The Feast of the Holy Family
The Feast of the Holy Family falls on the Sunday between Christmas and the Feast of Mary, Mother of God, January 1. The readings for the day focus on qualities that make for happy relationships between people, including members of families.
Sometimes when we focus on the Holy Family as the model for family life, we get bogged down with the perfection of Jesus and Mary, the holiness of St. Joseph, and the impossibility of actually living a perfect life ourselves. Then we write off their example as just another bit of pious nonsense that has nothing to do with the reality of crying babies, mortgage payments, difficult bosses, and all the other stresses that come with marriage and family. For those who are not married and/or don’t have children, the feast can seem irrelevant or even be a painful reminder of unfulfilled hopes.
So, I find myself wondering, what is it that makes a family, any family, “holy?” It seems to me that if the Holy Family is to be a model for the rest of us, that must mean that we are also to be “holy.” What made them holy?
Being holy does not mean having no problems or challenges in life. Holiness, it seems to me, lies in how we handle those difficulties that come in every life. After all, without the problems, difficulties, challenges, “crashes,” struggles, “hitting bottom,” or whatever we call it, we would never need to turn to God for help. We could just continue blithely on our way, assuming everything is fine, and in the best American cultural sense, be “rugged individuals” who can make it on our own.
But that isn’t what the spiritual life and journey are all about. Our spiritual lives are about learning from our mistakes, growing in wisdom, reaching out for help and community, being purified in God’s love, so that we can run joyfully to the Lord at the end of our days.
When we look at the lives of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, we find that they were filled from the beginning with many of the same challenges faced by other families. An unexpected, unplanned pregnancy, one outside the marriage; governmental demands that upset a family’s plans; taxes; inconvenient timing of a birth; the necessity to leave home and become refugees in another land; a child who feels grown up enough to go off on his own at the age of 12 without telling anyone where he’ll be; the death of a spouse or parent; a child whose life choices and career don’t meet the expectations of the family or community; the untimely death of a child. All these things were part of the lives of the Holy Family, as they can be part of our own lives. What made Joseph, Mary and Jesus holy as a family was their response to these challenges and their loving support of each other through them.
Joseph’s first recorded response to Mary’s pregnancy was compassion. He did not want to expose her to the penalties of the Law. He loved her and wanted her to be safe. When the angel told him in a dream that Mary had not been unfaithful, he accepted her as his wife. He made a home with her and supported her through the pregnancy and birth. He took her and Jesus to safety in Egypt, again following the instructions received in a dream. When it was safe, he took them back to their home in Nazareth cared for them and made a home for them.
Both Mary and Joseph must have “pondered” many things along the way. Many things did not make sense at the time. They really didn’t know what God had in mind. Jesus was a normal child. He had to learn how to be a man and how to respect and love the people around him. Mary and Joseph taught him by their actions as well as their words, just as we teach our children more by the way we act than by our words. It’s no surprise that people in families tend to share many gestures, facial expressions, attitudes and beliefs. The Holy Family would not have been different in this. The characteristics we seen recorded about Jesus were probably in great part those he learned from his parents.
In this week following the Feast of the Holy Family, as we enter a new calendar year, I hope we can take their lives as ones that exemplify the kind of relationships that result from heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and love (Col 3:12-17). These qualities are not ones that stem primarily from feelings, but rather they are attitudes and behavioral choices to which we are all called.