Feast of the Holy Family – The family as sacrament

The catechism from which I drew my religious instruction as a child stated that a Christian sacrament was an “outward sign instituted by Jesus Christ to give us grace.”

Later on, in the seminary, the theology text we used on sacraments was written by Edward Schillebeeckx and he defined a sacrament in words to this effect: “A sacrament is anything that visibly, tangibly makes present or prolongs a saving action of God.”

hile both of those definitions are theologically very good, they are too abstract to, at times, give us a real sense of what precisely a sacrament is and where a sacrament is sometimes found.

prefer a more colloquial definition, one that simply defines a sacrament as “anything that gives skin to God.” What is meant by this?

There is a marvellous story about a four-year-old girl who woke up one night frightened, convinced that there were monsters and spooks in her room.

She ran to her parents’ bedroom.

Her mother, however, brought her back to her own room, put on several lights, showed the child that there was nothing to be afraid of, put her back to bed, calmed her, and finally left her with the words: “There is nothing to be afraid of. When I leave, you won’t be alone in the room. God will be here with you.”

But the young girl replied: “I know that God will be here with me, but I need someone in the room who has some skin!”

There is wisdom, and theology, to her response. As human beings we are creatures of the senses. We need something we can grasp tangibly, physically.

Thus, a God who is everywhere is, at a certain point, nowhere.

God, of course, already knows this and that is why we have been given God’s presence physically in sacrament. Understood in this sense then, there are more than seven sacraments.

Family life is, or at least it can be, a sacrament. Like the Eucharist, or any other sacrament, it too can give concrete flesh to God. How so?

For many of us, coming home from the hospital to join a family will be our first baptism, our family dwelling will be our primary church, our family table our primary place of Eucharist, our living room our first sanctuary, our marriage bed our deepest experience of Eucharist, and our reconciliation with each other after the pettiness and hurts of family life our ongoing sacrament of reconciliation.

It is there that the flow of the life that originates within God, and finds its perfection there, will flow through us to others.

As I was writing this reflection, the image of a river flowing over, under, and around rocks came to mind. Each of the rocks remains stationary and in place. However, the water radically affects each other – you cannot sit in the river and not get wet!

In a similar fashion, we as individuals cannot sit ‘in God’ and not get ‘graced.’

Christmas Day

Muna Loa volcano. Mauna Loa is one of five volcanoes that form the Island of Hawaii in the U.S. state of Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean.

I would like you to imagine for a moment that you are carrying home from the shop a bag of salt.

In the bottom of the bag there is a very small hole.

Unknown to you, to begin with, the salt begins to leak from the bag. Gradually, you feel the weight of the bag lighten. The drip has been almost unnoticeable.

Now, delete that image and replace the image with the violent expulsion that happens as a volcano erupts. With intense force the volcano spews out its super-hot interior.

In both instances there is an emptying out; in one it is barely noticeable, while in the other the violence demands attention.

St Paul, in his letter to the fledgling Church at Philippi writes:

“Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not count his equality with God as a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself and became as we are being born in human form.” (Phil. 2: 6 – 7).

The Greek word St. Paul uses for ‘emptied himself’ is the word “kenosis”.

Kenosis is the emptying of the volcano – and that is what we celebrate today, the Word becoming flesh.

The author, Luci Shaw, has a poem with the title “Kenosis”, appropriate for today.

Kenosis – Luci Shaw

In sleep his infant mouth works in and out.

He is so new, his silk skin has not yet

been roughed by plane and wooden beam

nor, so far, has he had to deal with human doubt.


He is in a dream of nipple found,

of blue-white milk, of curving skin

and, pulsing in his ear, the inner throb

of a warm heart’s repeated sound.


His only memories float from fluid space.

So new he has not pounded nails, hung a door

broken bread, felt rebuff, bent to the lash,

wept for the sad heart of the human race.

4th Sunday Advent

Anybody familiar with computer use will have come across Adobe.

The company develops printing, publishing, and graphics software.

One of their software applications is known as Photoshop. This software allows the user to edit and manipulate digital images.
So, for example, you can make a person taller, or slimmer, or remove wrinkles from a face.

I sometimes wonder whether Adobe Photoshop was available in the Middle Ages for artists to make use of. Particularly in artwork concerning the feast we are praying to celebrate.

The artists’ portrayal of the Nativity is almost invariably clean and tidy – I have yet to discover a painting of Mary giving birth to her child! The artists’ have Mary and Joseph dressed tidily, kneeling discreetly in adoration, and of course, the newly born child wrapped neatly in snow-white clothing. The child is either asleep or looking lovingly into the eyes of the mother.

Where is the sweat, the push, the grunt, the blood?

Was the birth of the Incarnate One into our world, of our world, or was it too, somewhat miraculous?

The following poem titled “Sometimes I Wonder” invited me into the truth of the Word-became Flesh-and lives among us!

Sometimes I wonder
sometimes I wonder
if Mary breastfed Jesus.
if she cried out when he bit her
or if she sobbed when he would not latch.

and sometimes I wonder
if this is all too vulgar
to ask in a church
full of men
without milk stains on their shirts
or coconut oil on their breasts
preaching from pulpits off limits to the Mother of God.

but then i think of feeding Jesus,
birthing Jesus,
the expulsion of blood
and smell of sweat,
the salt of a mother’s tears
onto the soft head of the Salt of the Earth,
feeling lonely
and tired

and i think,
if the vulgarity of birth is not
honestly preached
by men who carry power but not burden,
who carry privilege but not labor,
who carry authority but not submission,
then it should not be preached at all.

because the real scandal of the Birth

of God
lies in the cracked nipples of a
14 year old
and not in the sermons of ministers
who say women
are too delicate
to lead.
– Kaitlin Hardy Shetler

3rd Sunday of Advent

The Contrast-1982 - Nasser Azam
As a child, Nasser Azam immigrated to England from Pakistan with his family in 1970. This watercolour is one of several early portraits he completed centred on his family. The painting is titled “The Contrast, 1982”.

For sixty years a painting hung in the dining room of the Jesuit house on Dublin’s Leeson Street. People passed by it day in, and day out without paying much attention to it.

In the early 1920’s by Marie Lea-Wilson bought the painting in Edinburgh for about $8. She gave it to the Jesuits.

One day, someone from the community contacted the National Gallery of Ireland about assessing the works of art in the Jesuit House.

Senior conservator Sergio Benedetti visited the house and noticed the potential in the dark painting hanging in the dining room.

Even though it was obscured by discoloured varnish, he recognised the subject and composition as those of the ‘lost’ Caravaggio painting.

Three years of meticulous research, analysis and consultation with international experts followed to authenticate and conserve the masterpiece.

On 16 November 1993, The Taking of Christ was publicly displayed in the exhibition Caravaggio: the Master Revealed in the National Gallery of Ireland.

In the accompanying catalogue, Sergio wrote: “That morning in August, 1990, leaving the House of the Jesuit Fathers in Leeson Street, excited by what I thought I had just seen, I could hardly have imagined that just three years later, I would see my beliefs realised with an exhibition.”

The Christmas season is recognised by its glitz and glamour, bright lights and sparkle on Christmas trees.

Shopping malls are alive with colour, with carols playing through the public address system and frazzled shoppers. Children visit Father Christmas with gift wishes they hope Mum and Dad hear also.

There is much movement of people, some shopping, others attending end-of-year functions in bars and restaurants.

The energy is palpable and infectious!

The “reason for the Season” may go unrecognised in all the excitement and activity.

It is not only the Caravaggio painting that is passed unnoticed.

In John’s Gospel for this Sunday we read, “Among you stands one whom you do not know.” (Jn 1: 26).

Jesus, the Word-made-flesh was not to be found in a royal palace, nor a richly adorned temple, rather in a feeding trough of animals.

The Word-made-flesh among us today may be hidden by discoloured varnish and grubby paintwork.

The invitation may well be to include in our Christmas adoration the dark corners of the city I live in, and one is welcome to include both the outer and inner city.