Today is the Feast of the Holy Family, a day on which we remember that Jesus grew up with Mary, Joseph, and in the context of family life. Years ago, I recall a friend who said to me that he took comfort in knowing that at least Jesus had a perfect family, even if he had not. However, I suppose that I take comfort in the opposite: even the Holy Family experienced its ups and downs and yet family life offers a beautiful model of love nonetheless.
Consider that Mary initially felt confusion and perhaps fear when she was being invited to be a mother to Jesus, as we see in the story about Gabriel visiting her. I can recall holding my firstborn child and thinking, uh-oh, I am not sure that I am equipped for this. An entire wonderful little being’s life and welfare depends upon me, and I am still learning how to put on the diaper right! What if I screw it all up?
Joseph thinks about leaving Mary, because his picture of marriage was different than he anticipated, but a dream reassures him that God is to be found in this different experience of fatherhood than he anticipated. But his dreams guide him into fatherhood. He also has to flee to a different country with his family and protect them when they are endangered, yet he willingly takes on this role of protector. I imagine that there are many people who might be discouraged, or even tempted to throw in the towel in the midst of adversity, yet God ever calls us to be adaptable, flexible, and to look out for those whom God has given us to care for.
Jesus seemingly forgets to mention to his parents that he is staying behind in the temple, and they are distraught when they can’t find him as they are departing–all in the days before cell phones, or even landlines. How afraid they must have been that they could not find him. As with most parents, they also had to adapt to his growing autonomy, and let him go to have the life and mission that he was to have, apart from being their son. So, too, we as parents have to learn to let go of our children a little even as they remain ours and in a unique relationship to us as parents.
The Holy Family is also like a model of the Trinity in miniature: although Jesus is himself a member of the Trinity, with God as his father, insofar as Joseph helped to raise Jesus, we can see Jesus as arising from the love that Mary and Joseph had for one another. We can understand the Holy Spirit as the divine love generated between the other two persons of the Trinity, a love that then overflows out and beyond God’s self and into the wider world. So, too, the love that we show for our own children, and the love between a married couple that gives rise to a wider love in the context of family life, eventually also flows out into the world. Jesus took the love that he had learned in his family from his human parents, as well as from his relationship to the divine, and then he shared it, grew in it, and modeled it for us all.