Feast of the Holy Family, Dec. 28, 2014
What is a family, anyway ? There are so many kinds of families in the concept today, including such definitions as nuclear families, gay families, straight families, blended families, extended families, intergenerational families, birth families, adoptive families, foster families, intentional families, families of nations, language families, religious families.
God, being the expert, is a family of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which was the beginning of the concept and we, at our best, make small finite copies of that out-pouring of relationship, love and oneness.
Today we think about and reflect on our own formative image – the Holy Family. I remember a friend saying to me once, a long time ago. “Yeah ! Right – two great saints and the Son of God. How normal is that ?” And I’ve thought about that remark often since.
From a spiritual point of view it makes great sense, putting Jesus in relationship with those he loves and they, in response, becoming, by choice, the sort of persons that reflect the best of what they are outward to each other and the wider society. But, even the best of us have our up and down days. How did the Holy Family react if Joseph was in trouble with an over-demanding customer, Jesus didn’t want to go to school today, or Mary was behind schedule and didn’t want to face the prospect of going seven blocks to the well and bringing back that heavy jug of water for the day’s washing and cooking. They were, after all, real people, living in a real world with all the stresses and concerns experienced in real life. Religious art often shows them rising serenely above the daily grind of the ordinary, their eyes raised to heaven, their halos brightly gleaming, their robes hanging gracefully, untouched by grime and dust, angels, perhaps, hovering respectfully around them. Its hard for human beings to come to terms with dirt invading the holy space occupied by this group of persons. So, today, the Church invites us to think about what this is all about. What makes this a family, what makes it holy, what makes it human and relevant in our daily wrestling with problems of all kinds and with how faith is a part of all this in a meaningful and encouraging way.
Obviously, from the stories we read in Scripture, God is very interested in staying in relationship with humanity, and making relationship key in our understanding of what it is to be in the world and conscious of our God. “Count the stars if you can. Just so shall your descendants be.” Not less sharing with others, but more. Not fewer relationships but countless ones. Not a small family but one without boundaries. A union of persons related by blood, intergenerational, some far, some near, and if not blood related, then related by choice.
Then came the event that was Jesus and when Jesus “happened” he presented us with paradoxes and the changing of definitions. By the Holy Family he has consecrated the whole earth, as Simeon proclaims when he holds the child in his arms:
Salvation prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel. Luke goes on to comment that “The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him.” In spite of angels with messages and dreams, even though awash in the light of stars and the strains of glorious music, Mary and Joseph considered theirs a typical Jewish family, doing the typical Jewish thing by presenting their newborn son in the temple, returning, after a brief hiatus in Egypt, to a typical Jewish family’s life in a typical Jewish town. “We are ordinary people,” they seem to be telling us, “living ordinary lives.”
So, it must be that “ordinary” is one of God’s favorite things since, for thirty or so years – with only one slight bump in the road when Jesus was twelve – this family lived a life common to all families in Galilee’s Nazareth where the child grew and became strong among other children doing the same. He went to school, he learned the customs of his people, he learned carpentry from Joseph and perhaps cooking skills from Mary (he did, after all, barbeque fish for his friends later on), learned the scriptures, prayers and tremendous respect for God and the outpourings of God’s Spirit from his parents. The family, committed to each other, poured out the fruit of their relationship toward each other in love and oneness, a small circle of faith expanding into their neighborhood giving us the example of every virtue. Were their difficulties and mis-understandings ? Certainly. Were their sorrows and sufferings ? Yes. But their devotion to each other was not based on blood alone. It was also based on choice. Joseph chose to remain with Mary and care for Jesus as his own. Mary chose to believe in God’s promises although she could not fathom their whole meaning. Jesus, with his parents, grew in wisdom and chose to live quietly as a carpenter for a very long time in a backwater town of Roman conquered Israel. They consciously worked at acting out belief in their lives, keeping faithfully attached to God’s service during their earthly pilgrimage. And when Joseph came to its close he breathed forth his soul to God in the presence of Mary and Jesus.
These were, indeed, two great saints because, guided by the Holy Spirit, they made great choices, and the Son of God was there beside them in ordinary circumstances, where we also find him. Actually, this is all very normal. We are surrounded by the same atmosphere of ordinary that enveloped the Holy Family for its thirty years of quiet effort. We have our misunderstandings and our sufferings, just as any family does. Like Jesus, Mary and Joseph we grow in wisdom and the improvement of our choices. We are constantly being reminded by everything and everyone around us that we live in a real world with stresses, concerns and sometimes horrifying events, natural catastrophes and evil intent. Jesus, Mary and Joseph lived in the same real world, not passively but actively, being touched and involved in the dirt and grime, the glory and the promise of ordinary life.
Paul considers in his letter to the Hebrews the strength of faith that it takes to see God in the ordinary – going into some situation with trust in God even though not knowing exactly how to do the task we see set before us. He sees us, like Abraham, hoping against hope that all will turn out for the best even though going beyond our conscious strength and condition. Why ? Because the Lord who does the calling is supremely trustworthy.
So, my friend’s question of long ago – “Two great saints and the Son of God ! How normal is that ?” – can be answered by saying that it is the normal experience of everyday: Striving to live in faith; to make choices that enhance our own lives and the lives of others; to strive to show love and oneness in community; to find Jesus living that ordinary life with us; to dedicate ourselves to tasks that seem too great for us when God calls.
Our founders long ago gave us a prayer that was recited each evening to remind us of our patrons and our destiny. I invite you to say it with me now.
O God, who by the Holy Family of the Incarnate Word, has consecrated the whole earth and has in Jesus, Mary and Joseph given us the example of every virtue, look down with favor on this community which devotes and consecrates itself in a special manner to their service. Protect each member, and vouchsafe to us the strength to persevere unto the end in imitation of the Holy Family, that, being faithfully attached to thy service during our earthly pilgrimage we may at is close, breathe forth our souls to Thee with the sacred names of Jesus, Mary and Joseph on our lips. Amen