Reflection on the Feast of the Holy Family

The readings for this Sunday’s Mass all concern family. This theme always seems fitting at Christmastime, when so many of us visit with family, whether our own nuclear families, relatives, or those friends who have become like family to us.

Some of the readings suggest some fairly stringent ideas for what constitutes “good” family: wives who are subordinate to their husbands, and children who obey their parents (Col 3:12-21). I’m just back from a few days in Florida with extended family, and if the measure of good family is everyone being obedient to those above them in a social hierarchy, well, then we were not successful. This is not because there were any major conflicts, but rather because we all value a degree of freedom –as well as consideration of others –an element of family life. For example, brother and his wife offered to take some of us out on a boat ride down a north Florida river, but nobody was “required” to go. I was happy to spend as much time as possible in the sunshine, while others most enjoyed sleeping in. Our extended family has a variety of dietary restrictions ranging from vegan to gluten free (due to celiac) to men who seem certain they will die without their portion of meat for the day, and so we have a few people in the kitchen cooking, try to provide a variety, and let everyone choose to eat as they wish. Peace in the family often happens when the adults and older children are free to make our own choices, while taking into account others’ desires and happiness.

When we look closely, though, the gospel account for the day is hardly about mere obedience–even though it shows an adolescent Jesus returning to his parents’ house and being “obedient” (see Luke 2:41-52). Jesus, after all, did not bother to go home from Jerusalem with his parents at the expected time and they had to circle back to get him after he was missing. How distraught Mary and Joseph must have been, like many parents waiting up for their teens to return home long after a curfew. When they found him, he did not apologize but rather said, “Did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?” Far be it from me to suggest that this was accompanied by any eye rolling or snark because, well, it is Jesus, but minimally Jesus was establishing to his parents that he was an adult and not a child any longer. His commitments were no longer only to his mom and dad, but to the wider world and the mission that God had given him. Still, this mission is not at odds with being part of a family or set of commitments. He returns home, grows wiser, and so, too, does his mother Mary. Surely part of what Mary learns is the need to allow Jesus to be free.

The Holy Family and these readings may also be a comfort to those who finds themselves in untraditional family situations. My extended family, from whom I have just returned visiting, is a blended family, with many members not my own family of origin. I am thankful for this, in part because the number of people who are my blood relatives is very small. But this does not matter when considering, who is family.

For example, I like my mother’s husband, and even look forward to seeing his mother, who is not strictly speaking my own “Ma-maw” but has, along with her little dog, become a familiar part of my visits there. My brother’s wife has been part of our family for so long that I can’t remember my brother as an adult without her presence among us. We grow in love and care for others who are not strictly speaking our own blood, people who enter into our families as a result of not only marriage but also remarriages after deaths or divorces. We are also part of a larger human family and find that our shared histories with one another, and sharing in a larger community of care, can also creates bonds that are akin to family ties. Family love is plentiful, if we are only willing to expand our understanding of who and what creates family.

Indeed the Holy Family itself was a most unconventional arrangement: Jesus, the child of Mary and God, being raised by Mary and Joseph, who was tempted to put Mary aside because this did not fit a conventional picture of what “family” looks like. God, however, speaks to Joseph in a dream and guides him to become a part of Mary’s life, and to trust in his experience that family can look like this. Mary has to trust that Joseph will stick around even though their arrangement is not typical. Jesus is possibly annoyed with his parents but still goes back home to be with them. The Holy Family is not a picture perfect family, but it is a human one.

The other readings, aside from Paul’s words on subordination, tell us a lot more about what family looks like than bloodline: “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another,” peace, and above all, “love” (Col 3: 12-14). Family is about those relationships in our lives where we express these virtues, where we consistently attempt to care for one another in a way that is gentle, kind, patient, and faithful. (Of course, we also go amiss at love all the time, but with family, we forgive and try to repair our relationships.) Family is not perfection, but a place where we can fail and try again and be received for who we are. Where there is love that endures, where there is faithfulness, there is “family” of some kind or other.

Indeed, we can even read these words from Colossians about love, compassion, kindness, and forgiveness as the wider context for understanding Paul’s words about submission and obedience better: maybe Paul did not have in mind obedience to an authority so much as being willing to “give” more than we “take,” to make those little everyday gestures of kindness to another that express a wish that the other person be happy. Love, after all, is desiring the other person’s happiness, and trying to make the best decisions that we can for the sake of the other and for the sake of preservation of the bonds between us.

The Feast of the Holy Family does not exist in order to set an unachievable, high bar for us to meet, but rather gives us a model for how flexible and accommodating God is in helping us to create family. Let us seek out those instances of love, kindness, compassion, and faithfulness in our relationships, and there we will find our own holy families.