I’m one of those Catholics who believes that going to Mass isn’t just a decent way to spend an hour or so on Sunday, but a pretty essential part of my spiritual practice. Even when I don’t want to go, I usually make it there anyway. This year’s quiet Advent was especially welcome in the midst of a busy month: a nice respite from the frenetic experience of Retail Christmas™.
But now tomorrow, the Sunday after we celebrate Christ’s birth, comes along with a sneaker wave: “The Feast of the Holy Family.” Whoever had the idea of putting the “Feast of the Holy Family” right after Christmas on the liturgical calendar, well, that’s dirty pool, if you ask me. (They didn’t ask me, for the record.) Many LGBTQ Catholics feel like this particular Feast Day doesn’t recognize or honor our lives or our families, but in truth, we’re not alone. Even the most nuclear of families – the ones with the freshly-washed minivan and impeccably-coiffed kids – are eyeing the calendar this Sunday morning, wondering why Boxing Day and the rest of the past week had to be school holidays, and they’re regretting giving Santa the OK to purchase the loud battery-operated toy this year, or NOT getting whatever item of clothing the teenager declared indispensable if they are to survive the first weeks of 2019. They aren’t in the holiest of moods. They’re just hoping nobody drops an inadvertent swear word in the parking lot. Not Mom, not Dad, not the teenager, and especially not the four-year-old.
The post-Christmas hangover is real, y’all. The Church meets us there with a day that reminds us that we will never measure up to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, just in case any of us still thought we were in the running for that particular prize. (Did Jesus ever go to temple with a bit of peppermint candy stuck in his hair? I think not.) So many of our families don’t quite measure up to what we’re told this Feast Day honors. As described, it leaves out LGBTQ folks, sure, but also those in disintegrating marriages, single parents, those grieving the loss of a loved one, people struggling with infertility, people who are childless by choice, those struggling with mental illness or addictions – their own or that of one whom they love. There are so many reasons why so many of us struggle on these dark days of the year, especially after the cultural exuberance of Christmas fades like the crash of a sugar high. This is simply not the time to be put into a position to question one’s worth.
I choose my Holy Family Mass attendance carefully. As I sit in a library writing on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas when people of many nations exchange their holiday gifts), I’m not quite sure who’ll be presiding at the liturgy I usually attend. Odds are pretty decent that I’ll be spending this Sunday at home, with my holy family that includes my adult son home from college and our two cats. I don’t want to risk hearing the guy who, while kind and well-meaning, tends to go off on riffs about how wonderful it is to see long-term married (heterosexual) couples in Church, and how we should really ALL aspire to be Just Like Them. The last time I witnessed that, and not the first from this particular priest, I glanced over at a woman a few pews up who was first shaking her head, then dropped her head into her hands. I wanted to go over and introduce myself after Mass, to let her know that she wasn’t the only one who didn’t appreciate Father’s soliloquy. She went up to receive Eucharist, and then she left the building. I don’t know if she’s been back.
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I’m all about Holy Families, don’t get me wrong. But maybe, just maybe, I picked up on a different definition of “holiness” from the nuns who taught me and the priests who welcome me now. And “family”? Family are the people you love – and who love you back for who you truly are. They’re the ones who stand with you even when you struggle to stand up for yourself. They’re the ones who reach out a hand and hold on tight when the waves threaten to pull you under. They’re the folks who hold a sign and march in the streets for you even when there’s nothing in it for them. They’re the ones who hear a child screaming on an airplane and offer a smile and maybe a free drink ticket, too. They’re the ones who call you out when you’re foolilng yourself, but then are still there through the messiness and the whininess of this life. That’s family. That’s holy.
What a holy family doesn’t do is tell you that you’re not good enough, not straight enough, not well-dressed enough, not pious enough – just not enough. If you aren’t at a parish where you know you’ll be welcome on Holy Family Sunday, or where your family, however constituted, however defined, isn’t joyously and happily received, consider this your “get out of guilt free card” for the day. Not authorized by me, mind you – but by what the Catechism of the Catholic Church demands we all use to judge our own acts – our “well-formed conscience.” Mine tells me that it’s OK to give this Sunday a miss as long as I still give the glory to God. I’m good with that. I’ll probably even swing by daily Mass later in the week, just for good measure.
Now, being good Catholics (and God’s holy people), those of us who opt out of Mass today may still feel compelled to take part in a few of our regular liturgical practices. For your consideration, I offer a suggestion below to help out some other holy families who are in special need this month. And again, because we are Catholic, there’s a second collection! That one is for our alternate “church home” today. While nobody’s going to see what you do as this virtual basket is passed around, I do humbly ask you to toss a few bucks into each one, as you are led and as you are able.
Today’s first collection is for the people at Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas. When the US Border Patrol deposited a couple hundred people on the streets of El Paso on Christmas Eve, Annunciation House sprang into action, arranging safe lodging anywhere they could, including hotel rooms, private homes, and even a Catholic school closed for holiday break. We remember another refugee family, the pregnant mother forced to give birth in a stable amidst the animals because the innkeeper had no room, and who had to flee to escape the political turmoil of Herod’s wrath..
What’s Mass without a second collection, right? Today, please toss a few bucks in the basket for New Ways Ministry itself. Just as my own parish sent the baskets around a second time on Christmas Eve to raise funds for building upkeep and maintenance, this holy space needs upkeep and maintenance, too. Thanks for helping keep the doors open and lights on another year for LGBTQ Catholics and our allies. We appreciate you, and are grateful for your support of this organization that gathers our voices. Or you may want to consider donating to some other Catholic Church reform organization, all of whom are working, in one way or another, to help the entire church welcome all sorts of families.
Eucharist, translated from the Greek means “thanksgiving.” We have a lot to be thankful for, starting with this particular site that gives voice to LGBTQ Catholic issues. But that’s just a start. This year I’m grateful for the convergence I’ve seen among many groups representing many different groups of people, working together in support of justice and equality. I’m thankful for my incredible kid, who just returned home from a semester abroad and is home for a few weeks before he heads back to college. I’m thankful for a friend and ally I found in a wholly unexpected place this year – a gift I didn’t even know to ask Santa to deliver. I’m acutely aware of the unearned privilege with which I walk this earth, this country, and this sweet City of San Francisco.
When we receive Eucharist, our “Amen” after receiving the Body and Blood of Christ is our commitment to become what we receive – to be Christ for one another. And similarly, the gifts for which I’m thankful this year call me to transform the gifts I have, gifts I deserve no more than anyone else, into how I live in this world, how I’m “family” to others. That’s holy. Holy enough.
Can I get an Amen?
I know that there’s some of us who go to Mass for the music, and so I’ll close with a secular song (see video below) from folk singer Peter Mayer. Especially if you’re struggling this week, or if you don’t feel like you can safely go to Mass and know that you or your loved ones are welcome, spend a few minutes with Mayer’s “recessional hymn.” Then spend the hour you’d have spent in Mass today seeing God’s holiness in the world. The first place to look is in the mirror.
–Sarah Gregory, New Ways Ministry, December 28, 2018
Recessional Hymn: “Holy Now” by Peter Mayer