) are irreplaceable. Some things come into or out of a person only during retreats.
- annual pilgrimage to local shrine: exciting, physical—good for boys
That you may know God
The family is not an end in itself. It is a means to God. If God is first in our families, all our relationships will be golden, even when they are difficult. “If your prayer life is right, your community life will be perfectly alright,” MT.
Perfect prayer is the response of Our Lady at the Annunciation. She was presumably at prayer when the angel came to her, and she made that act of entrustment to God. The Holy Family was holy because God invited it to be holy, and Mary (and Joseph) accepted that invitation. The perfection of the human person is an intersection of the divine will and the human will, God’s gift and man’s reciprocity. We know that God’s will is our sanctification. He wants every family to be holy. The question is, what is our will? Do we want to be holy? And the answer is: yes, we do. The human heart longs for God, and longs for holiness, even when it is deceived. We are all deceived, beguiled, to some extent. Let us pray more, and pray better: “For this reason,” Paul writes in Eph 3, “I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that … Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.”