I’ve been thinking all week about the great irony of the Christmas season. And it’s especially pertinent on this feast of the Holy Family. God was born into a family—not a palace, not with armies, not as a conquering earthly king—but into a humble family. Yet this is a time of the year when so many families dread having to come together! I’m quite sure that is the work of the Enemy—to take the Feast of God entering into an earthly family so that we might enter into His divine family, and to twist it into a holiday of awkwardness, tension, and infighting for some families!
But God is not to be outdone. This perhaps is where He does His best work.
I was just offering Mass yesterday for a funeral of a young mother—a tragedy in so many senses of the word. But it struck me that this could be a time of tremendous healing for the family. Of course, always so much easier said than done—and it must be said delicately, I know. We were desperately praying for the healing of this woman, and it sure seems like God did not gives us the healing we desired. But the invitation to healing is there, nonetheless. No doubt, God desires a different kind of healing than we were asking for. After all, in a moment like that, God is the only one who can do it. No words I say, no gestures I make will bring the healing, unless a family opens itself to grace in the most severe moments. So, while the Enemy has been tearing at families over these last few days, God has been offering us the hard work of forgiveness, mercy, and justice.
St. Luke, over and over again, has a way of showing us that the Lord is doing that work for us and bringing together the hearts that seem furthest from one another. As far as we can tell, Luke is probably writing to a community who were not Jewish before they became Christians. This was one of the most tense controversies in the early Church: how do we make non-Jews into Christians? Do they have to become Jewish first? Or is God ready to welcome them as they are? So St. Luke will time and again show the ways that Jesus invited the outsiders into Israel, and how the outsiders welcomed Him.
So it makes perfect sense in the Gospel of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:22-40) just who first recognizes Jesus as the one who will save Israel. A man named Simeon, named after one of the missing tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel that was destroyed and dispersed in 722 by Assyria, and an 84 year old woman named Anna from the tribe of Asher. First of all, 84 is 12 times 7, meaning that she represents the 12 tribes of Israel brought to perfection (7 being the number of perfection). Then her name is Anna, which in Hebrew would have been Hannah, reminding us of the mother of the great prophet and judge, Samuel, who brought Israel into the era of kings, kingdom, and God’s promise of a Messiah who would reign forever. And finally, she is from the tribe of Asher—an especially strange point since all the northern tribes were destroyed and dispersed more than 700 years before. The ancient and missing tribes, those who seem furthest away from God and His promises, are the first to recognize that God is right there before them.
So throughout Luke’s Gospel we encounter the impossible work of God’s forgiveness and seeking out the forgotten. In Luke’s Gospel we have these lost and almost forgotten tribes recognizing Jesus first. We have the Good Samaritan. We have the Prodigal Son. We have Jesus staying in the house of the infamous tax-collector Zacchaeus. We have Jesus forgiving His murderers from the Cross. We have Jesus welcoming the thief into paradise.
This is the kind of work God does.
And it overflows into the Acts of the Apostles, as it’s meant to overflow into our lives as the Church. Yesterday was the feast of St. Stephen, and there is a beautiful reflection from St. Fulgentius of Ruspe, about the impossible work of forgiveness accomplished by Jesus for St. Stephen and St. Paul:
Strengthened by the power of his love, Stephen overcame the raging cruelty of Saul and won his persecutor on earth as his companion in heaven. In his holy and tireless love he longed to gain by prayer those whom he could not convert by admonition.
Now at last, Paul rejoices with Stephen, with Stephen he delights in the glory of Christ, with Stephen he exalts, with Stephen he reigns. Stephen went first, slain by the stones thrown by Paul, but Paul followed after, helped by the prayer of Stephen. This, surely, is the true life, my brothers, a life in which Paul feels no shame because of Stephen’s death, and Stephen delights in Paul’s companionship, for love fills them both with joy. It was Stephen’s love that prevailed over the cruelty of the mob, and it was Paul’s love that covered the multitude of his sins; it was love that won for both of them the kingdom of heaven.
Love, indeed, is the source of all good things; it is an impregnable defense, – and the way that leads to heaven. He who walks in love can neither go astray nor be afraid: love guides him, protects him, and brings him to his journey’s end.
My brothers, Christ made love the stairway that would enable all Christians to climb to heaven. Hold fast to it, therefore, in all sincerity, give one another practical proof of it, and by your progress in it, make your ascent together.
Imagine this image then: St. Stephen, crushed by the stones which St. Paul approved to be used for his death, welcomes his executioner into the heavenly kingdom. One could be excused for imagining rather that St. Stephen and St. Paul are standing on the opposite sides of heaven, glaring at one another, wondering how the other could have possibly made it in through the gates. Instead, we’re given the image that they are the truest of companions, that Jesus has done the impossible work through the Cross of bringing together the worst of enemies.
I don’t know what you bring to the holidays if you have had the chance to go home. I don’t know if you find it impossible to forgive family members for something they may have done to you, which in fact may be unforgivable, in a sense. But for God to bring us into His family, He entered into ours, and showed us that we don’t exactly get to choose not to forgive our rivals if we want to be in His divine family. This doesn’t mean forgetting what has happened to you. This doesn’t mean pretending like nothing happened. But it does mean the radical forgiveness that happened on the Cross. It does mean the radical forgiveness that happened under the weight of Jerusalem’s stones used to crush St. Stephen. It does mean that even when forgiveness seems impossible, we don’t have time for grudges and hatred. We only have time in this life for radical, impossible forgiveness. And then, and only then, will we have time for the unending love of heaven.