Monday, December 14, 2015

Juan, the Crib and the Cross

This was my homily from this morning, the Feast of Saint John of the Cross.

Gonzalo and Catalina Alvarez already had two sons when Juan was born in 1542.  His first Christmas, six months later, was marked by the absence of his paternal grandparents who, though wealthy, had disinherited Gonzalo when he married the low-class Catalina.  

By the next Christmas, Gonzalo would be dead and Catalina had gotten a job weaving silk while taking care of the three boys in conditions so wretched that two Christmases later the second eldest child had starved to death, as Catalina struggled to feed baby Juan and the toddler Francisco. 

Thus Juan’s fifth Christmas was spent in the Catholic orphanage in Medina del Campo, where Catalina would leave the children for periods of time while she sought menial jobs to support them.  Without the orphanage, all the children would have starved.

The Christmas after he made his First Communion, Juan served Mass for the first time at the Convent of Augustinian Nuns.  And from that point on, his home was in the Church as well as in the hovel his mother kept for him and his brother.

So the great saint, the great mystic, the great reformer of the post-reformation period, must have found it hard to go home for Christmas.  Lots of painful memories, lots of worries about his mother and his brothers, lots of agonizing about whether he was doing enough while in Seminary and in the Priesthood and in the religious life.

Not unlike you.  And me.  While there are certainly familiar and even beautiful things about going home for Christmas, not every seminarian or priest looks forward to the holidays at home with unmitigated joy.

Each family is a union of imperfect human beings who have loved each other for life, just as much as they have been able, and are bound by blood.  And in each family there are easy relationships and there are hard ones, but each of them are as real as they are complex.  In the eyes of a parent you will ever be the child, and even in those latter years, when the roles of parent and child are often switched, you will ever be defined by the decades which have passed.

Yet despite the complexities, the good memories and the hurtful things, and maybe even because of them, we must cling in love to our families and to each of their members with the stubborn patience and absolute conviction that God really meant it when he said “Honor you father and your mother.”

So, be like Juan Alvarez, Saint John of the Cross.  Love and respect your mother and your father in their wisdom and their beauty and in their their poverty as well.  Embrace your brothers and your sisters, as best you are able.

And return home in a few days, carrying a bit of the holiness of this house within your heart.  Be a bit more patient and forgiving, a bit more hopeful and joyous, a bit more loving in the model of your Lord and Savior, who chose to give birth to a Holy Family in a stable, where he ruled from a feedbox, adored by the sheep and the shepherd boys.  His father was an old if good man, while his mother a virgin, the most blessed among women because God looked upon her littleness.  And in the thirty-three birthdays he would celebrate until he died on a cross the heart of each member of his Holy Family would be pieced by swords of exile and death, of sorrow and pain.

But I suspect he always went back to his family, as you will go back to yours, to celebrate his birth with them, standing before the crib in the shadow of his cross.