Sunday, December 26, 2004

Pay Attention Whenever You Point Your Finger Unnecessarily!

(Holy Family 2004 (A): This homily was given on December 26, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr Raymond Suriani. Read Colossians 3: 12-17; Matthew 2: 13-23.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Holy Family 2004]

Let me begin by making a few clarifications. (In past generations this would not have been necessary, but in the wild and wacky world of the early 21st century it’s a must!)

On this feast of the Holy Family, I will be speaking about family life. “Family” here means the traditional, nuclear family consisting of a man and a woman validly married to each other, along with their children.

Now, to be sure, there are some legitimate variations of this standard. For example, my father died when I was 14, so for the better part of my teenage years I lived in a family without a male parent. Some of you, no doubt, had similar experiences growing up. But, in spite of legitimate variations like this, the traditional nuclear family is—and always will be—the norm; it’s the ideal family structure designed by Almighty God himself.

That’s clarification #1.

Secondly, in this homily I want to talk about how we deal with the problems of family life. Here my focus will not be on those major difficulties that sometimes tear families apart, like alcoholism or abuse (verbal, sexual or physical). Obviously whenever those are present they need to be confronted and dealt with if the family is to survive intact.

Rather, my focus today will be on the little conflicts, disagreements and hurts that are part and parcel of every family’s day-to-day experience—but which in the long run can be just as devastating as the more serious issues I mentioned a few moments ago. Unkind words, daily arguments, little resentments and the like can eventually have a cumulative effect on the best of families and make life exceedingly miserable for everybody in the household. And that, unfortunately, is something we probably all know from personal experience!

For instance, how many of you had a family argument before you came to church this morning? Ah yes, I can hear it now: “Get in the car, John. You’re gonna make us late for church—and you know how Fr. Ray gets when he sees people coming in late. The old guy loses it!”

“Don’t yell at me! It’s her fault. She spent a half-hour in the shower. I told her to get out but she wouldn’t listen!”

How, you ask, do I know about this type of pre-Sunday Mass conversation?

Because we had exchanges like that at my house on some Sunday mornings a few decades ago—except the pastor was Fr. Pat and not Fr. Ray!

In today’s second reading from Colossians 3, St. Paul shares with us some challenging words—words which apply in a special way to family life. He says, “Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against one another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.”

That, as we all know, is easier said than done.

Well today let me share with you one suggestion as to how to move closer to this ideal of Colossians 3. . . .

If you want your family to be more peaceful and loving, then you and every member of your household need to do one very important thing: YOU NEED TO PAY ATTENTION WHENEVER YOU POINT YOUR FINGER UNNECESSARILY!

Finger pointing is something that goes on in every family; it’s a natural part of contemporary family life—because every family is made up of sinners. The Holy Family had two who were not sinners, but we’re not so fortunate!

Now I know what some of you are thinking: “Oh Fr. Ray, we never point fingers. We were taught it’s not polite to point your finger at somebody else.”

Well that may be the case, but trust me, you still do it. You may not do it physically, but you certainly do it verbally; because to point your finger simply means “to blame.” And blaming goes on in every family. In that imaginary conversation I shared a few moments ago, young John pointed his finger at his sister, did he not? He blamed her! “Don’t yell at me! It’s her fault. She spent a half-hour in the shower. I told her to get out but she wouldn’t listen!”

In the next few days, try to be sensitive to the words you speak to members of your family. How often are you pointing your finger?

Sometimes, of course, finger pointing is good and necessary. When a child does something wrong, for example, a good parent needs to point the finger in blame and administer appropriate discipline. But at other times, finger pointing is clearly not necessary, and when we do it in those situations, we drive wedges between ourselves and other people that we supposedly care about deeply.

In recent months, for example, I have witnessed my otherwise good 14-year-old nephew drive a real wedge between himself and his parents (as many teenagers will do), because 99% of the time he insists that everything is somebody else’s fault and somebody else’s problem. He loves to point his finger. I’ve actually seen him point more fingers in a day than he has on both of his hands! And nobody in the family is happy when he does it, including him!

A few moments ago I said that if you want your family to experience more of the love and harmony that St. Paul speaks about in Colossians 3, then you need to “pay attention whenever you point your finger unnecessarily.” I chose my words carefully when I made that statement.

Have you ever taken a look at your hand when you’ve physically pointed your finger at another person?

Your index finger is extended in their direction (obviously), and your thumb is pointed either up in the air or toward the ground, but those other 3 fingers on your hand are pointed right back at you!

And it’s THOSE fingers that you need to pay attention to!

“Pay attention whenever you point your finger unnecessarily.”

Those fingers are a reminder that YOU are part of the problem; it’s not only the other person who’s at fault!

But those fingers are also a reminder that YOU are part of the solution—or at least they’re a reminder that you can be part of the solution if you choose to be!

Most family problems—at least in my experience—are not one person’s fault. One person may have started it, but usually others have freely and willingly added to it.

For instance, on some of those days many years ago when my sister monopolized the bathroom and made the family late for Mass or some other early-morning function, I’m sure that I could have taken a shower before she did. But maybe I just wanted to watch TV instead, or stay in bed a little longer.

Much as I’d rather not admit it, on those occasions I was also part of the problem.

At those moments, did I pay attention to the 3 fingers pointed at me when I had my index finger pointed at my sister? To be honest, sometimes I did, but at other times I didn’t.

When I did pay attention, and resolve to change my attitude and behavior in some way, there was a greater measure of peace in the house; when I didn’t, World War III usually began!

I encourage you all to have a talk with the members of your immediate family in the near future—perhaps on your way home from Mass this morning.

Is this an idea that each of you is prepared to take seriously? Are you willing to look at your own personal contribution to the problems your family faces on a daily basis?

That’s the issue you need to discuss.

If everyone in your household is willing to do it, then your family has a definite opportunity to experience more of the blessings of Colossians 3, and an opportunity to become a lot more like the Holy Family.

And I don’t think anyone in the house would complain about that.