Families can be very complicated things. The week before Christmas I was just leaving Dick’s Sporting Goods store when a family entered. A teenage girl was first through the door, followed close behind by her parents. And the girl was livid. She was shouting at her father with language that cannot be repeated as she stomped away into the back of the store. Her father had a smile on his face and seemed unperturbed, almost triumphant – as if he was proud of getting under the skin of his daughter. The mother was mostly silent, but then said to the father quietly, ‘leave her alone.’ The whole event took less than 10 seconds, but it was devastating to witness. Only those three people know the whole story but I was struck by a sense of deep brokenness at so many levels in that family.
Every family has broken places and tensions that can boil over especially around the holidays when the strain of family gatherings, the end of college semesters, financial stress, crowded streets and shops, and high expectations can all meet in a perfect storm. We may think that those broken places and tensions in our family will always be there, but that is just not true. The birth of Jesus on Christmas morning, when the creator of the universe took on human flesh to dwell among us and grow up in a family like yours and mine, shouts out the message that nothing is impossible for God, that God’s love and mercy change everything. Today’s feast of the Holy Family, coming just days after Christmas, also shows us that even though no family is perfect, every family can be holy.
The angel Gabriel told Mary at the Annunciation that nothing is impossible for God. If that is true, it must be true for family challenges as well. That means that a difficult or headstrong child can change, like Jesus in the gospel who listened to his anxious parents and was obedient to them. But it also means that a parent’s understanding and expectations can change when they listen to their children. When his parents found Jesus in the temple, his mother asked the question, “why did you do this to us?” That question says so much, and it is one that we all have asked in our own family life. So often we assume the worst in one another, and assume that if we are hurt by someone’s actions or words that their sole purpose was to cause us pain. Yet, that may not be the case at all – they may be trying to deal with their own pain or are struggling, as Jesus was, with some deeper call. But if we learn to listen to each other we become more open, more gentle, and more understanding.
If nothing is impossible for God, it also means that struggles between spouses in marriage can be healed, even when the hurt is deep and painful; it means behaviors can change and addictions can be overcome; it means that family dynamics can evolve, it means that God’s grace can transform everything if we let it in.
The gospel tells us just the barest details of this harrowing story of losing a child in a crowded city. Mary and Joseph search for days – we can only imagine the conversations they had, the moments of fear and even anger that they felt; each blaming themselves for not paying attention, for not being responsible. When they finally find him Jesus seems unperturbed that his parents were so concerned, and we can only imagine how painful that was to them. Yet this family survived the experience and grew closer as a result. They each came to understand each other more fully. Jesus listened to his parents and became more obedient. Mary and Joseph got a glimpse of the mission of Jesus that was to come as he grew older, to always be doing the will of the Father. And they had a foreshadowing of his three days in the tomb after his death when he would be lost again to all those who loved him. So this event provided a pathway for forgiveness, healing, and learning for the holy family.
Like the invitation in the beautiful second reading from the letter to the Colossians, the holy family experienced the power of grace by practicing patience and forgiveness. In that letter we’re invited to “put on” compassion, patience, and forgiveness, and over all these to “put on” the love of Christ. This is the way to transform our families; it’s the way that opens us up to God’s healing grace. And it’s interesting that we need to “put on” these virtues, these ways of the heart. We have to wear them, be covered with them, make them part of our daily wardrobe. And if we do then amazing things can happen. When we put on compassion and “bear with one another” we start to see things through the other person’s eyes. That is a gift of God’s grace.
Grace makes families whole – grace brings surprises and new possibilities. Grace makes it possible to forgive those in our families who are the most difficult, even when they’ve caused us to suffer the deep pain of betrayal. And grace provides the gift of friends that carry us through our times of unbearable grief and loss. Grace invites us to be more kind to each other and helps us to realize that we don’t always understand each other or know each other’s stories.
Putting on kindness is a special mode of God’s grace. In the first reading we heard a lot about fathers and sons, one of those complicated places in many families. Those words “Be kind to your father – even if his mind fails” ring so true in my heart after watching my own father slowly drift away with dementia over the last 6 years of his life. He had been away from home so much in our growing up and emotionally distant in many ways so there was tension between us. Yet in those 6 years my heart learned patience and compassion and I discovered a deep forgiving love for this man who formed me in so many ways, a love that I was able to share with him before he died. A beautiful gift of God’s healing grace flowing through unexpected places in our family.
So, where are those places in your family that need healing? Emmanuel means God is with us, and that changes everything – nothing is static; everything can be redeemed. We are not trapped in our old behaviors or broken places. God’s grace is available and pouring down on us if we are willing to take the risk and put on compassion, kindness, and forgiveness. And when that kind of love lives in our hearts then our families can become holy even if they’re not perfect. I hope that family in Dick’s Sporting Goods open themselves to God’s grace. I hope we all do.