As we gather to reflect on and celebrate the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph today, we might be looking at them way up on a pedestal, and forget that we have been called to become holy in our own families. When we think about our families, holiness might see so very remote, nearly impossible, for us to achieve. And if we think we have to get there on our own, we are correct: that is impossible. But we are never expected to achieve grace on our own, even if it were possible for us to do such a thing.
So I get it: 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. Or maybe someone wasn’t quite ready on time. It might have been hard to turn off the television or tear someone away from the new toy they just got for Christmas. And so, as they hustle in here to church and sit down, maybe the holiness of the family is the furthest thing from their minds.
So it can be hard to relate, I think, to the Holy Family in some ways. Maybe you’re thinking, “How do I get one of those?” 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.
My spiritual director in seminary once said that family can be the source of our greatest joys and deepest hurts, sometimes all in the same day. And he’s right. Families aren’t perfect, and sometimes in that imperfection there is hurt that gets passed down from generation to generation. 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.
Our Gospel reading gives us some direction and some hope today. Jesus is brought to the temple as the Jewish tradition held. An offering is made on his behalf by his parents and they have come to receive a blessing. The blessing went deeper than they may have imagined, perhaps, but even this was probably not much of a surprise to them at this point. Here both Simeon and Anna, who have been waiting for this very day all their lives, who have looked faithfully for God’s answer to the problem of sin, have their hopes and dreams fulfilled. Simeon blesses the three of them and prophesies to Mary that all their days will not be without sadness. And we all know how the story works out: Simeon was absolutely right about that. But how disconcerting that must have been to Mary and Joseph who had come with joy to the Temple for this occasion.
Like I said, this Gospel gives us hope and direction. Hope by knowing that even this Holy Family had times of sadness in store. Direction in the faithfulness they have shown one another. The Gospel ends by saying that they returned to their town and lived their lives, and “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”
If we could take the Holy Family down off the pedestal for a minute, and really look at them, give ourselves to them, maybe we could find some holiness in our own families after all. Maybe we can see a family who works through the hard times, who believes the message of the angels in their lives, who loves because love is a gift from God and isn’t ours to hoard or dole out only when the other is nice to us. Maybe we can see a family who is faithful to each other and faithful to God, who radiates grace and models how to deal with adversity. And we can certainly see a family who will intercede for our own families that they might be holy and filled with grace.
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. 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 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.