Friday, December 30, 2011

The Holy Family

Jesus was human in every way that we are. Like each of us, he needed food to nourish his body. He needed a good night's sleep for his work as a carpenter. He needed tunics to clothe his body and a roof to cover his head. Like all human beings, Jesus sought out other people to be his friends. He knew the joy of playing games with other boys and felt the pain of being left out or ridiculed.

And, like all of us, Jesus needed a family.

God chose Mary and Joseph to be Jesus' mother and father. He gave them the responsibility of teaching Jesus how to speak, how to read the Bible and how to pray. At Joseph's side, he learned the carpenter's trade and how to be a man.

Though the gospels don't tell us anything about them, we can imagine that Jesus had a larger family of grandparents who spoiled him and cousins who came over to play with him. On holidays, we can imagine Jesus, Mary and Joseph getting together with their family to eat, share stories and play games.

Under the care and supervision of this family, Jesus was able to grow in wisdom, strength and grace as Saint Luke tells us in the gospel.

Except that their son happened to be the Son of God, the Holy Family of Nazareth was just like any other family. Like all families, the Holy Family of Nazareth faced many trials and difficulties. Despite traditional images of them, they did not always lead a tranquil life. Jesus was born homeless and into poverty. Shortly after his birth, they had to flee their country under the threat of execution to live as refugees in Egypt. It was a family born into tremendous exterior pressures.

Families today know pressures as well. For economic reasons, both parents frequently have to work outside of the home making meals together on a regular basis difficult. The price of real estate makes longer commutes necessary further limiting time with the family. And those are just some of the pressures on traditional, two parent families. We haven't mentioned single family homes where these pressures are doubled. And then there are "blended" families where step-parents and step-children are constantly testing the boundaries of their relationship adding to the tension within the home.

The status of the family today causes a lot of hand wringing, especially in the Church. There are fewer and fewer traditional families. We are right as Christians and as good citizens to promote the welfare of the traditional, two parent family. Children born in such families are no doubt better off economically and psychologically. The family is the cornerstone of the Church and of society. Our world is only as strong as the families which make it up. At the same time, we must recognize that in today's society when bodies mature more rapidly and adolescence lasts well into the 20's, people are going to make mistakes resulting in out-of-wedlock births and divorce.

A wise spiritual director once said that God is not found in the "ideal", but in the "real". The traditional family is an important ideal. However, God is not found in ideal families or in ideal people, but in real families and in real people. As painful as our past may have been and as much as we may wish we could go back and fix our mistakes, God doesn't give us the option of turning back the clock. God is spending His grace on us in our real lives and in our real families as we find ourselves today. God's grace happens in families that are "blended" and those that need to be mended.

Once we realize that families, as long as they are made of human beings, can never be perfect, then it has important implications for our lives as individuals and as a Church.

First, as individuals each of us can look back on our lives and find fault with our parents. It could be that they were never around or that they were never supportive. It could be that they were abusive in some way. Those scars can stay with us a long time. We know how resentments and grudges can ruin families. Can each of us today bring our hearts before the Lord and ask for the grace to forgive our parents or any other family member who ever hurt us? Can we leave our resentments at the foot of the altar and ask God to relieve us of that burden? Can we recognize that our parents were probably doing the best they could and let go of the anger we have been shouldering all these years? Once we are able to do that, then we can live together in "heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience" as Saint Paul calls us to.

Secondly, for us as a parish, we have to recognize the pressures that families face and ask ourselves, how can we be a more family-friendly community? Are the times we schedule for catechism and worship burdensome to families? In our worship and our hospitality, are we sensitive to the different types of families in our parish and careful not to stigmatize anyone, especially children? What can we as a parish community do to support families with all the challenges they face?

Families are never perfect, even when they are the ideal, traditional family. They are all marked by joy and pain, mistakes and good choices. The Holy Family - Jesus, Mary and Joseph - knew the pressures of family life. The difference was that they experienced God's presence even in those difficulties. Even with all the challenges of daily life in today's society, we can experience God's presence with us and teach our children to recognize Him as well. Then we have fulfilled our mission as a family, no matter what our family may look like.

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