What Does the Prayer Really Say? Holy Family – Sunday in the Octave of Christmas
ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN The Wanderer in 2004
A liturgical “octave” is an eight day period following and including the feast. In a way, the Church suspends time so that we can “rest” within the mystery we have celebrated while contemplating it from different angles. Perhaps you have gone to a museum and seen a magnificent statue, such as Michelangelo’s David in Florence. Glancing at it for a moment is not enough; you want to spend some time. Looking at it from one direction is inadequate; you walk around it to see it from various points of view. Considering our human weakness, a single day per year does not suffice to gather in the different dimensions of the mystery of a great feast. An octave, however, allows us to reflect on a feast in different ways. For example, Pius Parsh, a prominent figure of the Liturgical Movement during the 20th c., wrote in The Church’s Year of Grace that the feasts of Sts. Stephen, John the Evangelist, and the Holy Innocents permit us to approach Christ, the new born King, first as martyrs, then as virgins, then as virgin-martyrs. Theologically speaking, an octave anticipates the eternal bliss of heaven in which we will consider God in His glory. Think of it this way. God created the world in six days and on the seventh, the Sabbath, He rested. This cycle of seven repeats itself while the world endures. The eighth day is therefore beyond the cycle of seven. It symbolizes an eternal state, the perfect unending Sabbath of heaven. As a Church, during the octave – perceived as a single continuous day – we imitate the hosts of heaven in their abiding contemplation. Advent prepared us for the coming of the Lamb, both at Bethlehem and the end of time. Christmas too marks both comings. After Christmas we gather around the manger of Bethlehem and contemplate Jesus who is also the Lamb of the book of Revelation. We are like the Magi who adore Him, but we are also like the heavenly multitude of 144,000 who “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Rev 14:4). In both ways we remain in the Lord’s presence.
On 1 January we celebrate the solemn feast of Mary, Mother of God, once called in the traditional Roman calendar (and still so by those using the MR1962) the Feast of the Circumcision, when Christ shed His Blood for us for the first time. Thus, at Christmas the wooden Crib already points to the wooden Cross, and beyond to the goal of heaven made possible now for the children of a common Father. Mary stood at the foot of both. Consequently, it is fitting to celebrate her with great solemnity in the Christmas octave. By her participation in the salvific shedding of her Son’s Blood Mary gives us an important example of sacrificial love.
The place God Incarnate chose to begin manifesting this sacrificial love, which reached its culmination on the Cross, was the family home. Together with Mary and His earthly father Joseph, Christ began to reveal something of the unity of love within the most perfect of communions, the Holy Trinity. It is fitting to celebrate the Holy Family within the Octave of Christmas when we contemplate the coming of the Lord in imitation of that final, perfect communion with God to be enjoyed only by the blessed in heaven. The family is a paradigm of all other human relationships. The Holy Family teaches us, who are still in this world but moving inexorably toward our judgment and final goal, how to live – together – in this present state of “already, but not yet”.
COLLECT – LATIN TEXT (2002MR):
Deus, qui praeclara nobis sanctae Familiae
dignatus es exempla praebere,
ut domesticis virtutibus caritatisque vinculis illam sectantes,
in laetitia domus tuae praemiis fruamur aeternis.
ICEL (1973 translation of the 1970MR):
Father, help us to live as the holy family,
united in respect and love.
Bring us to the joy and peace of your eternal home.
According to the fine Lewis & Short Dictionary the noun exemplum means, “a sample for imitation, instruction, proof, a pattern, model, original, example….” For the Fathers, exemplum could mean many things. including man as God’s image, Christ as a Teacher, and the content of prophecy. In Greek and Roman rhetoric and philosophy, which so deeply influenced the Fathers, exemplum could have auctoritas, “authority”, which means among other things the moral persuasive force of an argument. When we hear this prayer with Patristic ears, exemplum is not merely an “example” to be followed: it indicates a past event as a reason for hope and an incitement to the spiritual life that leads to being raised up after the perfect exemplum, the Risen Christ. The deponent verb sector (you know the word “sect”) is, “to follow continuously or eagerly… to strive after.” The playwright Publius Terentius Afer (Terence + 158 BC) uses it for followers of a philosopher (Eunuchus 2.2.31). These disciples would take their name from their philosophical master just as we ‘Christians have ours. In the ancient Church there was a gossamer thin distinction between religion and philosophy. In a sense, Christ, the teacher offering His disciples perfect exempla is the verus philosophus for He Himself is Wisdom and Truth, and our faith is vera philosophia. That illam (singular) goes back, necessarily to familia (singular feminine, not the neuter plural exempla). Exemplum is also laden with import in the writings of the Fathers of the Church. Praeclarus, a, um, the adjective paired with exempla, signifies basically, “very bright, very clear” and then by extension, “very beautiful (physically or morally), magnificent, honorable, splendid, noble, remarkable, distinguished, excellent, famous, celebrated.” Praeclara …exempla is so packed with information that it is really impossible to render it into English completely without a long excursus, like, “authoritative models for imitation very beautiful in instructive clarity”. Also, the combination of praebere exempla is very common in the writings of the Fathers often for “offering examples for imitation” of virtues or good works. This prayer is laden with philosophical vocabulary revolving around instruction of and conformity of life to wisdom through virtues. This prayer is a new composition for the Novus Ordo based somewhat on the Collect for the Feast of the Holy Family in the 1962MR. Whoever wrote this knew more than his prayers, I can tell you.
The term domestica virtus, is used by ancient authors of philosophical works (e.g., Cicero (+43 BC) and Seneca (+AD 65)) and thereafter by the doctor of the Church St. Ambrose of Milan (+397) in his own works on virginity and on virtues and duties.
This word pairing brings to mind the Second Vatican Council’s description of the family as the “domestic Church”, reprised in the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1656 citing Lumen gentium 11:
In our own time, in a world often alien and even hostile to faith, believing families are of primary importance as centers of living radiant faith. For this reason the Second Vatican Council, using an ancient expression, calls the family the domestic Church (Ecclesia domestica). It is in the bosom of the family that parents are “by word and example…the first heralds of the faith with regard to their children. They should encourage them in the vocation which is proper to each child, fostering with special care any religious vocation.”
O God, who deigned to provide us
with the very beautiful models of the Holy Family,
that we who are eagerly imitating them in domestic virtues and the bonds of charity,
may enjoy eternal rewards in the joy of Your house.
We are asking God implicitly to enable us through grace, building in us the supernatural virtues of faith, hope and especially charity, to imitate the clear examples (praeclara exempla) of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the communion of their earthly household. We are to build communion among ourselves, on their authoritative model, which in turn exemplifies the communion of the Church and of the Persons of the Trinity. Thereafter, our examples, our own families, serve as the building block of a society oriented to God, the “city of God”, not the “city of man”. The reward for doing this faithfully is participation in the heavenly household of God the Father in the new family of the Church triumphant.
What the Holy Family offers us is a real exemplum, authoritative model, of freedom. This is not the false freedom of self-interested satisfaction of appetites, or the freedom to “choose” divorced from consideration of objective truths. This is freedom within, not from the bonds of charity. The more we are implicated or “bound up” in the love of God, giving Him our freedom, the freer we truly are. Vinculum literally means “that with which any thing is bound”, a “fetter”, like a chain. Here it describes effect of real charity, vincula caritatis, the kind of sacrificial love based on obedience to God’s will that the Holy Family had for one another and Christ showed forth perfectly while fixed and bound to the Cross. The “bonds of charity” require sacrifices and the abandoning, or better, transformation of selfish desires. The bonds of the family, and any authentic relationship based on something other than mutual use of each other, seem to modern eyes often to restrict personal freedom. But this is not the case. God’s love and God-like love, charity, makes us freer than we could ever hope to be without it.
The bonds of love and virtues of the Holy Family are foreshadows of the harmony of heaven which we are eagerly striving after. The family, nourished in the faith and sacraments of the Church, is an image of the Holy Family, itself an image of the communion of persons of the Church in heaven and of the Persons of the Trinity. Today’s Collect points to the importance of the “domestic Church.” The family is the first “church” children know. Parents are the first examples of God children experience. Your children first learn who God is by experiencing you. Can anyone wonder why the forces of hell are bending relentless attacks upon the family and the virtues which must be practiced in the home? Through the media, especially cinema, TV, and the internet, there pour into our homes a constant assault on virtue. And it is precisely virtue (not diversity, not tolerance, not inclusivity, not politically correct sensitivity, not freedom of choice unfettered from charity) that makes possible a family and therefore a society. This prayer is a contradiction of worldly ways and an affirmation of the God’s true image in us.