The place God Incarnate chose to begin manifesting His 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 as part of the Christmas cycle. 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. In the older, traditional calendar we celebrate Holy Family today. However, I am using the prayer from the Novus Ordo to explain the feast.
The family is a paradigm of all other human relationships. Food for thought during the presidential campaign process and also as we scrabble for solutions to so many growing social ills.
The Holy Family teaches us, 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”.
Deus, qui praeclara nobis sanctae Familiae
dignatus es exempla praebere,
ut domesticis virtutibus caritatisque vinculis illam sectantes,
in laetitia domus tuae praemiis fruamur aeternis.
This is a new composition for the Novus Ordo. [A commentator, below, suggests that this is an adaptation of a prayer from the Ambrosian Rite. Seems likely.]
OBSOLETE ICEL (1973):
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, which we have seen before, means, “a sample for imitation, instruction, proof, a pattern, model, original, example….” For the ancient Fathers of the Church, exemplum – a technical tern from rhetoric – could mean many things: man as God’s image, Christ as a Teacher, and the content of prophecy, etc. In Greek and Roman rhetoric and philosophy, which so deeply influenced the Fathers, exemplum had auctoritas, “authority”, which means among other things the 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 taken ours.
In the ancient Church there was a gossamer thin distinction between religion and philosophy. Christ, the teacher offers His disciples perfect exempla. He is the verus philosophus. He is Wisdom and Truth. Our Faith is vera philosophia.
That illam goes back, necessarily to familia (singular feminine), not to exempla (neuter plural).
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.
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”, presented again 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.”
LITERAL WDTPRS TRANSLATION:
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.
NEW CORRECTED ICEL (2011):
O God, who were pleased to give us
the shining example of the Holy Family,
graciously grant that we may imitate them
in practicing the virtues of family life and in the bonds of charity,
and so, in the joy of your house,
delight one day in eternal rewards.
Father asks God 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.