Sunday, December 31, 2006

Feast of the Holy Family

8:00 am Mass (English), Cathedral of the Holy Rosary,
Vadodara (Baroda)

Attendance was sparse as the Mass began, but (again, not an uncommon phenomenon in India), the church was almost full by the time the homily was over. It was nice to hear Christmas carols sung -- we're still in the Octave of Christmas after all. (This is where I went to Mass through the summer, and the music, among other things, is what occasioned this lament. I'm not going there again) The young priest chanted the various dialogues throughout the liturgy, which certainly helped counteract a bit the rhythmic noises emanating from the electric keyboard. It's quite startling, for instance, going from a chanted Preface to the keyboard's "dhinchak" (to make recourse to Bombay slang) as a prelude to the Sanctus (which, invariably, is this one praise & worship hymn, "Hosaaaaaaaaanna, hosaaaaaaaanna, hosanna in the highest ... "). Oh dear, I wasn't going to go there ...

The homily starts out by reminding us that this feast was instituted by Pope Benedict XV in 1921, but then focus on biblical images that serve as role models of family: the heroic mother from Maccabees, who watched her sons be martyred and encouraged them, rather than ask them to break God's law to save their lives; Jonathan and David, "whose souls were so closely united ... two bodies, one soul" as models for sibling relationships (Not an unwarranted interpretation by any means; however, I tend to think of them as models of friendship, transcending biological family relationships. Jonathan, afer all, in a sense, betrays his own father, to help David); Ruth and Naomi, mother-in-law and daugther-in-law, sas-bahu, whose love for each other transcended ethnic and national boundaries. Truth be told, I had never juxtaposed this story with the mother-in-law - dauther-in-law relationship in Indian culture. The sas-bahu trope is one that has deep resonances in Indian family life -- the bahu who is the outsider to the family, the one who steals the beta (son) away from her mother, and the tyrannical sas who will never really accept this; the bahu who, despite all her suffering, turns into a tyrannical sas herself. (One of the longest running and wildly popular soaps on Indian TV is called "Kyonki sas bhi kabhi bahu thi", "For the mother-in-law too was once a daughter-in-law". As far as I know, every female in the family was addicted to this show.) The contrast with the biblical story could not be more startling.

It was also rather nice to hear a homily that focused so clearly and closely on biblical images and themes. Yes, every homily is (or is supposed to be) focused on the Scripture that the Church has chosen for that particular day. This one very consciously tried to bring the biblical characters and stories directly to bear on contemporary situations - or better still, inviting our lives to be influenced by, and shaped by the world of God's word.

Mass is over in just under an hour, and I exit outside through the throng waiting for the 9:00 am Gujarati Mass to begin.

The notice board outside has, among other things, a large photograph of a beaming Pope Benedict on a Vatican Radio poster, another large poster of conferences at the Divine Retreat Center in Kerala, and a flier in Gujarati offering advice on how to gain/lose weight.

Frankly, I always approach this Feast a little timidly. The Holy Family is certianly a model ... but models of family also vary so much across cultures and across time. (Don't you think in the US today the Mary and Joseph would be booked for parental negligence, and Jesus carted off to DSS, if they forgot about him for a couple of days while traveling back home from a pilgrimage?) This is not to deny the need to defend and encourage the traditional family, especially in the West -- only to note how different family realities can be. Just ponder the "Hindu joint family" for instance -- whose reality continues to pervade and define Indian family life, long after joint families have made way to the realities of modern, Westernized urban life. In the West, I am always taken aback by how loose and how frail family ties seem to be. (And at least two generations have now grown up in the shadw of no-fault divorce). Talking somewhat disdainfully of one's family, ("man, I love Christmas, but there's only so much I can take of my family!") or pop-psychologizing "family-of-origin" issues seems to be a common cultural phenomenon. This is, of course, in contrast to the centrality of family in Indian culture, and close-knit family ties that are at the heart of Indian family life. Not that I'm romanticizing Indian family life -- often the outer veneer cloaks dark areas such as domestic violence or worse (think Monsoon Wedding).

In the New Testament, Jesus relativizes biological family as well -- most radically in Mark 3, when his biological family think he is crazy, and he declares that the "one who does the will of my Father is my brother or sister or mother." I would think that Christianity casts the family into a new context, the context of the ecclesia, the family of Christ, bound together not by blood, but by the ties of water and the Spirit. Within the bosom of the Church there are communities of religious men and women who live out this bond in a visible and radical way -- they leave their earthly families to form communities that are devoted to living out the evangelical counsels, communities that become their families. (Or so the theory goes. I am, after all, merely a novice ... :-))

I'm not entirely sure where I was going with all of this ... just some ruminations on a warm winter afternoon on the Feast of the Holy Family. Today my prayers have been focused on my own family, for strength and perseverance as we face my dad's cancer together.

[Interesting reflection here on today's Feast from a seminarian. Part 2 doesn't seem to have been posted yet. Salvation begins at Home: The Holy Family and the Analogia Entis.

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