Today we celebrate the Holy Family as this is the first Sunday after Christmas and that’s what we do here at this time of year. That means that in Catholic churches all around this world, preachers are standing up in front of congregations talking about… families. How they are important, how they are changing, how they are under attack, how they are the building blocks of society, and how the Holy Family, consisting of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, provides a wonderful and rich model for all of us to follow.
I’m going to be honest with you, though. This is one preacher who always finds this to be a difficult Sunday to preach. I think families are important… I certainly think about my own and know that to be the case. But I also know that a lot of people have a different sense of that. Some come from challenging circumstances, some come from a configuration of family members that may not fit the historical mold, and for some… the very mention of family as being some kind of high ideal, some type of perfection… just does not resonate as that has not been their own experience.
Let’s face it, even for those who do not feel that way… family life is not always a bed of roses. It can be stressful, there can be conflict, and there are times when we just want to get away from other family members for a while.
Family, like love, can be romanticized, idealized, spun up into something that is completely unrealistic and for those who are searching for it, they are likely to never find it. That’s not really what family life is like. And, I would imagine, that’s not how it was for Jesus, Mary or Joseph. Their family life is not something we know much about, other than the time when Jesus was lost at the temple and his parents were frantically looking for him.
We know it was stressful for Joseph at first, having to accept that his betrothed was pregnant before they had been fully married. Perhaps it remained hard for Joseph after. He was, after all, a stepfather.
What about for Mary? She accepted the responsibility of giving birth to and raising God’s son. What must that have been like for her? Could that have often not been particularly easy?
Escaping to Egypt and then returning home years later… living in an occupied land always under the rule of an oppressor must have been hard.
Was there conflict in this family? Tension? Did they sometimes need a bit of quiet time, some away time, a little me time? I suspect so.
Still though, family is where we first learn about life. If we’re fortunate, we learn to love and how to be loved, to trust, to forgive and to seek forgiveness. We learn about compromise, we learn about service. We experience pain and suffering in families and in turn, redemption and hope. And in families, however they are constituted, whatever shape or size they come in, we learn how to place others first, before ourselves. This is sacrifice and this is one of the most important lessons of all.
What did Jesus learn about all those things from Joseph and from Mary? What did he learn that prompted him to teach his followers to love their enemies, to not throw the first stone at those who sinned, to kneel on the ground and to wash the feet of others, and to remember that if you are struck upon your cheek that you should turn and allow your other to be struck as well? What did Jesus learn from his family that compelled him to lie down upon a beam of wood and to hold his hands and feet out so that nails could be hammered down into them?
I think that he must have learned in his family that to love others means that you care deeply about their souls. That you care about their eternity. That you take the long view, consider the big picture and that you don’t dwell on the smaller individual moments. Rather, you think about how it all fits together. And the fact that a life of love, forgiveness, service and sacrifice is the only way to step forward from this one into the next.
Families do come in all shapes and sizes. Inside of the family, however it’s constituted… if those lessons are taught then it’s a good family. If it’s one that helps those who are in it get to heaven… then it’s a very good family.
Very good families help each other get to heaven.
That is worth striving for in our own families and the example of the Holy Family reminds us of that fact.
You know… come to think of it… I do like preaching on this particular Sunday.