The feast of the Holy family is a modern invention – much like the 19th and 20th century nuclear family it may seem to some to romanticize.
Families come in all kinds and shapes and sizes, and the forms family takes have evolved over time, and have evolved especially dramatically in our own lifetimes. That said, everyone begins life, biologically at least, as a member of a family. And family life in some form has almost universally been the basic unit of social organization, and for most people the focus of their day-to-day lives. Even those of us without families of our own treasure our extended family connections and family-like connections – something so many of us have had to do without during this year of pandemic when we have been unable to visit and gather and travel.
One of the striking things about God’s relationship with the human race, as revealed in both the Old and the New Testaments, is how it is largely a series of family stories - beginning with the creation of a family, from whom the whole human race is descended. After several generations, during which things seem to go from bad to worse, God singles out one particular family to be his agent for renewing his promise to the entire human race. The rest of the Old Testament follows the story of God’s promises to Abraham’s and Sarah’s descendants, culminating, in the New Testament, in the homeless, refugee immigrant family, known to us today as “the Holy Family.”
We’re all familiar with countless artistic portrayals of the Holy Family. It’s safe to say there are probably more portraits of the Holy Family than of any other family. And, of course, we have them here on display in the familiar Christmas scene, a custom that Saint Francis started at Christmas in 1223, after which, so the story goes, “everyone went home with joy.” Such nativity scenes invite us to appreciate the circumstances of Christ’s birth, to consider the concrete reality of God becoming one of us, a human being like ourselves. “The nativity scene.” Pope Francis has reminded us, “is like a living gospel rising up from the pages of sacred Scripture.”
Nativity scenes are also somewhat artificial, however. The figures appear frozen in time. All the participants who came and went at different times in the actual story all appear together and seem stuck in one moment. And, of course, we have so sentimentalized the story that we forget that we are looking at a far from optimal setting in which to give birth under obviously sub-standard conditions.
And yet, if we but read the Christmas story as told by the gospels without passing it though the filters of holiday sentimentality, if we read it as it was originally written to be read, then what do we find? A young unmarried girl is inexplicably pregnant. Her fiancé marries her anyway, based on a dream he had. She gives birth far from home, in a cave, with some animals for company and some strangers for visitors. In the ancient world – indeed for much of human history in most of the world – childbirth was a dangerous, life-threatening experience. Assuming mother and child both made it safely through that, there were further threats in the form of diseases that carried away both rich and poor. And, of course, most people were poor, and so everyone in a typical family – adults and children – lived close to the margin, often hungry or in danger of becoming so. And if you were poor – then as now - you were almost certainly also politically powerless, and that could pose problems too – as it definitely did for the Holy Family, when Jesus’ very life was soon threatened by political violence and his family forced to seek asylum as political refugees.
Many families – now as then – have experienced similar problems. The Incarnation wasn’t some sentimental novel. God became one of us, part of our world, a member of a family, a family struggling to make ends meet from crisis to crisis.
“Crises,” as Pope Francis recently reminded us, “are present everywhere and in every age of history, involving ideologies, politics, the economy, technology, ecology and religion. A crisis … appears as an extraordinary event that always creates a sense of trepidation, anxiety, upset and uncertainty in the face of decisions to be made” [Address to the Roman Curia, December 21, 2020, 5]
I remember a friend of mine, talking to me about the challenges of being a parent, saying that he thought the fact that the human race has survived at all is itself a tribute to how families have struggled, stuck together, and pulled through.
It is by sticking together for the common good that the human race will hopefully somehow pull through this terrible pandemic that has been the defining crisis of this past year.
But, if the Incarnation means that in the Holy Family God himself has experienced and identified himself with our lifelong stresses and insecurities, then the corollary also follows from that – that God is present with us too, to sustain us in our stresses and insecurities. And we too have God’s word directing us to stick together and support one another – in good times and bad.
Homily for the Feast of the Holy Family, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN December 27, 2020.
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