Luke 2:22 - 40 (Holy Family, year B)
Stop reading this if you have a perfect family. If your family life has no challenges, broken relationships or skeleton’s in the closet, then the following is not meant for you. If your family situation is as perfect as those flawless looking family pictures you increasingly receive in Christmas cards, then this will not speak to you. Still reading? Good, it means you are honest and in touch with reality. No family is perfect and free from challenges. Perhaps your immediate or extended family has been affected by divorce. Maybe there are people in your family who no longer speak to each other. It could be that you are disappointed with certain aspects of your children’s lives, their careers or the fact they no longer practice their faith. Or perhaps your family is strained because of financial tensions or a serious health problem. Maybe the members of your family are so busy that simply finding the time to be together is a struggle. No family is free from difficulty.
Even the Holy Family, whose feast we celebrate today, experienced major struggles. Jesus, Mary and Joseph can relate and sympathize with the challenges your family has because they suffered as well. When you look at paintings of Jesus, Mary and Joseph it can be easy to forget this. Like those family pictures in Christmas cards in which everything looks perfect, the reality was a different story. Since Jesus is God, Mary is free from sin and Joseph is one of the greatest saints, these challenges were not caused by their sins. From the beginning, however, the Holy Family really suffered and experienced tensions and misunderstandings. Mary conceived Jesus as a teenager. Recall the turmoil that Joseph experienced upon hearing the news that Mary was expecting. It nearly ripped apart their marriage as he contemplated divorce. The Holy Family struggled financially, otherwise Jesus certainly would not have been born in a stable with animals. As we heard in the Gospel, Mary was a mother whose heart grieved because of what happened to her child. After the birth of Jesus, the Holy Family had to flee and live the insecure and challenging life of refugees. Later, Mary and Joseph would often be confused and pained by the decisions of their Son. A clear example was when Jesus went missing in the Temple. Like us who are often embarrassed by members of our family, the Holy Family had relatives and ancestors that lived less than exemplary lives. In Jesus’ genealogy we find adulterers, murderers and prostitutes. The Holy Family knows from experience that family life is full of challenges and hardships.
In spite of these difficulties, the Holy Family reveals to us the incredible value and dignity of the family. Because they were a family completely engaged in God’s will, they show the ideal to which all families are called to aspire. Let’s look at three reasons why the family is something so precious in God’s plan for each of us. First, the family is the domestic church. This is because it is an image of God’s love in the world. In the family, the mission of Jesus is continued. Second, the family is the primary, vital cell - or building block - of society. Children are nurtured in a family. Society will be as strong or as weak as the families that make it up. A family which strives to root itself in Christ becomes an incredible leaven for the world around it. Third, a family is a school in which all people learn indispensable lessons. In the family we learn:
- To have a relationship of love with God. Children learn from their parents who God is, how to pray and how to follow His will.
- To have a relationship of love with other people. Family is where we receive unconditional love and acceptance. Family life is also full of opportunities to show love. Each day there are many chances to make sacrifices for others, to be patient, to forgive and show mercy.
- To have an appreciation for the great value of work. That Jesus spent the majority of His life working as a tradesman teaches us that work - no matter how humble or simple we consider it - is something that brings importance and dignity to our lives.
Because of its incredible role in God’s plan for our life, and inspite of the challenges, we should never lose hope in or stop devoting ourselves to our family. A number of years ago I attended a friend’s wedding. At the reception, his father gave a short speech that I will never forget. “Congratulations to both of you”, he began. “I want to give you the same advice that my father gave to me and my wife on our wedding day: never, never, never, never, never give up on your marriage.” With that, he sat down. I think the same advice applies to the family. All families will have struggles. We should never let this overly disturb us or lead us to despair. We can take comfort and courage in the fact Jesus, Mary and Joseph also faced many great challenges in their family life. They will walk with us. In spite of the challenges our families face, we should never lose sight of the ideal that families are called to and the irreplaceable role family plays in forming us as individuals and as a society. We should never give up on our family and stop trying to love one another. Last year Pope Francis gave some very practical advice in this regard. He encouraged all families to build each other up in love through the practice of common courtesy. He said that there are three key phrases that need to be heard often in a family if it is to live in peace and joy: “may I?”, “thank you” and “sorry”.
On this feast of the Holy Family, let us give thanks for the gift of our family, regardless of how imperfect it is. Remembering the great value of family, let us recommit ourselves to investing time and effort in our family relationships. Let us say often “may I?”, “thank you” and “sorry”. Most of all, let us never, never, never never, never give up on our families.