Today, the Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s Day, the Church celebrates the feast of the Holy Family. Strictly speaking, the feast celebrates the familial tie between Jesus, his mother, Mary, and his father, Joseph. While all members of the Holy Family have their own feast day (and frequently, more than one day, celebrating different aspects of each), today is set aside to recognize and commemorate them as a family unit. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are held up as a model family, an example of holy living as a family.
On the one hand, we can all relate to some degree. We are all, certainly, members of families. But on the other hand, it seems as though the similarities might end there. The gospels tell us precious little about what their lives were like as a family. We know bits and pieces of their individual stories, and we know the few stories where they were together: at the Nativity, the flight to Egypt, the Presentation in the Temple, and the trip to Jerusalem where Jesus was left behind. We read nothing of their day-to-day life, and very little of their interactions with one another. Of the three, Joseph is the easiest to relate to. He, unlike Mary and Jesus, was born with original sin, just like the rest of us. He worked as a carpenter, and most likely taught the trade to Jesus. He was protective of his family. And then he vanishes. As we read nothing of an ascension (like Jesus) or believe in an assumption (like Mary), we can only presume that he died just as the rest of us will, with the stopping of his breath and heart.
So what are we left with to celebrate the feast of the Holy Family? Certainly, we can imagine what their lives were like and content ourselves with assuming that they were the ideal family. We can convince ourselves that the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus (mentioned in Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55-56) were not, in fact, brothers and sisters, thus preserving the triune of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and Mary’s perpetual virginity. We can take clever slogans of today (like “the family that prays together, stays together”) and apply them anachronistically to the Holy Family. But none of this makes this particular family easier to understand, relate to, and exemplify.
So on this feast of the Holy Family, perhaps we might spend some time reflecting on our own families, and how we can strengthen our family ties. Atypical and nontraditional families (which is probably most of us) might consider the triumph of the nontraditional family that was the Holy Family. Very little of what we are browbeaten now into believing is a “traditional family” is exemplified by the Holy Family, and yet we celebrate their unique family today throughout the world. How might we, in our own particular and/or peculiar circumstances, best emulate the Holy Family in spirit?
Ever felt as though your parents were inattentive to you as a child? Consider that Jesus was inadvertently left behind in Jerusalem overnight. Ever felt like you can’t escape the shadow of your parents? See Mark 6:3, referenced above. Ever wanted to put some distance between yourself and your blood relatives? Check out Mark 3:31-35. Ever feel like your family thinks you’ve lost your mind and need an intervention? Jesus must have felt that way after his family came to “restrain” him, worrying about his mental health (Mark 3:20-21). Ever been embarrassed at a party by your mother? Jesus was. Is it any wonder the teenage years of Jesus are omitted from the Bible? Can you even imagine?
And yet, his family stayed true to him in his ministry and in his death. When Jesus’ disciples had fled out of fear, his mother stood weeping at the foot of the cross. From the cross, Jesus entrusted his mother’s care to the apostle John. Familial love triumphs. Although I have quite a few bones to pick with Mel Gibson’s “The Passion Of The Christ,” one scene that leaps off the screen and grabs my heart is during the procession with the cross. Watching from an alley, Mary witnesses Jesus fall, the cross crashing down on him, and she runs to embrace him, to protect him. We see Mary flash back to a moment in Jesus’ childhood when, as a toddler, he trips and falls, and she rushes over to help. This heartbreaking scene is so moving that it feels genuine. How could any mother, after cradling her baby in her arms with joy, not feel compelled to comfort her adult son in his affliction. This, too, is the beauty of Michelangelo’s Pietà.
Today, on the feast of the Holy Family, spend some time with Scripture and pay attention to the parts involving the Holy Family. Google “holy family” and click “images” and spend some time looking at classic works of art depicting this family. Then, having centered yourself on this blessed trio, return to your own family with a sense of love that has no bounds. Whether it is the family you were born into, or the family you have created, know that the Holy Family is watching over and protecting your own, holy family.