The Holy Family and ours

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Holy Family Sunday, Year C: Dec. 27, 2009
Sir 3:2-6, 12-14; Ps 128:1-5; Col 3:12-21; Luke 2:41-52

I wonder how many times through the centuries, and across the continents, a child has said to their parents: “I didn’t ask to be born, you know!” And, of course, in that sentence spoken in a moment of frustration, the child also means to say “I didn’t ask for you to be my parents,” and “I didn’t ask to be part of this family!”

Of course, that’s true for all of us. We didn’t choose any of those things. But our Lord Jesus did choose to be born. And just two days ago, on Christmas, we celebrated his birth: when God the Son, eternally begotten of the Father, freely chose to take on human nature and to be born into our world and laid in a manger. And he chose, as the Catechism tells us [1655], to grow up in the bosom of the Holy Family of Joseph and Mary. As the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, he made himself like us in all things but sin. And one of those ways was to grow up in a family. He had created the institution of the family; he had made it the way that children would grow up; and he chose to grow up in a family himself. The Letter to the Hebrews also tells us [5:8]: Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered. And while surely this verse refers primarily to his Passion and death, it was also it was also a lifelong process of learning obedience, and much of this took place for him within the Holy Family.

When Pope Paul VI visited the Holy Land 36 years ago, when he was in Nazareth, he said that Nazareth was “a kind of school where we may begin to discover what Christ’s life was like and even to understand his Gospel.” And he said one of the lessons we learn is about family life. The Holy Father said:

May it show us the family’s holy and enduring character and exemplifying its basic function in society: a community of love and sharing, beautiful for the problems it poses and the rewards it brings; in sum, the perfect setting for rearing children—and for this there is no substitute.

Now when we hear such things, we might that, like some pictures we have seen of the Holy Family, that it sounds really sweet and beautiful, like a colored picture in stained glass—very pretty, and not anything like our own families, which we know are often so messy and complicated. I grew up with three younger brothers, and you can well imagine that our house was a place of great energy and motion: an energy and motion that continues in different forms and different places to this day. Was the Holy Family like my family? Like yours?

The three gospel readings that we hear for Holy Family Sunday over the three-year cycle give us little glimpses into what the Holy Family was actually like. And we discover that it’s not quite the stained-glass picture that we might sometimes see depicted; and a lot more like our families than we might otherwise think.

This year, our gospel reading from Luke opens the one window that Scripture gives us into those hidden years of Jesus’ life in the Holy Family—starting from the time when King Herod died and they were able to return from Egypt to Nazareth, until the time when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist at age 30. It was a period of about 27 years where the only glimpse we get is this story. And what we see is that, even when a family of three contains the Son of God and the sinless Virgin Mary, there are still plenty of ways for all of them to learn and grow.

The scene which is presented to us today is a trip to Jerusalem for the annual celebration of the feast of Passover, the celebration that remembered the Exodus of the People of Israel from Egypt under Moses, some 1400 years earlier. It says that at the time Jesus was 12 years old, which means that he either was or soon would be a “Bar Mitzvah,” a “Son of the Commandment”—that the commandments would then begin to apply to him, and that he, like other Jewish men, would need to make this trip every year. This may be that this was his very first trip to Jerusalem for the Passover; Luke doesn’t specify on that point, though he says that both of Jesus’ parents went every year.

And so early on the trip back toward Nazareth, his parents discovered that he wasn’t with them. I wonder how many times a family in our time had been on a road trip, and pulled away from a rest stop or a gas station, and, a few miles down the road, realizes that somebody isn’t in the car? One of the children has been left behind! So, of course, a moment of panic; and they turn back and go find him or her. This is a little like that. But commentators tell us that caravans in the Holy Land in the first century were arranged in such a way that the women and the younger children in the group would be together up front, while the men and older children would be in the back. And so we can well imagine that Joseph would have assumed that Jesus was with Mary, and Mary would have assumed that he was with Joseph, or, as the Scripture says, that he was with one of the other relatives and acquaintances in the group; and so it took a whole day before they realized that he wasn’t with them. Which mean that they had a lot longer before they could go back and find him, and a lot further to look—not just outside the door of the rest stop, but through a whole city. And so those feelings that such a parent would feel—fear; maybe anger and guilt—would be that much more intense given the several days that would be involved. Mary herself says that she and Joseph suffered great anxiety; or, the Greek could instead be translated, “great pain.” And this they suffered from their son, even though he was Son of God.

You see, the picture we gain from Scripture of the Holy Family, and of other families within it, is actually quite realistic. If we want an unrealistic picture of family life, actually that is what our culture gives to us. For our culture all around us dreams of marriage as a tool of personal self-fulfillment; not as sacrifice, but a way of increasing one’s own pleasure, one’s own comfort. And, as our culture becomes more and more saturated in pornography, its expectations of marriage become more and more warped. Some may think of marriage and family and imagine it as a dream of forming perfect children, as their personal accomplishment. And all of this within a surrounding materialism that pictures all of this happening within a perfect home with a perfect car and all the perfect activities.

That is an unrealistic picture. That doesn’t work. And it doesn’t work no matter how much our culture tries to alter things through the technologies of contraception, or in vitro fertilization, or abortion. No matter how much the culture says that parents should provide for their children materially but hand off the formation of their hearts and minds to the state, to complete strangers. It still doesn’t work. And so the culture provides an escape, when somebody finds that these unrealistic expectations are not being met, through easy divorce—and today they might even plan this in advance through a pre-nuptial agreement. How much pain and wreckage in people’s lives has been caused through the shattered glass of these truly unrealistic expectations.

In contrast to the impossible fantasy that our culture provides, the Church’s vision of family, exemplified in the Holy Family, is true to life.

For the Church knows, as we know, that there is nothing like the experience of living in a family to show us how dependent we are on others; to show us how much we need from other people, physically and emotionally; and how much they need from us; and to show us how often we fail to give them what they need. Family life is like a great mirror that helps us to drop the fantasies and shows us the truth about ourselves.

In our second reading, St. Paul gives us a list of virtues that we should be growing in—compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience. It can be pretty easy to think that we are getting pretty good at these things.

  • We might think, after a particular day at work, that we’re getting pretty patient, and pat ourselves on the back; and then go home and discover that, when our patience is actually tested again and again and again, we actually have a long way to go when it comes to patience.
  • Or we might be feeling pretty proud of how humble we are. But then at home, in family, we get asked to do things like clean up a mess, say we’re sorry, wipe some body part, do another chore, play another game. And then we discover where true humility is going to come from.

Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience—and, above all, true love—these are forged in us in the crush and the mess of family relationships, in between those occasional Hallmark moments. It is in submitting, and loving without bitterness, and obeying, and learning not to provoke or discourage that the word of Christ moves from our ears into our hearts, and that it actually begins to take root within us. It is these everyday demands that stretch our hearts bigger, and carve out new capacity in them, so that they can become like Christ’s Sacred Heart, so that they can be filled more and more with his infinite love.

One of the great teachings of the Second Vatican Council is that “everyone … is called to holiness.” And that each of the baptized is called by God to follow a particular path by which he or she will grow in holiness; that is, to a particular vocation, from vocare, “to call.” But your vocation, as the Church uses that word, is not your job; that would be too easy! No, it is your state of life. For most of the baptized, and most of us here, it is the call to marriage and family. The Council wrote [Lumen Gentium, 41]:

Married couples and Christian parents should follow their own proper path (to holiness) by faithful love. They should sustain one another in grace throughout the entire length of their lives. They should embue their offspring, lovingly welcomed as God’s gift, with Christian doctrine and the evangelical virtues—the virtues of the gospel.

The Holy Family shows what it looks like for family life to be, not an ornament that we acquire and show off, but a mystery into which we enter and to which we give ourselves. We become part of it. It stretches us. It shapes us. In our vocation in Christ, it can make us into saints.

Mary and Joseph knew that Jesus was the Son of God; they knew that he was Messiah and that he would be King. But whatever exactly it was that they understood by this and assumed, it seems that they expect to ever find him staying in Jerusalem to talk with the teachers in the Temple. Even when he said, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” we read that they did not understand what he said to them. For their son was a mystery to them. Ultimately, he was not theirs: he belonged to God. And in his relationship to God, and his calling, they were privileged to be a part of his life for a time and to help him. But ultimately it was as Son of God that he would live.

And in a similar way, the same thing is true for every one of us. Ultimately, each one of us has a relationship as an adopted son or daughter of God, and a vocation given by him. And in family life, we do not truly belong to each other; and we are not each other’s projects. But we have the unspeakable privilege, as several of God’s adopted sons and daughters, of living together for a time and helping each other to grow in holiness.

We read that Mary kept all these things in her heart; and one day she would understand what had gone on in that visit to Jerusalem. She would understand that her son had been preparing her for that future time when, once again she would lose him in Jerusalem at the time of the Passover, but that time it would be through his crucifixion; and then she would discover that he had been preparing her to understand that she would find him again after three days, risen from the dead.

But all of that would be many years away. And so for now Jesus went down with Mary and Joseph and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and in the quiet, hidden, day-to-day life of the Holy Family, he advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.

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Published in: on December 27, 2009 at 2:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
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