While I’m hanging out and surfing the channels during the holiday season, I enjoy all the retrospectives on TV series and movies from the Sixties, Seventies and so forth. It’s great to hear what was going on backstage: all the struggles to get the project off the ground, all the people who were up for key parts (can you imagine Jerry Van Dyke and Carroll O’Connor on Gilligan’s Island?), how things fell apart at the end. The most common thing I hear on these shows is folks saying: “We were a family. When the series was over, there was great sadness knowing that we would never see each another again.” Family seems to be a gold standard for any group we could belong to, isn’t it? How many times have you heard an athlete on a championship team say: “We won ‘cause we’re a family, man”? It could be a bridge club, a workplace, a small Christian Community, a football team. Of course, when our families have problems, it goes the other way. Sometimes I describe the life of a distant part of my family as being like a soap opera. But family is what we strive for in many groups we belong to, even in this age when families are stretched thin by many competing commitments.
We look at the Holy Family today, and we can see them as an icon. Joseph, Mary Jesus, still and peaceful looking down on us. All having these small sweet smiles of knowing. What did that family have to face? Today they are doing something that would be a foundation event for any new family: presenting the firstborn son to God. A firstborn son was a sign of special blessing, a sign of security for the family of Jesus’ day. Yet, this encounter was a special one. Two old people, who probably were fixtures at the Temple, probably older than anybody else there, suddenly turn up making wild prophecies about the child. You can almost imagine Joseph or Mary looking down and saying: “who, him? How can you tell?” Well, maybe after wise men from afar and angels singing in the heavens it wouldn’t be such a shock. But all the same, this is quite a buildup for this family, quite an elevation.
It’s not a prophecy of peace and tranquility they give, either. It is a prophecy of hope and of conflict; a prophecy of pain and suffering. Life isn’t going to be easy for these folks. I’m sure that Mary was particularly wondering what a sword through the heart meant, assuming that she didn’t take it literally. It was a challenge to them, as well as an elevation, because there was a lot riding on the lives they were about to lead. The bar was raised, it wasn’t about muddling through. Great things were going to happen, which made every moment until then full of anticipation. What happens after this? First they’re on the run, off to Egypt as refugees until Herod’s death. They go to Nazareth after that. They make a home. They go to an ordinary life; having to cope with everyday problems. They have to cope with Joseph resuming back breaking labor in helping build the city of Sepphoris five miles away from Nazareth, with Mary having to spend much of her time cooking and making clothes and doing all the things women did to make the home. It meant Jesus had to go to school at the synagogue and work with his father. There were others in the household (nuclear families were largely unknown in those days), probably of different ages, and their interactions were probably like those of families today, with all their blessings and challenges. It meant they had to deal with the political uncertainty of unrest with Roman rule and oppression, of people being forced away from their farms, of the economy making the rich richer and the poor poorer. They don’t quite have a quiet life, and they don’t have an easy life.
What can we gain from the Holy Family? I think we can gain insight about our own families and one of the great purposes of family in our faith. Our families are all called to be holy: whenever a couple marries in the Church, they are called to make their home a sacred place, not only for the raising of children, but also a place of holy hospitality, a place where people can grow in wisdom as well as stature. A place where everything is a sacred ritual, where there is no task which benefits all that is demeaning, but where every role has its own dignity as it supports the whole. It is a place where people are not only focused on one another, but focused outward toward others. Our image of a marriage in the Catholic Church is the couple create a little Church, a place where faith is shared and the needs of the entire community are served. All of our families are meant to be Holy Families.
As Church, we are called to model the Holy Family. Family is our standard for living together. We may have our problems and our disagreements, we may want to stomp off to our rooms in exasperation with one another, but we can still under one roof, we are still connected in a way that is unbreakable. We gather as family once a week to share a meal, to share the Body and Blood of Christ, to spend time around the table together for refreshment, to gain strength to live life as it should be lived. Like Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, we are called to treat one another with dignity, with respect and above all, with love.