Monday, December 30, 2013

Family Is a Gift, Not a Choice

I’m not sure how many of you have been out shopping for post-Christmas deals.
I really haven’t done too much of that.  I am already way over the shopping tolerance by the time I get to Christmas – I don’t want to even look at another store for a few months at this point.

But there are some of you who go back in to these torture chambers, from what I hear.
Because you can get good deals now, or at least I hear.And that make sense.  The retailers are trying to get rid of inventory that is now out of season.  Candy canes, which were flying off the shelves just days ago, are just going to sit there…  no one wants them.  They have probably eaten way too many.  So they have to bring the value way down – way, way down, to try to sell them.  That is when you smart shoppers can go in and buy up all the Christmas cards, and lights, and candy canes, and fruit cake and anything else with an extended shelf life – and you can pay about one tenth the cost and put all those things in the attic until next year.

Same stuff, same products, but because no one wants them this time of year, they are worth pennies on the dollar.  That’s the way that supply and demand works.  The value of a thing is dependent upon the demand for it – and so when there is no demand, there is no value.  Everyone understands that – and some of you are probably smart enough to save some money because you understand it.

On the feast of the Holy Family, though, we remember that we have to check this supply and demand principle at the door when we come home.  Because while it is true that the value of a thing fluctuates based on how desirable it is, on the demand for that product, the same is not true for people.

It seems that I should not have to say that.  Of course people are not products with a shelf life.  Of course people do not have a value that can be measured or that is contingent on whether others want them around or not.

But unfortunately I think I do have to say these things – the whole Church, all of us, have to say these things.  Because our culture has been showing signs of losing the understanding that human persons are made in the image and likeness of God and have infinite value.  Instead, in many subtle ways human life is often treated like a commodity whose value is based on its desirability, on whether it is wanted, like a product on the shelf.

Now immediately our minds might go to the tragedy of abortion.  And certainly this is the clearest case where many in our culture have decided that human life has no value because it is not desired.  Fortunately there has been progress made in this area recently, and the public opinion on abortion seems to have shifted slightly in the country.

But what is interesting about this shift is that it has happened, I think, because of an increase in our awareness of children in the womb and therefore an increase in our desire for them to be protected.  With the increased technology we can see them so much better and they are beautiful and so we want them.

And so even though the tide seems to be turning on abortion, the underlying problem, the underlying problematic perspective still endures: and that is the idea that to choose someone is to make him or her valuable.

To be chosen is to be valued.  Not to be chosen is to be nothing.  And this is the real problem that afflicts us.  Why?  First, because it is simply not true that human life is valued by being chosen by others.  It is valued because it is chosen by God.  Period.  He gives us life, he chooses us, and his choice and his alone is what secures the value of our lives.  The valuing of human life on any other terms is flawed and dangerous.

But there is a second reason why this commodification of human life is so problematic.  And this is because most human relationships are not chosen.  We do not choose our neighbors most of the time.  The same is the case with those we work with – we do not choose them, for the most part.  We don’t choose our priests or our bishop or pope or our fellow parishioners.  And on the most fundamental level, we do not choose our parents, we do not choose anyone in our families.  These are all relationships that are given to us, human lives that are entrusted to us without our choosing them.
And so if we have this idea that something is only valuable when it is chosen, when it is desired, then what happens to this whole matrix of human lives around us?  They become worthless.  The only people that have value are those we choose: and this is why I think we see in our time such a distorted emphasis on relationships of choice: friendships and to an extent, marriage, as long as it can be ended when we don’t want it any more.  Relationships with family, friend, neighbor, fellow parishioner?
If I don’t choose them, then they don’t mean anything for me.

Sometimes we hear lines like: “Every day when you wake up you have to choose to love your spouse again, choose to love your children, your neighbor, etc…”  And I understand that there is a positive message behind this saying: to recommit ourselves every day to those around us.  But might we also ask: “Or what?”  They won’t mean anything?  Your wife won’t be your wife anymore?  Your children won’t be your children?  You parents your parents?  Your neighbor your neighbor?

No – our families, our children, our parents and grandparents, our neighbors, our priests and fellow parishioners – whether we choose them or not, God has given them to us to help us become holy men and women, in joy and in suffering, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health.  A holy family is not a chosen family, a holy family is a gift received gratefully from the hand of God.  That is why we honor those around us – because they are beloved by God to such an extent that he tells us that whatever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters we do to him.  Your husband, your wife, your children, your parents, your neighbors and co-workers: these men and women are gifts of incomprehensible value.  God has set the price of their lives: it is the price of his blood shed upon the cross.

So as you shop for candy canes and fruit cakes and Christmas lights and cards, remember this: you can discount holiday knick knacks, you can put just about any earthly product on sale: but the price of a human life, the price of a holy family, of a loving community is never affected by the waxing and waning of fickle want, desire, and attraction: it is the same yesterday, today, and forever: it is the price of God’s never-failing love.

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