Life—like starting a family—is a series of gambles. What if a loved one leaves this life, for example? Could I afford the pain?
Love is the currency of such a gamble, just as wealth is at stake in any high-roller’s bets. For that level of gambling there’s no better bettor than Frank Sinatra—via song—to explain how a family’s gamble works in the eyes of God: All or Nothing:
All or nothing at all
Half a love, never appealed to me
If your heart, never could yield to me
Then I’d rather, rather have nothing at all
Holy families are high rollers with the gambles they make. They have many hopes but also make many sacrifices to make those hopes pay off. Suffering is as much a part of the deal as hope. To live is to feel pain. So why fear death? If we bet all we have on the reality of unity with God—then lose—we’ll end up WITH and AS nothing—and know nothing about it. But if we win after putting our lives on the line, we gain everything—and know everything about it. That’s why the most secure families are those that’ve known loss. They know, as every high-rolling gambler knows, you have to know true pain to understand true joy.
Some of the readings for the Feast of the Holy Family illustrate both extremes. In one of the alternative first readings (Gn 15:1-6; 21:1-3), Abraham feels the pain of the prospect of being old and having lost all hope of leaving a legacy.
“O Lord GOD, what good will your gifts be, if I keep on being childless?”
Then, God proves that with Him, all things are possible.
The Lord took Abram outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so,” he added, “shall your descendants be.” Abram put his faith in the LORD, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness. … Sarah became pregnant and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time that God had stated. Abraham gave the name Isaac to this son of his.
Of course we know that later God would ask Abraham to sacrifice ALL his winnings—his only son—to continue the winning streak his legacy represented to future generations. Paul explains the importance of Abraham’s all-or-nothing faith as an example for future gamblers (Heb 11:8, 11-12, 17-19):
By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac descendants shall bear your name.” He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead, and he received Isaac back as a symbol.
Mary, who answered yes to God’s challenge to bring Jesus into this chancy world, knew the same all-or-nothing pain of parental gambling Abraham felt. During the traditional presentation of her son before Simeon in the Temple, this man of God foresaw for her the sacrificial pain ahead. Mary’s “yes” to God resulted in humanity’s win, and Simeon knew it was a sure thing as soon as he saw Jesus. Faith tells us that Simeon’s joy is the payoff for all holy families (LK 2:22-40).
He took him into his arms and blessed God, saying: “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation. … The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted —and you yourself a sword will pierce— so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
With eternal life at stake, a holy family’s best bet is all or nothing. We come to believe our gamble is worth any pain along the journey. The same sword that pierced Mary’s heart all the way through has also cut a pathway for us to follow as we carry our faith’s certainty from here to eternity.