According to a study of more than 500 family counselors, the following are the top traits of successful families: communicating and listening attentively; affirming and supporting family members; respecting one another and developing a sense of trust; spending time with one another and sharing responsibility; knowing right from wrong and holding moral values; having customs, traditions and rituals; sharing a religious core; respecting privacy.
Many of us, if not all of us, consider these as our own family values. We tend to be rather sentimental when it comes to families. There is nothing wrong with sentimentality itself, but it has nothing to do with what the Bible says about families. There is something blunt, harsh, demanding, radical about the Bible’s view on this regard.
Let us go to today’s first reading… The first chapter of the First Book of Samuel talks about Hannah. Being barren, she cannot bear a child; but that does stop her from going up to the Temple every year, begging God for child. Listen to this extraordinary prayer of Hannah: “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your maidservant, and remember me, and not forget your maidservant, but will give to your maidservant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life…”
What Hannah is saying is this: “Lord, give me a child, and, in gratitude, I will give the child back to you.” She even goes to the point of saying: “I will offer him as a perpetual nazirite.” A ‘nazirite’ – the modern equivalent of a monk – is someone who is utterly devoted to God. God hears her prayer. And due time Hannah conceives and gives birth to a son, who she names Samuel. True to her vow, after Samuel has been weaned, Hannah dedicates him to God.
With that as the background, we go to the gospel narrative: the finding of the Boy Jesus in the Temple. It is fascinating how Jesus responds to his mother’s reprimand: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” That passage is translated in another version of the Bible (KJV): “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” “I must be about my Father’s business.” Dwell on those words…
We see in these two stories the foundation of the Biblical family values: dedication and devotion to God. The determining factor here is not what the two mothers, Hannah and Mary, want for their sons. but what God wants and wills for them. Listen now, my dear parents: What should determine the lives of your children is not your own dreams and ambitions for them but God’s will for them – God’s purposes for them.
As we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family, we ought to ask: What is the purpose of the family? The purpose of the family is to be a forum in which all the members of the family discern and find their respective vocations.” (Bishop Robert Barron)The family must be the place where mission is discovered and prioritized. The family is where a sense of mission and purpose is cultivated. The family should not just be a venue where strong emotions or sentimentalities are expressed and respected; it should not be just about having deep, strong personal bonds. They are good in themselves; but they should give way to what is most important: the discovery and cultivation of mission.
With this as the background, we see what is going wrong with the families today. When things other than God – personal ambitions and interests, selfish wants and needs, family reputation and social status, success of the children in their chosen careers or professions, material wealth and financial security, pleasure and convenience – become central, that is when family falls apart. When something other than God takes possession of it, the family breaks apart and becomes dysfunctional.
What is your life all about? What is family all about? Is it really about God’s business? Is it about the business of promoting the kingdom of God, and not the family kingdom of wealth, power and social status? Is it about the business of working according to God’s purposes, and not just according to our own plans and projects? Surrendering your life to God, including your own ambitions, dedicating your family to God’s purposes, doing the will of God, finding your respective missions – that is what makes a family holy.
Let us end with a prayer: Lord God, You want our family to be holy. Give us the strength and courage to dedicate our whole life to You. May our family be a place where mission is discovered and prioritized. Amen.