Today we celebrate the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph… at the beginning of this year dedicated to St. Joseph. Historically, December 27th is the feast day of St. John the Evangelist. We don’t celebrate it this year since the 27th falls on a Sunday, but it’s an important day for me. St. John the Evangelist is my Confirmation saint.
I was confirmed in the 8th grade at St. Joseph Cathedral in Baton Rouge. I believe it was in May 1984. I don’t remember much from that day, other than the awe and joy I felt at being inside St. Joseph Cathedral. It is a stately edifice. The sanctuary is sparse, and the carved wooden crucifix on the wall behind the altar is massive. The vaulted ceiling makes the cathedral feel cavernous, while numerous strikingly colored and ornate stained-glass windows flank both sides of the main body of the church, the sunlight painting a pew here and there with a streak of bright Mary’s Mantle blue or maraschino cherry red. Bishop Stanley Ott was the celebrant and minister of the Sacrament of Confirmation. I admired Bishop Ott. I had become an altar server in 6th grade, and throughout my junior high and high school years, I was privileged to serve many Masses with Bishop Ott. Such a gentle spirit. A good man. I have fond memories of him. Years later, when I was 18 and about to leave home to begin formation and studies to become a priest with Mother Teresa’s priests in Tijuana, Mexico, Bishop Ott said a private Mass for me, my family and the Missionaries of Charity nuns in their private chapel on the grounds of St. Agnes in Baton Rouge.
Since I was a student in a Catholic school (Most Blessed Sacrament), I was confirmed with my classmates. All of our Confirmation prep was done at school, and honestly, I don’t remember a thing about it… except that I needed to choose a saint’s name. I chose John the Evangelist for a few reasons. First of all, he was the youngest apostle, and I felt young, too… as in, younger than I was. [Incidentally, this is a feeling that I continued to have up until about 10 years ago.] John had an especially close relationship with Jesus, and the other apostles noticed it. I don’t think I could have articulated it at 13, but I wanted to have a special friendship with Jesus too. I certainly wanted to be special, to stand out from the crowd, and I saw John doing that. He was a writer, and as a voracious reader and lover of books, I wanted to be a writer with everything I had in me. And, finally, of the four gospels, John’s is the most spiritual, which is signified historically in art with John represented as an eagle. An eagle can soar to the heights of the heavens, and it can look directly into the sun. I had an innate spirituality that began to show itself at an early age, and I hungered for a deep and true connection with God. This hunger, I think, has made me a sort of odd-man-out all of my life, never quite fitting in anywhere… which is appropriate since our lasting home is heaven, not earth. So I chose John as my Confirmation saint.
It wasn’t until earlier this year that I made another connection with John. A friend of mine’s son was confirmed in the spring, and he chose John the Evangelist as his saint. And the reason? Because John was the only apostle at the foot the cross. He not only accompanied Mary there, but received her as his own mother from Jesus. And from that moment he took her into his home. I have had a strong devotion to Mary since I was 15. But it wasn’t until I was 50 that I made this “new” connection between me and St. John the Evangelist.
And speaking of Mary, today we celebrate the Holy Family. This can be an intimidating feast day. The divorce rate in our country is staggering. And for many people the word family may not have pleasant connotations. And those of us who do come from, and remain in, intact families are keenly aware that our families are far from holy. So what does the Holy Family have to say to us today?
For me, it is important to remember that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were real people… human beings like me and you. Yes, Jesus is God. But he became man. He became one of us. That is the grace and mystery of the Christmas season we find ourselves in right now. God is with us. Emmanuel. God became one of us! Jesus is fully divine and fully human. He got tired, hungry, and thirsty. He sweated. He needed to bathe. It’s the same with Mary and Joseph. Real people. And life did not come easily for them. Mary gave birth away from home, while traveling. Jesus was born in a stable or a cave, not in a home… or even an inn. Joseph was warned in a dream to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. That was not an easy journey. And once there, he had to procure housing, work, earn food for his family. He later had to uproot his family again to bring them back to Israel, to Nazareth, and he had to start all over again to procure housing, work, food. No matter what worries, fears, struggles, or sufferings that we have today, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph can relate. They know our pain. But they also know the One who is rich in mercy, the One who desires that everyone be saved, the One who promises one day to wipe away all tears.
In the messiness, the loneliness, and the pain of my own life, I hold onto this hope: God is for me, not against me. He has come to seek and save the lost. Jesus came to save sinners. And we need saving. If 2020 has taught us nothing else, it should have opened our eyes to the fact that we need a savior. And thanks be to God that we have a good and compassionate God who is the Lover of Mankind.
2020 has been a mess. Personally, I believe there are many, many blessings in the midst of all the upheaval. And I hope, over time, to use this space to explore those blessings. But I confess that I’m a creature of habit. I need my routine. It helps to keep things in balance. When my routine is out of whack for more than a day or two, life feels like it gets more difficult. Needless to say, my routine has not only been out of whack, it has been radically altered this year.
We are a family of traditions. We love the liturgical seasons and we strive to celebrate them to the full. And living in south Louisiana, where there is a festival for just about everything under the sun, we have so many opportunities to establish and practice family traditions. From Mardi Gras and King Cakes to the Creole Tomato Festival, Greek Fest, Jazz Fest, French Quarter Fest and on and on and on. The end result is that we have some sort of family tradition to celebrate every month of the year. Except this year. And the pain of the absence of these traditions has been more acute in Advent and Christmas. No large family gatherings. And the knowledge that last year was the last time we will ever see some of our extended family… because some have moved away… because some have major health issues… or simply because of age. It’s hard to let go. But we have had to let go of so much this year. And there are blessings in the letting go too.
We are only on the third day of Christmas. I want process this a bit more. I mean, what our Advent and Christmas 2020 experience has been… the good, the hidden blessings, and the difficult things. And I would love to hear your stories too. How has this Advent and Christmas been different for you?