Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Year A
Text: Sirach1 3:2-6, 12-14; Colossians 3:12-21; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23.
I’m sure you’re all wondering how a married man is going to address this business of wives being subject to husbands2 in our modern context; hopefully, my answer will satisfy you!
In this Christmas season, many of us spend quite a bit of time with and thinking about our families. The Saint Louis University Center for Liturgy, one of my go-to sources of inspiration for reflections, has several articles with quite a bit to say about the lamentable state of families today, citing the decline of the nuclear family, latchkey kids, television’s commercializing and sexualizing influence, divorce rates, and all the rest. Against this, they rightly contrast the familial love, respect, and care depicted in all three of today’s readings. They have a point, but I think their perspective on families today may be somewhat pessimistic.
God lives in us; in our relationships with each other, we live out our relationship with God. Even the profound mystic Teresa of Avila is said to have asked those who wanted to learn to pray better about their human relationships. These basics of love, respect, and care are universal, but our realization of them is inextricably tied to context.
The model of a nuclear family with a stay-at-home mother, a profitably employed father, two smiling, studious children, and a well-groomed pet dog looks wonderful in pictures, but doesn’t reflect reality for many of us. For that matter, it doesn’t match the reality of family in Jesus’ own time, as family then was a much more extended concept which usually involved dozens of interconnected households. Today, a family may have two children, but it may as easily have eight, or none; many households have only one adult member supporting children or elders; few households can afford having one partner stay at home to keep house and raise children, and that partner isn’t always a woman; some families, with and without children, are the households of gay couples; we are starting to learn from the news that some families have more than two adults living together as partners.
In all of these contexts, the fundamental message of the readings applies. Ben Sira and Paul were writing to communities where families had a particular, relatively homogeneous form, and suited their expression of love, respect, and caring to those groups; we are called to live them in the families we have. Paul in particular calls eloquently for gentle love, telling us to love one another, to live in harmony, to forgive one another, to praise God together, and to be humble and thankful, all of which we can do wherever we are. How we live that with each other varies enormously, just as we vary widely as individuals and in the form of our relationships. In some families, the traditional patriarchal form comes naturally, and leads to neither abuse nor resentment. In others, such as my own family, it would be an unjust burden on both partners; we share the leadership of our family according to our changing circumstances and abilities. As for other families, this specific instruction is almost comically irrelevant: for example, I don’t recommend asking a gay couple you’ve just met which one is the wife. Families today are often nontraditional, and even seem strange, but nothing about that says that they can’t be holy and loving even so.
The message is simple, really. Take care of each other. As Joseph took care of Mary and Jesus, take care of each other. Receive care graciously. As Mary, who had just given birth, accepted Joseph’s decision to take their newborn son on a journey to another country—and anyone who has traveled with a baby can attest to how easy that is by car, never mind what it’s like by donkey!—receive care graciously. As children, we naturally begin our lives receiving care, and often end up giving care to the parents who cared for us. Respect each other always, and forgive each other’s failings.
The love we show each other in our families, whatever shape they have, must be guided by God, since we don’t fully know ourselves and our families’ abilities and needs. Be humble, and listen to God, who speaks in our hearts, but also in the voices of each one of us. Just as God is Trinity, may our families too be constellations of diverse people sharing God’s divine, life-giving love.
1: This book is also called Ecclesiasticus.
2: Colossians 3:18