Today we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family. We know who they are, but I wonder if we can relate? I wonder if we can wrap our minds around what this feast calls us to, namely, the holiness of all of our families, whatever those families may look like. 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. Some are trying to form a family: they want to have children, but are unable. 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. And every one of them is called to holiness.
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, in some ways, by an extremely rocky beginning. But none of that flawed their holiness.
The institution of the family is a very 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 loving presence.
Saint 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.
Even today’s Gospel portrays for us the challenges of the family. This Gospel event reminds me of an action thriller movie: the family is trying to settle in after the birth of a child, but there is political unrest and jealousy surrounding the birth of the child. Warned in a dream, Joseph, the child’s father, takes the family in the dead of the night and flees to a distant land, where they live until the death of the political puppet who was so pathetically insecure that he felt he needed to kill a child to retain his sovereignty, such as it was.
And so I think what we’re supposed to be seeing in the Holy Family today is faithfulness. What I think is worth focusing on is that, even though they knew there would be hard times ahead for them, they faithfully lived their lives through it all. They continued to be a family, Jesus continued to grow and become strong in his human nature, and to be filled with wisdom and the favor of God. And that, for us, is something worth striving for. Being perfect might seem impossible, but being faithful is possible and it leads us to holiness.
For Jesus, Mary and Joseph, their faithfulness helped them to absorb the challenges of an unplanned pregnancy and the dangers of oppression from the government, and still shed light on the whole world. For us, faithfulness can help us to get through whatever rough spots life may have in store for us and not break apart.
I am aware, however, that as I speak about faithfulness, that it all 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 you have your Church family to support you with prayer and love as you do it.
This coming year, our parish pastoral council has chosen to observe the Year of the Family. You’ll be hearing more about that throughout the year, but the main focus is helping families of all kinds grow in faithfulness and holiness. The devil wants the fracturing of all of our families, but the Holy Family gives us a model to thwart that evil one. We are praying for the strengthening of all of our families as we grow together in holiness.
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 faithfulness and holiness.
That holiness will make demands of us. It did for Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Yet they continued to live their lives, aided by the Spirit of God, and they all grew strong in wisdom and grace. Those same blessings are intended for us too, all of us who do our best to live according to the Spirit in our own human families, no matter what those families may look like.