In the Name…
I forget who it was that once said that happiness was knowing that you had a large, loving, caring, supportive family – in another city.
The Holy Family has sort of a zigzagged history in Matthew's account. It starts, as you recall, with a near divorce on Joseph's part and a journey to another town. Then, after a couple of years in Bethlehem they have to flee and go to Egypt. After three years there, they head back, but on the way discover that Herod's son is as bad as his father, so, instead of returning to Bethlehem, they go north to Nazareth where Mary and Joseph had been living before Jesus was born.
As best we can figure, Nazareth at that time had a population of about four hundred. Back then, small towns were mostly made up of people who were members of a few extended families. Houses were close together and everybody knew everybody’s business. So, we can delete from our mental image the picture of Jesus growing up in the quiet company of Mary and Joseph. No. He was thrown together with aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, etc. and they faced the usual challenges of trying to get along.
If, over the holidays, or at some point in the past, you had a family gathering, then you experienced a bit of what Jesus experienced in his day-to-day life. And, I doubt that there's a family that doesn't have a zigzagged history. Shakespeare said it well: "The way of true love never did go smooth."
Today’s feast, though, causes me to think about what family is and how the meaning of “family” has changed throughout the years. Some people will have us believe that there has always been one idea of what constitutes a family – two parents raising 2.5 children would seem to be the version I see most often. But, of course, we know this was not always so.
Just taking my own family as an example - of Sue’s and my four parents, all born in the 1920’s and 30’s, only one of them grew up in a biologically two-parent household. Divorce, death, and adoption have always been with us. And, while today, we are more open about blended families, single parent families, same-sex parents and their children, mixed race families, and adoptive families, the extended family is often no longer nearby, making it difficult for members to know each other as well.
Even more, sometimes we consider people who are not related to us, but whom we treasure for their support and love, as family.
So, when we think of the Holy Family today, I don’t see it so much as a model of what a family should look like, but more a model of the qualities for any family that we should value.
In the Gospel reading today we have the only incident known to us from Jesus’ early life, and it is not an ideal situation, at least for the parents. When families travelled they would often travel in separated groups, the women and children together, the men with the men. At some point, a young boy was seen as a man – often around 12 years old, and that provided the confusion that allowed Jesus to remain in Jerusalem. Mary thought he was with the men. Joseph thought he was with the women, and it wasn’t till they got together at the first rest stop that they realized neither was the case.
Any parent would worry about a 12 year-old taking off and being by himself in the big city. Mary and Joseph were no different. They left their groups and went back to Jerusalem to look for him. That took three days of not knowing where he was. I can only imagine the thoughts that go through a parents’ head in such a situation. Besides blaming themselves for not being sure of where he was when the left, they were worried about all the things that could happen to a boy in the big city.
So, when they found Jesus - in the Temple, of all places - they were somewhat irate. Actually, they do sound like typical parents today: “How could you do this to us!?” They probably wanted to hug him and smack him. And like most twelve-year-olds who think they know just about everything, they get answered with: “What are you upset about? I know what I’m doing.”
Mary and Joseph, however, did not quite get what Jesus was saying, but Mary never forgot those words. She treasured them in her heart. But, they told Jesus that he had to go back with them, and Jesus did, without argument. And, then, almost as a footnote we are told that he was obedient to his parents and he grew in wisdom.
In St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he mentions the qualities that are essential to any good family: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience and forgiveness. What a great list. If we could only always be able to model those.
There's a poem by Robert Frost about the death of a hired hand. A man and a woman are on the porch of their farmhouse talking about an old hired hand who had returned that day and went to sleep in the barn. The couple on the porch are talking about whether or not the old man had a home he could have gone to, and then they start talking about what it means to have a home. The man says: "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." The woman says, "I should have called it something you somehow haven't to deserve."
A good definition. Home is the place where you receive a love and acceptance you don't have to earn. That might define family, as well.
So, even though the context of the family has changed as the society has changed, the principle of love is always the most important and will be the key thing that makes successful families.
On this Holy Family Sunday, then, may we remember that Jesus was part of an extended family and had more than a place, he had a relationship he called home. It helps us to realize that he experienced all that goes with this, just as we do - the give and take, the imperfect relationships, and the need for patience, acceptance, and kindness.
In the Name…