My spiritual director in seminary used to say that family could be the source of our greatest joys and deepest sorrows. Sometimes all in the same day. That’s just how families are. Our closeness, at least by blood relation, doesn’t always assure that we will be well-functioning.
There are all sorts of families out there: families broken by divorce or separation, families marked by emotional or physical abuse, families fractured by living a great distance apart, families grieving the loss of loved ones or agonizing over the illness of one of the members, families of great means and those touched by poverty, homelessness and hunger, families divided by immigration issues, families torn by family secrets, grudges and age-old hurts. There are healthy families and hurting families, and every one of them is graced by good and touched by some kind of sadness at some point in their history.
Even the Holy Family, whose feast we celebrate today, was marked with challenges. An unexpected – and almost inexplicable – pregnancy marked the days before the couple was officially wed; news of the child’s birth touched chords of jealousy and hatred in the hearts of the nation’s leaders and caused the young family to have to flee for their lives and safety. Even this Holy Family was saddened by an extremely rocky beginning.
The institution of the family is an extremely precarious thing. We know this. God knows this. Yet it was into this flawed structure that the God of all the earth chose to come into our world. Taking our flesh and joining a human family, Christ came to be Emmanuel, God with us, and sanctify the whole world by his most merciful coming.
St. Paul exhorts us all to be marked by holiness, part of the family of God. We do this, he tells us, by showing one another “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.” Living in a family, living the Christian life, requires sacrifice. Some days we don’t feel very compassionate, but we are still called to be that way. We might not feel like showing someone kindness, or patience, or being humble. But that’s what disciples do. But the real sticking point is that whole forgiveness thing. Because all of us are going to fail in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience at one time or another. So just as the Lord has forgiven us, so many times and of so many things, so must we forgive one another. We live our whole lives trying to figure out how to do this.
St. Paul then gives us the recipe for family harmony – at least in the first century near east. Bear with me on this one, because I know that the words can irritate our modern sensibilities. He says: “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, so they may not become discouraged.” We have to understand that this was the model of family harmony in that time and place. Not so much here and now. But there is a truth in these words of Sacred Scripture that we need to pull out of today’s reading.
Wives being subordinate to their husbands in that time and place was the proper balance in the family. We might not agree with that, but that was true then. Husbands loving their wives was something that didn’t even happen very often. So the real correction here was being given to the husbands, who were called upon to forego their traditional macho indifference and to show love to their wives in the same way Christ showed love to the Church.
Today, the challenge here is one of equality. Of husband and wife being called upon to build up each other’s faith lives at the same time they are raising a family and making a home – together. The challenge is to love the children while still teaching them respect for authority and providing loving discipline so that they can become children worthy of the kingdom of God. The correction we might be hearing from St. Paul today is to put aside the whole heresy of entitlement and humble ourselves, whatever is our role in the family, so that member of the family might grow in faith, hope and love.
Some days, that will be extremely difficult. Given the culture in which we live – a culture which certainly does not share a concern for faith, hope and love – the challenge to live as a family in good times and bad is one that is almost insurmountable. Maybe today, more so than ever, families face fierce struggles in trying to live healthy, faithful lives in this callous, dark and unforgiving world. Today more than ever we need a Savior to be born in our families so that the weakness of our flesh and the brittleness of our relationships can be transfigured by the amazing gift of God’s love into something they could never be on their own.
As I said, even the Holy Family was not perfect. I don’t think perfection is what we are supposed to be seeing in them on this, their feast day. Instead maybe we should see faithfulness. A faithfulness that absorbed the challenges of an unplanned pregnancy and the dangers of oppression from the government, and still shed light on the whole world.
I am aware, however, that even as I pull that theme of faithfulness out of today’s Scriptures, that can still seem insurmountable. Why should you be faithful when the hurts inflicted by other members of your family still linger? That’s a hard one to address, but we’re not told to be faithful just when everyone else is faithful. Sometimes we are called to make an almost unilateral decision to love and respect the others in our families, and let God worry about the equity of it all. I know that’s easier to say than to do, but please know that this Church family supports you with prayer and love as you do that.
Every single one of us is called to be holy, brothers and sisters. And every single one of our families is called to be holy. That doesn’t mean that we will be perfect. Some days we will be quite far from it. But it does mean that we will be faithful in love and respect. It means that we will unite ourselves to God in prayer and worship. It means we will love when loving is hard to do. Mary loved Jesus all the way to the Cross and watched him die. What we see in the model of the Holy Family for us is not perfection, but faithfulness and holiness.
That holiness will make demands of us. It did for Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Our church still has the Nativity scene on display; we are still celebrating Christmas. But today’s Gospel reading reminds us that our faith in the Incarnation does mean everything is going to be perfect in this life. We will have to sacrifice, and will have to suffer from many of the imperfections of our families and our world. But we can count on the grace of Christ, born here among us, in our families, to transfigure us all to a holiness we cannot even begin to imagine.