Heaven-envy, if there is such a word, it is what we are. There is an unease, an emptiness in us which we can never completely obliterate in this life. As such, we set about creating the completion, the integrity or the wholeness that we crave instinctively. Christmas is a good example. We would want a warm Christmas ambiance and presumably made a serious undertaking to create the perfect mood. Nobody, unless he is sick in the head, wants a lousy Christmas.
The TV-series Six Million Dollar Man used this tag line, “We have the technology”. Our generation believes that it has the capacity to craft a consummate community, to forge a flawless society, in short, to create a complete world. If only people were nicer, this could be heaven. Well, Pelagian though this may be, the point is, this longing for perfection is actually an expression of heaven-envy.
We demand eternity from temporality, a tall order, which sadly, time cannot fulfil. No matter how wonderful life is, this world will pass away because impermanence is weaved into creation’s DNA. Cities will decay, countries will decline and civilisations will disintegrate. Hence today is a perfect occasion, in a manner of speaking, to think about how we should desire. The Feast of the Holy Family teaches us how to live this heaven-envy within a world that is flawed and imperfect.
Firstly, John Legend‘s paradox “all your perfect imperfections” in the song All of me is a decent place to start. The Holy Family is nothing short of dysfunctional—she was pregnant out of wedlock and he did not seem particularly troubled by his betrothed’s unexpected pregnancy. They were on the run right after the birth of the child and today, the same young boy, at the tender age of 12, made an attempt for his independence. How much more dysfunctional can a family be? But, this was also a family not condemned by its dysfunctionality. This gives people hope not to despair if one were to hail from a broken, defective and flawed family.
Secondly, even though it is not possible for us to have the perfection that belongs to the other realm, still we are called to be signs pointing to heaven. In the case of the family, these signs are to be moulded through marriage and the rearing of children. I hear people asking how marriage is a sign-post for heaven. The answer is in “See how they love one another”. We often think that this is a definition of the Christian community. In a distilled way, that is true. However, this general description of the Christian community draws its truth from the basic building block of the Church which is fundamentally the relationship between a man and a woman in marriage. “See how they love one another” is to be seen primarily in the love that exists between husband and wife. This domestic Church brings me to my third point.
Love in marriage means procreation, the ability to channel the gift of new life into the world. If we admit that life is a gift, then we accept that the family should be conceived in love through the conjugal or marital act between a man and a woman. Sadly, society is struggling to accommodate the “possible”. Is it possible for a man to fall in love with a man? Yes, it is. Is it possible for a woman to fall in love with a woman? Once again, the answer is affirmative. In the last three decades, society has been trying to bring into the mainstream what was once considered morally wrong. The mainstreaming of taboos has only served to blur the line between possibility and permissibility. To a large degree, the present philosophy holds the position that whatever is possible between consensual adults should be permitted and there is a concerted attempt to impose this ideology on all. Should anyone dare to oppose this particular narrative, he or she will be considered a bigot, narrow-minded or as Taylor Swift sings, “and the haters will hate, hate, hate, hate, hate”.
Fourthly, let me situate familial dysfunctionality within the present context of destruction of the family. I read a story about this young woman, the product of a test tube. As she matured, she was naturally curious about her biological father. Through a process of deduction, she managed to locate him, but, he did not want anything to do with her. If one could comment about him, he is the poster-boy for this narcissistic age—sowing his wild oats without thinking of the consequence. Anyway, she posed this pertinent challenge to society. “Is it not ironical that my mother wanted a relationship with me which in the first place brought her to the sperm bank to get herself impregnated. But she never in a minute thought that I too needed to have a relationship with my father”.
Technology has broadened the range of the possible minus the disturbing distraction of asking the moral and ethical permissibility of our scientific capacities or capabilities. To assert that the Church’s position is bigoted because she insists that marriage is only between a man and a woman is to lose sight of the question that “manufactured” children may one day ask. Gay couples can definitely pay someone in Thailand to surrogate a birth or lesbians can be impregnated with donated sperm but do they consider that these children might one day ask of their genesis. This question gives pause to the notion that children can be manufactured to fulfil our needs rather than they be considered as gifts from God and as fruits of conjugal love.
Fifthly, our society has forgotten in its rush to perfect existence that the bedrock of everything we hold dear is very much tied to the human family, dysfunctional though it may be. In some sense, what society has done is to rank happiness and fulfilment as the double criteria for having a meaningful life. When happiness and fulfilment are paramount, everything else can be considered as simply means to these ends. Even families must submit to these criteria. It explains why some would like to change the definition of marriage because there is nothing more to this life than happiness and fulfilment. On the Camino, I heard a woman telling another: “Oh my children are on their own. I am divorced and now I am trying to find myself”. God had intended that the happiness and fulfilment we desire are to be found in a life with Him and for most of us, we arrive there via the family (and in an extended manner, through society).
In the lived reality of a family, it is easy to love in abstraction but terribly inconvenient to love in reality. What is real are the people who make up one’s life. Usually, friends are easier to love because they do not stay with us all the time. With the family, it is a different story altogether. Mother is controlling. Father cannot string a proper sentence without the help of alcohol. Teenage son or daughter have more in common with hermits than with homo sapiens, with noise-cancellation ear phone permanently plugged into the ears. I once lived with a Jesuit who was the incarnation of Mr Bean. Ironically, his name is Jesus. Another Jesuit from across town commented that if one did not live in the same community with him, everything about him would be comical but if one did, then everything would be a tragedy. It is not easy when a family is dysfunctional. But, holiness is not the same as perfection. In fact, dysfunctionality and holiness are not mutually exclusive. Even though there may be brokenness or defects, families are not exempt from the call to holiness and it is good to remember that with grace, the ascent to perfection is possible. Jesus born in Bethlehem is proof of that.
Therefore, in the context of marriage, couples must learn to work out their differences. Let not divorce be the first court of appeal. Children’s needs far outweigh the needs or the preferences of the adult. Everytime I officiate at a wedding, I do it as best as I can for the couple. It is their one day to shine and I want to make sure that they do. However, I am often amused by the decorations and the flower arrangements and the extent that couples go through to make the wedding perfect. This grand show leads me to muse “What happens to the photos when they head for Splitsville”? It is better to have a lousy wedding than a short-lived marriage. Wedding is but a day, whereas marriage is a life time. As proverb says, “Before marriage, open both eyes big big. After marriage close one eye”. So get it in the head that there is no perfect marriage but there are many workable marriages where the husband and wife do everything to ensure that their love for each other remain strong. Like a plant, one needs to water and tend to marriage so that the love between a man and his wife becomes the fertile soil from which happy children can thrive to adulthood.
Finally, we will always want to invest eternity in the temporal. This very desire for perfection in us cannot be wiped away as long as we are breathing and kicking but it can be schooled in the proper direction as suggested by the Prayer after Communion of the 2nd Sunday of Advent: “to judge wisely the things of earth and to hold firm to the things of heaven”. Time cannot yield eternity but it will flow into eternity through the agency of sanctification. Holiness means we return to the plan that God has for mankind, a plan that includes marriage between a man and a woman that blossoms into family life. The endeavour remains to destroy the human family. Let us be mindful that the road to eternity passes through, for most us, marriage and family life. Thus, a life of familial holiness brings us to the eternity which even our wayward hearts recognise as the only perfection that can truly satisfy us. The Holy Family, imperfect and dysfunctional though they may be, has given us the blueprint for the fulfilment of man’s desire for the eternal, for perfection and for heaven.