The smell of holiness.
Did you ever notice that every family has a particular smell to it? When you visit their home, are invited into the apartment, the first thing that hits you is the smell of them. It's hard to describe the particular smells of a particular family, the only thing you can say is, it smells like, like, well, like the Mayziks, or the Tituses (which of course includes the smell of Murphy the dog).
So I was wondering what Mary and Joseph and Jesus’s house smelled like? What did the Holy family smell like, collectively? Yeah, what does holiness smell like, anyway?
And what does a family look like these days? In some ways probably very differently than in Jesus’ time.
I doubt there were a lot of single parent families in those days, and certainly few interracial couples and children, and for sure no gay or transgender families. And no meals where everyone was consulting their cellphones; parents weren’t trying to juggle soccer practice with piano lessons and altar server meetings; no one was worried about entrance exams for preschool.
Families begin of course with parents. I feel for them today. Their influence over their kids is at maybe 85% from the age of 0 to 5, but then it gradually reverses and when their children are in their teens their influence dwindles to maybe 5 or 10% versus the influence of our culture.
I was on the phone the other day with some friends whose son is a junior in college. They can’t understand the rings in his ears and nose, the skull tattoo that massively dominates his shoulder and arm, the screamo music that somehow touches his soul but which grates on their nerves. They’re worried about the ideas he has, and the faith he has lost.
“He was such a good little boy,” his mother said to me on the phone. “And now…”. Her voice trailed off into silence at the other end of the line.
They grow up, these babies, and of course the parents don’t always understand when they have a mind of their own, when they think thoughts that are foreign to the family.
But sometimes that’s not all that bad. When children grow up, they teach their parents good things too. We forget that we don’t possess the whole truth, do we?
The last thing the mother on the phone said to me about her son was, “Sometimes I wonder who’s child he really is…” and I thought to myself---indeed. Whose child are any of us, really?
It should be comforting to know that Mary and Joseph had the same thoughts and worries with their baby when he got out of the ‘cute’ stage and began to show some independence from them. That’s today’s Gospel story, where Jesus has stayed behind at the young age of 12 and when they discover he is ‘lost’. They go back to where they last remembered seeing him, and find him there in the temple asking questions of the rabbis and teachers there that were probably way too sophisticated for someone his age.
He grew up fast, and though he wasn’t sporting a ring in his tongue or a newly shaved head, he was distressing his parents who thought they were raising a ‘good boy’. Do ‘good boys’ just take off without telling their parents where they’re going or what they’re doing? And perhaps even more disturbing was the maturity of this child, who acted as though he was a peer to the rabbis and teachers. In those days, children were not to challenge any adults.
And as Mary looked on, she too must have wondered whose child he really was, and as if he read her mind, he gave her the answer. “Did you not know that I had to be in my father’s house?”-- which was not the house of Joseph. What?
He grew up, as we all do, and the truth he saw was even more profound than that of his most holy parents, and he began to teach them something too.
On this feast of the Holy family, within the shadow of Christmas, the Church sets aside a day for us to turn our attention to the smell and look of the Holy Family of Jesus and Joseph and Mary.
This is a family much like our own, smells and all, customs and traditions and habits like our own. Think of a day in the life of this family. It begins, proceeds and ends just like ours. Someone's feet hitting the floor first, wearily reaching to put the coffee on, to get the house warmed up for another day. The routine in the bathroom---who's slowest, who leaves the toothpaste uncapped, who forgets to flush. At breakfast, one is a morning person, one is Mr or Mrs Grumpy. Then, off to school, off to work, with a kiss, and maybe a thought, a prayer, thank you God for this family, and each to their own chores and tasks of the day. At nightfall, the reverse, the coming home to the smells and the food. Who's cooking, who's washing the dishes. The conversation over supper, the day's arguments recounted. Then, to bed, who stays up late, who falls asleep in the easy chair, exhausted. Kisses goodnight, all around, and the security of knowing, each and every one, that you've made it through another day together, and for that alone, this day has been blessed and holy.
This, your family and your routine, this, the same for Jesus, Joseph and Mary. We are like them, they like us, and there is holiness, blessedness in our families.
You know, the word family is one of the richest in our language. We use it to mean many different things, many kinds of relationships, many degrees of kinship, both distant and intimate. The word comes from its root Latin word famulus, which means ‘servant’. In every human relationship described by the word ‘family’ there is always the implication or hint that the people in that family serve one another. They support each other, nourish each other, protect each other, encourage each other, love each other. To be ‘family’ to someone means, in the end, to serve them in love.
And sometimes it hurts to give that kind of service, especially if you have to let them go to live out their dream. That is true for our sons and daughters, but also for our mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and all our relatives. It is also true for our friends and our neighbors and even the strangers all around us whom Jesus dreamed for us: they are also our family. The creator of human beings became a human being to unite us all together in the most intimate and inclusive family ever known in human history.
So, the Church. These last months have been challenging for all of us as we dealt with news of years of abuse and coverups. It’s a very broken family into which most of us were born, the familiar smell at times more of a stench than an inspiring fragrance. And it is understandable if we feel the urge to divorce ourselves from the whole sorry, corrupt mess of it. At a wedding last night that is exactly what a 70 year old woman told me she has done. She is so dispirited and disgusted and angry that she has disowned the whole institution. And yet, in our conversation, I detected a longing for some way back.
I have had similar conversations with LGBTQ people who feel condemned; with women who feel disrespected by their status in the Church; with young adults who have experienced an indifference, an inauthenticity; they have trouble relating to what the Church offers them.
The Church is certainly not God. It came about because Jesus needed a vehicle to help people connect to the Source of everything, where we discover our true selves. To make that connection, Jesus invited us into an intimate relationship with him, and promised that he would carry us through the searing fire that would burn away all our fear, our egotistical securities and self-preservation.
Sometimes the institution itself—made up of fearful, self-preserving egos-- does just the opposite—and keeps us from plunging with Jesus into the fire. In the end, it’s always about Jesus, and all of us children of God must call upon the Holy Spirit to give us courage to open our hearts and truly support each other, nourish each other, protect each other, encourage each other, and love each other.
I’ve been here for about a year and a half, and I want you to know that I feel so blessed to be here with you. I have learned so much from your humility, your fidelity, your generosity. I have come to love so many of you, and I want to thank you for helping me to serve you as best I can. You are my family, and like all families we are a bit dysfunctional. But God has given us to one another to do the best we can to share the love of Jesus with one another and the world that is outside these walls. This place—this room—can be a wonderful place for us to smell and see who we really are together. It’s what Jesus intended when he reached out to everyone—everyone—with the good news about our lives. This should never be a place to separate us, or divide us. It should always be a place that brings us all together—women and men, Asian, Latino, White, Black, gay, straight, rich, poor, old and young, large and small---everyone.
On this feast of the Holy Family, we recognize ourselves in that little family so long ago, and thank God for the blessings we have been given. And we pray and pledge ourselves to foster the odor of family holiness within our own homes, so that the Christmas story will be our story, the story of our lifetimes, unto the day when we make our home again in one of the many rooms of our Father’s great mansion, Amen.