I always feel like it’s appropriate that we celebrate the Holy Family today, shortly after Christmas. This feast helps to underscore that Jesus came to live among us in a very familiar way: by taking flesh and becoming one of us, even being part of a family. As we praise the Holy Family today – and we certainly should – I’m aware that some families who are here today may have just managed to get here on time, or a little after. Maybe there was the constant argument with the kids about why they have to go to church. It might have been hard to turn off the television or tear someone away from the latest toy they just got for Christmas. And so, as we hustle in here to church and sit down, maybe the holiness of the family is the furthest thing from our minds.
So maybe it’s hard to relate to the Holy Family. Maybe you’re thinking, “Hey, how do I get one of those?” Honestly, 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 torn by family secrets, grudges and age-old hurts. Some are trying to form a family: they want to have children, but have been 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 its history.
Even the Holy Family, whose feast we celebrate today, was marked with challenges. An unexpected – and, without the eyes of faith, 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.
The institution of the family is an extremely precarious thing. We know this. God knows this. Yet it was into this flawed but holy structure that the God of the universe chose to come into our world. Taking our flesh and joining a human family, Christ came to be Emmanuel, God with us, and to sanctify the whole world by his most loving presence.
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 treat others with compassion. 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 everyone is going to fail in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience at one time or another. In our families that kind of failure happens all the time. 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.
But it’s not insurmountable: the Holy Family is the model for us. I say that because I think what we’re supposed to be seeing in the Holy Family today is not some kind of idyllic perfection. Certainly they attained more perfection than any of us could ever possibly hope for in this life, but that’s really not the focus. 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 unattainable, but being faithful is in our grasp and faithfulness 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 far-fetched. 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. Sometimes we have to let go of the hurt we’ve been hanging on to so that we can be free to love. I know that’s easier to say than to do, but we can rely on the intercession of the Holy Family when we attempt to do this.
Holiness will make demands of us. It did for Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Simeon and Anna were quite clear that sorrow lay in store for them. But 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 also, all of us who do our best to live according to the Spirit and to strive for holiness in our own human families.