Holy Family (B)
This is a photo of my mother’s family, from the early 1940’s. My mother, the only one still alive, is in the front row, second from the left.
In celebrating this feast of the Holy Family, we might assume that the focus is on Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and how they lived out their family life. In one sense, of course, that is true. However, when we look at the Gospels, we find very few details about the Holy Family. Certainly not the kind of detail that we in our time would look for in trying to understand them. The Gospels give us very little biographical info. We aren’t given Joseph’s psychological background, or what Mary’s personality was like, or what the child Jesus liked to eat for breakfast. We aren’t given examples of how they dealt with some of the challenges of marriage and family life. We aren’t told anything about what Joseph or Mary’s expectations might have been when they became betrothed to one another.
What do we find when we look at the Gospels? We see how the lives of Joseph and Mary were upended and reordered by the inbreaking of God’s grace into their lives, and how they said “yes” to God’s call. We see how God continued to lead, guide and support them: through Simeon and Anna, through the coming of the Magi, and through the twelve-year-old Jesus’ own words to them: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” We see a family that is radically open to the voice of God and willing to go wherever it leads. We see a family where Mary pauses regularly to “keep all these things and reflect on them in her heart”. We see Joseph ready to go wherever he must in faithful obedience to God’s word. In a word, we see a family being made in God’s image.
Notice how much family imagery Jesus incorporates into his own teaching and practice. One of his first public manifestations was at a wedding feast in Cana. Later, he would speak of the kingdom of God as being like a wedding feast. Jesus spoke of himself as the Son, and of the Father who sent him. He chooses twelve of his disciples to be apostles, thereby recalling Israel’s foundational family – the twelve sons of Jacob – and signaling his intent to renew this family. Who would Jesus’ new family be? Anyone, he said, who hears his word and keeps it. Anyone who became like a child – dependent on God and trusting in God. Anyone who could take on the prayer Jesus taught – the “Our Father” – and make it their own.
All Christians, then, belong to two families – our biological families and our Christian family, the Church. In the New Testament, what is said of families is also said of the Church, and vice versa. Families are transformed by the power of God working among them and their membership in the Church. The Church is enlivened by families where the Word of God is heeded, and where the faith is passed on by word and example. This is why marriage is understood as a sacrament in the Catholic Church. It is a symbol of the union of Christ and the Church. In fact, recent Popes have called the family “a little Church” or “a domestic Church” for this very reason. Families are transformed from within by God’s presence among them, and then families, in turn, become means through which God renews and transforms the world.
In his recent apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), Pope Francis speaks of the family as an icon of the Trinity. That summarizes everything I have tried to say in this post. We believe that God is love. God doesn’t only have love or express love; God is love. This is why we believe that, in the one God, we find a Lover, a Beloved, and the Love that binds them as one. The Father, as Love, gives of himself. That gift is so complete, being God, that it is a perfect representation of the Father. This is the Son. The Son, being that perfect representation, responds in the same total self-gift. That union, thus created, is so complete that it is itself a person, the Holy Spirit. So, too, families are meant to image, even in an imperfect way, this God of love. We see it whenever spouses are willing, in so many ways, to lay down their lives for one another and for their children. We see it in the care that grown children give their aging parents. We see it in how parents model for children a love that goes beyond their likes or dislikes of the moment and makes them open to the call of God and the needs of others. Far from being some abstract puzzle, our belief in the Trinity helps form our families and breathes life into their daily challenges.
The Christian family draws its very existence from God and receives from God the grace to love even as God loves. In its best moments, the family says yes to God, wherever that “yes” may lead. This is why Pope Francis reminds us that one of the principal roles of the Christian family is to help each member of the family listen to God’s voice, discover each one’s true vocation, and support one another in living out that vocation. Parents may have certain hopes and dreams for their children’s future. They want their children to be happy, healthy and successful in life. This is all perfectly fine – as long as we understand where true success is found. The measure of our success is how well we have heard God’s call to us and how well we have responded in faith, hope and love to God. Everything else is secondary.
Relationships within the family are formed and transformed by the presence of God. This can help us understand some challenging words of Scripture, like St. Paul’s words to the Ephesians about husbands and wives and submission. These words have been understood as “baptizing” the way ancient cultures understood the role of the husband in marriage. We forget, first of all, that St. Paul uses the word “submit” for both husband and wife. We also forget that the husband is called to love his wife as Christ loved the Church. If a husband loved his wife in that way, then infidelity, abuse, self-centeredness and sexual harassment (among other things) would be impossible. God’s Word transforms every culture (including our own) so that marriage and family life reflect the love that God is. We too often do it the other way around – start with our cultural prejudices and then find some line in Scripture that seems to agree with us. That amounts to an attempt to remake God in our image. If we’re Christians, it has to be the other way around!
If you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to read The Joy of Love. You can find it here. If you are interested, I have been writing a series of articles on The Joy of Love for Harvest, which you can find here. Pope Francis has a conversational style that is easy to read and follow, but he offers us plenty of food for thought and prayer. Every family will find help, encouragement and guidance in the Holy Father’s words.