It has been said that you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. We don’t always get along with our siblings, our parents, our children. But we know they will always be our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. Family bonds, however fragile, bear stress better than other bonds, but even these can break when hearts are broken.
Just so, we speak of our parish family, using similar words. Here too, the bonds are stronger than friendship, or perhaps different than friendship, more like family bonds. Common beliefs run deep like underground rivers, not always seen, but necessary to the watering of roots. As sacramental Christians, we believe that when we partake of God at his altar, he unites us with one another, past and future. God joins us, and he enjoins us to love one another in a special way. He enjoins us to invite all and everyone into this holy family. All are invited to his table; we are siblings, with one God the Father and one Mother the Church.
And like biological families, we do not always get along. Sometimes I think that because the belief and altar bonds are so deep we trespass on kindness, we assume assent and approval. We might push one another too far, for we sense things will all sort themselves out in time. I hear many such stories of other parishes, and witness such events in our own parish life. Because we love one another, we are close, and because we are close we have more to gain and more to lose, just like a natural family. Our hearts and souls are exposed for all to see.
We are all in training for Heaven, to sing with the family of God and the angels, the white-robed martyrs and the great prophets and apostles, with our ordinary, extraordinary brothers and sisters who have made the journey ahead of us. Our time on earth is a testing time, a time of trial and formation, of growth, of sanctification.
Ideally, within the natural family we learn discipline and delayed gratification. We learn to look out for one another. We learn work habits – beginnings, middles, and finishings. We learn to pass the potatoes and share a meal with one another. We learn to converse, to lace words into phrases so that we can touch the person alongside, to bring our minds and hearts together for a brief moment, like dancing. We learn the liturgy of the family, the morning rising and breakfasting and heading out for work and school, the coming together in the evening, lighting a supper candle, holding hands and saying grace, the washing up, the struggling through homework, the shared moments of recreation in the time left, the evening prayers, the slipping into sleep. It is a dance in which we never lose touch never let go of one another, as we follow the notes and the rhythm of family life. We learn to love by learning the law of love – the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not murder, lie, steal, covet; thou shalt honor God, honor parents, honor husband and wife. The law of love is straightforward, simple. The law of love is crucial, the center of the Cross.
In this daily dance we may not always get along, but the rituals pull us through anger and frustration, through selfishness, greed, envy, and other mishaps of our souls. We might fight with one another, spar, test, lash out or “vent” as is said today (as though we were machines), but with God’s grace, we apologize, we make amends by amending ourselves in humility, by repenting and reforming, by turning around. The family, hopefully, teaches us how to do this, or tries to, and in this daily hymn of life, we school our children to be part of larger families: the community, the town, the nation, the world.
So we give thanks this Thanksgiving not only for families but for our national family, for the United States of America. We give thanks for this incredible experiment in democracy. Earlier this month we gave thanks for those who fought for our country to preserve her freedoms. Now we give thanks for those who founded her, who birthed her.
Will America need to be re-found, re-born? Will she survive these challenging times? Will she crumble as the family crumbles under the weight of easy divorce, easy sex, easy abortion, easy love? Without the school of the family, this remarkable training ground in the law of love, will we find ourselves in a wilderness, a wild-ness, a human jungle in which an elderly woman is punched out by a heartless teen or a tourist is shot for the fun of it, a jungle in which girls and boys die from binge drinking, drugs, and Internet bullying, in which babies are slaughtered, thrown out, before they breathe their first breath?
As Americans, our beliefs in freedom run deep like a river, unseen, assumed and unquestioned. Do we take these freedoms for granted? Do we exercise our rights without considering the accompanying responsibilities that support those rights? Are our American roots in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, roots that tap the deep waters of freedom of speech and religion – are these roots shriveling underground and unseen? Are we paying attention to their dying?
This Thanksgiving week, as we gather together the fragments of of our families, those from near and far, those members whom we like and those whom we don’t, we give thanks for this a-gathering, in church and at home, before altars and hearths. We give thanks for our freedom to gather in the squares and legislatures of our land. We give thanks for law and order, such as it is. We give thanks for family life that trains us for participation in a greater American life.
And we pray that we, a nation founded under God, will preserve and protect those institutions that water liberty and a love for one another: the family and the church.