Holy Family was always a source of many giggles and much nudging in my family, as I was growing up. My parents never really thought much of my attempts to emulate the fruit of the vine around their table: they had enough problems trying to get my face out of the computer and get me down to eat dinner in the first place. My mother, proud of her feminist ideology, took umbrage at being described as a fruitful vine at the heart of the house. She was a professional, managing somehow to juggle a part-time (and, later, full-time) job with parenting two feisty teenagers. The most amusement of all, however, was the command to be sympathetic to my dad, even should his mind fail. For many decades, we have ribbed him about this. He always knows what we’re talking about if we start showing him sympathy at random moments.
Looking back on this, I can see the way that these readings did actually help our family to bond. They united us in a shared sense of the ridiculous where we were able to laugh at how little these scriptures spoke to our lives in the late 20th century.
As I mature (I’m turning 40 next birthday), however, I am finding that the readings for Holy Family are speaking to me on a much more profound level. I’m a parent myself now, and that, in itself, has caused me to look at the world in a completely new way. In spite of my objections, rooted in childhood, to the tone of the readings, I can see where they are coming from. My children are beautiful treasures in the heart of my house, there to be cherished, and I must take care to guide them with a gentle hand so as not to drive them to resentment. My wife, too, is a wonderful human being and I must treat her with the love she deserves as a child of God and as the one closest to my own heart.
In this new century, as we are looking at a huge rise in cases of dementia, it is entirely possible that my parents’ minds might fail, and I am called to be sympathetic to their plight, regardless of the quality of relationship I have with them now, and have had in the past. Family life is hard, with many (often very different) people all occupying the same spaces. Tempers can flare and feuds are born. Some of my family members have not spoken to each other for 25 years.
The feast of the Holy Family reminds us that there is a better way than that. Christ came into the world in a family, and he lived the majority of his years on this Earth within that family. Even his family life was hard, and he scared the wits out of his parents at least once. This is, however, the model that God gives to us as a place for nurturing our children, and for living out his Word in the world.
In 2014, we can see that the word “family” describes an entire rainbow of different arrangements, following a great diversity of models, but each of these different families is still family, and it is through our families that God’s work of salvation begins.