The celebration of Family
For Australians Christmas is about family. Deeply embedded in our cultural psyche our society instinctively wants to celebrate family at Christmas time. We plan a family gathering on Christmas Day. We think of family members who may live in other places and contact them by letter, or card, or Skype.
Christmas is about children. We take our children to events. It might be to have a photo with Santa at the shopping centre. Or we might attend a carols event. In one way or another we want them to have a sense of the magic of Christmas.
Our society enters into a festive mode. Fairy lights decorate homes and streets. Bunting hangs in windows and from street poles. Christmas has a spirit of joy.
The celebration of Christmas draws us to appreciate what is most valuable in our lives: our closest relationships, family and children. Despite all the commercialism what we want most of all at Christmas is joy, love and unity. Where this is in our lives it is celebrated. Where it is lacking, the pain of what we don't have comes to the fore at Christmas.
This year in Tasmania we have witnessed strong debates on the nature of human life (euthanasia) and on family (same sex marriage) and on children (abortion). We cannot celebrate Christmas this year without an awareness of these intense struggles that we have been through. Pope Francis said on October 25 this year, “A society that neglects children and marginalises the elderly severs its roots and darkens its future".
We need to ask ourselves a question: How can we build a culture, a culture of life and love, where abortion and euthanasia are unthinkable? Where abortion is no longer a ‘pregnancy option’ and euthanasia is an implausible ‘end of life choice’?
We need to become a society/community that is radically inclusive of every human person, at every stage and in every condition of life; a society that has learnt acceptance, love and forgiveness. These lessons are best learnt within the family, the first community of life and love.
Pope Francis has said of the family: “It is the place where one learns to love, it is the natural centre of human life. It is made up of faces, of people who love, dialogue, make self-sacrifices for one another and defend life, especially of the most vulnerable and the weakest.” Blessed John Paul II described the family as: “the sanctuary of life: the place in which life - the gift of God - can be properly welcomed and protected against the many attacks to which it is exposed, and can develop in accordance with what constitutes authentic human growth”.
Christmas takes us to the manger at Bethlehem where we look at a humble young family. Joseph, a carpenter, the young new mum, Mary, and a child “wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger”. The Son of God was born in poverty. We are attracted to the beauty and simplicity of the Holy Family in Bethlehem.
We are reminded of what marriage is as we look at Joseph and Mary. We are reminded that marriage of a man and a woman is a unique form of relationship and it is, by its very nature, deeply and uniquely oriented to bearing and raising children; receiving and nurturing human life.
Only marriage can provide children with a biological link to both parents, and the security and identity of relationship that this brings with it. Marriage also provides children with a role model of the human love of their parents relating as man and woman. Marriage-based families set children up for life.
During the last two decades, a large body of social scientific research has emerged that confirms the widely held view that children fare best on most indicators of health and wellbeing when reared by their mothers and fathers in a married, intact family (Witherspoon Institute, 2008). Research clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children, and the family structure that helps children the most is a family headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage (Kristin Anderson Moore, et al., “Marriage From a Child's Perspective: How Does Family Structure Affect Children, and What Can We Do about It?” Child Trends Research Brief, June 2002, p. 1-2).
In his inspiring letter on human life, Evangelium Vitae, Blessed John Paul II speaks of the family as the place where a culture of life is best nurtured: “The family proclaims the Gospel of life by cultivating in our children, by word and example, “respect for others, a sense of justice, cordial openness, dialogue, generous service, solidarity and all the other values which help people to live life as a gift” (Evangelium Vitae, n. 92). This includes teaching and giving our children an example of the true meaning of suffering and death, and encouraging attitudes of closeness, assistance and sharing towards sick or elderly members of the family.
The family celebrates the Gospel of life through individual prayer and family prayer, where we glorify and give thanks to God for the gift of life, and implore his light and strength in order to face times of difficulty and suffering without losing hope. (Evangelium Vitae, n. 93)
This can of course, also include simple family celebrations of ‘life’ – the way we welcome a new baby, or mark birthdays, anniversaries, and other milestones and achievements – these can all be opportunities for a family to express wonder and gratitude for the gift of life.
The family serves the Gospel of life, primarily through the concerned, attentive and loving care shown in the humble, ordinary events of each day, within and around the family. Sometimes, too, the family will be called to serve the Gospel of life in extraordinary ways; perhaps by choosing to continue with a pregnancy involving a child who is likely to die immediately or soon after birth; or by turning their lives upside down in order to care for a dying relative at home; or by continuing to provide a loving and supportive home for a pregnant teenage daughter.
Families also go further in the fostering of human life. Blessed John Paul II singles out a ‘willingness to adopt or take in children abandoned by their parents or in situations of serious hardship’ as a ‘significant expression of solidarity between families.’ He also emphasises the importance of participation in social and political life, particularly through its membership of family associations, working ‘to ensure that the laws and institutions of the State in no way violate the right to life, from conception to natural death, but rather protect and promote it.’
Finally, through all of this, special attention must be given to the fundamental importance of elderly persons within the family in creating a climate of mutual interaction and enriching communication between the different age-groups, described by John Paul II as a sort of “covenant” between generations. (Evangelium Vitae, n. 94)
Christmas is the time for family. It is the time for children. It is a time to recall how central family is to the nurturing of human life. It is a time to renew our basic human orientation to marriage, family and life because we know that for ourselves personally and for society as a whole these are the essential foundations for the flourishing of humanity.
Pope Francis has been a strong advocate for family. In October he said,
… truly Christian families are known by their fidelity, their patience, their openness to life, and by their respect for the elderly ... the secret to this is the presence of Jesus in the family. Let us therefore propose to all people, with respect and courage, the beauty of marriage and the family illuminated by the Gospel! And in order to do this let us approach with care and affection those families who are struggling, forced to leave their homeland, broken, homeless or unemployed, or suffering for any reason; let us approach married couples in crisis or separated. Let us be close to everyone through the proclamation of this Gospel of the family, the beauty of the family.
Pope Francis’ prayer for family life can be our prayer too this Christmas:
Holy Family of Nazareth reawaken in our society the awareness of the sacred and inviolable character of the family, an inestimable and irreplaceable good. Let every family be a welcoming place of goodness and peace for children and the elderly, for the sick and lonely, for the poor and needy.