Feast of the Holy Family – a reflection on the Sunday readings

By Br Julian McDonald cfc

Simeon blessed Mary and Joseph and said to Mary: “You see this child: he is destined for the fall and for the rising of many in Israel, destined to be a sign from God which many people will speak against.”  Luke 2: 22-40

Despite our familiarity with the statement in the Letter to the Hebrews that: “We do not in Jesus have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses. Instead, we have one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet he did not sin.” (Hebrews 4: 15), we have almost been conditioned to believe that Jesus experienced a childhood, adolescence and early adulthood free from the struggles that are part of normal human maturation and development.

Our faith formation has been built on classroom religious education and traditional homilies at Sunday Mass that have led us to believe that the family life of Joseph, Mary and Jesus bordered on being idyllic. Everything was thought to have gone smoothly, with little or no tension in interpersonal relationships, with harmonious communication and next to no conflict. While Mary and Joseph endured deep anxiety when an adolescent Jesus was preoccupied with what he later described as “going about his Father’s business”, this was ascribed by homilists and commentators as precocious behaviour of a youngster who had an early insight into the direction his life was taking.

Today’s gospel-reading provides an account of how Jesus’ religiously observant parents took their son to the Temple in Jerusalem in order to fulfil “all that was required by the law of the Lord” (Luke 2: 39). Moreover, there is a strong hint in the concluding verses of today’s gospel-reading that family life for Jesus was, indeed, idyllic: “They went back to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And, as the child grew to maturity, he was filled with wisdom and God’s favour was with him” (Luke 2: 39-40). In previous reflections, I have noted that every character in the Bible on whom ‘God’s favour fell’ had a tough road to hoe as their life-journey unfolded.

If Jesus was like us in everything except sin, then his parents who belonged to the ‘us’ category would not have been exempt from the challenges that are part and parcel of parenting. Simeon predicted that Jesus would be a sign to the nation to which he (Jesus) belonged and that he would be something of a handful for his parents. Didn’t every one of us fit into that category for our parents? True, we all absorbed many of our parents’ values and attitudes: about respecting other people, speaking truthfully, using money, healthy eating and exercising. We imbibed their political prejudices and we unconsciously imitated many of their mannerisms. We learned from them the importance of things like trust, generosity, selflessness and dependence. Yet, they allowed us the freedom to be independent, to express opinions different from theirs, to make mistakes that caused embarrassment to both them and us.

Good parents that they were, Mary and Joseph surely gave Jesus a grounding in integrity, honesty, courage, fidelity, prayerfulness and adaptability. Wisely, they gave him the freedom to discern and follow his own mission and vocation in life. However, I suggest that they might have been astonished and embarrassed when he caused havoc among the money-changers and stall-keepers in the precincts of the same Temple in which they had dedicated him to God. Early in his Gospel, Mark commented on the discomfort and embarrassment Jesus caused the members of his close family through his preaching, teaching and unusual behaviour: “He went home again, and once more such a crowd collected that they could not even have a meal. When his relations heard of this, they set out to take charge of him; they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’” (Mark 3: 21-22) Jesus chose a direction in life that Joseph and Mary probably did not even dream of. But isn’t taking a different direction typical of what many children do in their lives? In the light of Mark’s comment about Jesus’ relatives concluding that he was mad, Jesus might well have felt like a stranger in his own home whenever he ventured back. Some of our decisions can lead us to feeling awkward when we dare to return home.
All this gives us cause to reflect on our own family life, relationships and communications. Many of us at times experience coolness and distancing from other family members who don’t agree with life decisions and choices we have made. Those among us who are parents are sometimes saddened, puzzled and upset by children who abandon the practice of their religion. Others are at a loss when it comes to fathoming the rebelliousness of adolescent members of the family. They even resort to questioning where they went wrong.
We are all members of a family and of other social groups that function healthily only when the family’s or groups’ members are open, honest and sensitive in their communicating with one another. When one member is seen to step out of line, negative criticism and derogatory name-calling achieve nothing and only widen the gap between members. Prolonged silence is counterproductive and is often designed to punish others. It amounts to passive aggression. Children and adolescents will learn to be open and trusting only when significant adults are open and trusting in dealing with them. Adults who hold tight to secrets create a culture that distances those with whom the secrets are not shared.
The point of all this is that healthy families and community groups will flourish only when members are honest, open, tolerant and forgiving with one another. That will not happen by chance or by magic. Time, reflection, self-examination and a willingness to change have to be invested in learning skills that promote open communication and building healthy relationships.
If there is something we can learn from reflecting on the three people who constitute what we call the Holy family, it is that they were in touch with God. That closeness to God is sometimes described in the metaphors of dreams or encounters with angels. God was at the centre of their lives. That prompts a question for us: What space do we make for God in our lives?
Earlier in this reflection, I referred to the Letter to the Hebrews. I conclude with a description of how Paul urged his community of Colossae to live with one another in order to build healthy, open, live-giving relationships: “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” (Colossians 3: 13-17) That’s pretty good advice for building healthy families.