Faith Matters

The family is where we learn to meet the stranger

Families start as strangers, says Fr Conor Stainton-Polland

An icon of the Holy Family, commissioned for the World Meeting of Families, was in St Patrick's Church in Belfast this week. Picture by Ann McManus

IT was a parish dance, a November evening in the mid-1960s, and a handsome young fella buys a pretty young lady a bag of salt and shake crisps and a bottle of cola.

They were strangers then, but in a few weeks' time they will celebrate 50 years of marriage. I know them well because they're Jeannie and Gabriel Polland, my mum and dad.

It is a fact of family life that it begins with strangers' meeting - attraction happens but the life story and interests, talents, gifts and foibles of the other are totally unknown.

The foundation of our culture and society begins in strangers' meeting. It doesn't finish there either, for along come the children, and these children are again strangers.

The newborn are strangers to parents and to siblings alike. Yet how beautiful is it to see the child welcomed into the family.

It rolls on through the generations as we welcome grandchildren and nieces and nephews.

We might have a chocolate box image of Christ, but he asks us to see him in an unromantic way: in the thirsty and hungry, the sick and in prison, the naked and, yes, the stranger.

The risen, glorious Christ is the stranger we must welcome. We need to learn that 

We see this most particularly in Christ's last week, his holy week. On Holy Thursday, he is hungry to eat with his disciples, the prisoner in a courtyard, the naked one forced to suffer great pain and then thirsty on the cross; Christ is all these things in His passion.

And when the suffering is over - on Easter Sunday, the day of victory - Christ is the stranger.

Mary Magdalene thinks he is the gardener, the disciples on the road to Emmaus think he is out of touch and his own Apostles all but scream every time he appears, thinking he is a ghost.

He is the stranger - the risen, glorious Christ is the stranger we must welcome. We need to learn that.

Look at the news of the last week: what welcome is given to the stranger arriving at a border with only hope outbalancing fear?

Look at the news of the last month: what welcome is given to the unborn, unseen stranger called unplanned, unwanted, not yet human?

Look at the news of our lifetimes: what welcome is given to the stranger who sings a different song, is a different colour, even only wears a different colour?

Christ urges us to welcome the stranger. Look at this icon for the World Meeting of Families, look at the family around you, look at the family pictures on your mantelpiece, and see that it is in the family that we learn first to encounter and welcome the stranger.

The family is where we meet Christ and learn to go into the world and meet, with love, the stranger.

  • Fr Conor Stainton-Polland is a priest of the Archdiocese of Liverpool. The 'Icon of the Family' for the World Meeting of Families was at St Patrick's Church in Belfast this week.

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