Family: Holy and Unholy

Today’s feast of the Holy Family is not among my favourites, but precisely because of that I have struggled with it and recorded my struggles in various blog posts over the years without any resolution of my fundamental difficulty. The subject seems to evoke either extreme sentimentality or an awkward kind of ‘Jesus was really just an ordinary guy like us who happened to be God’ banality. How can we realistically regard the Holy Family as a model for our own yet still maintain reverence and love? It is even more perplexing if one happens to live in community. The family model has never much appealed to Benedictines, at least not to those I know best. Maybe we need to drop the idea of the Holy Family being a model and settle for something more attainable — an encouragement perhaps.

I have often pondered a chance remark of a friend of mine: ‘Family is where one can behave the worst but will always be treated the best.’ For those of us lucky enough to have had a stable and loving family, I think that is true; but not all families are stable or loving, and in a world where the conventional family of yesteryear cannot be taken for granted, the idealised picture of Nazareth is a genuine difficulty. To associate membership of a family with love and acceptance is not the experience of all, yet isn’t that one of the deepest needs of all of us, and isn’t part of the purpose of today’s feast to lead us towards greater love and acceptance of others, whether we are related by ties of blood or not?

We come back to the problem of presentation, as mentioned earlier. Our Lady is often viewed through a very narrow lens, that of perfect mother (which, as Mother of God, she was), more exactly perfect mother according to the notions of unmarried male priests (which she wasn’t). It is a very hard act for ordinary women to follow or even aspire to, because it is so unreal. Quite what men make of the portrayal of St Joseph, I don’t know. In the Middle Ages he was a figure of fun, and it took a St Teresa and a Bossuet to recognize his true greatness, but it is a greatness most would find hard to emulate. As for our Lord Jesus Christ, what can we say? Today’s gospel suggests more of a lippy teen than the perfect child of many a feast-day homily.

Can we make a case for seeing in the humanity and, dare I say it, imperfection of the Holy Family an encouragement to ourselves? Without descending into banality or irreverence, the fact that at times Joseph may have been tetchy and Mary tired or glum is what we would expect. That Jesus sometimes tried their tempers is only to be expected, too. Yet it is in that very imperfection, in going on loving despite all the apparent failures, that human beings are somehow fashioned into something that is actually holy, that reflects the love and goodness of God. In the end, there is no such thing as an unholy family, only families with the potential to become holy. The Holy Family of Nazareth may not be a helpful model for us all, but it is, or can be, a very great encouragement.

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18 thoughts on “Family: Holy and Unholy”

  1. I was once told the definition of a family being the place where, if you arrive on the doorstep, they have to let you in. Now working in a prison, I know that sadly that isn’t always the case. However, when my parents died I felt, even being married with three children, that I no longer had anywhere I could go for refuge if necessary, knowing that I would ‘t be turned away.

  2. Two things abut them in today’s gospel: they were religiously observant (Jesus was in the habit of sabbath attendance at synagogue— presumably so were Mary and Joseph); Jesus, despite his feelings of needing to be in the Temple, went back to Nazareth and was obedient. We all can emulate their religious practice; and if someone questions the need for churchgoing, we can point to them as examples of worship with the community. Jesus shows us that our personal desires must yield to the requirements of our status within the family. OTOH Hannah shows us that we must allow and encourage family members to follow their vocation, even if it isn’t one we had hoped for.

    The feast also tells us that marriage and children are to be encouraged.

    • Thank you, yes; as I said above, the gospel is susceptible of many interpretations, and I think we can all profit from them. That may also be one reason why the monastic practice of lectio divina, a slow, prayerful reading of the text, can be so productive and allow it to speak to those who aren’t married and don’t have children as well as those who are and do.

  3. First off, I find it comforting that even Mary and Joseph, usually depicted as the models of calm, were capable of freaking out. And I find it lovely that in this highly emotional moment, they simply asked ““Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” They didn’t say something like “You rotten child! When we get home you are going to be in BIG TROUBLE”

    And another beautiful and important element of today’s reading (which is only now apparent to me as the parent of teenagers) is that when Jesus didn’t respond with any apologies or anything for worrying them so, neither Mary nor Joseph yelled at him, or beat him, or anything else.

    They apparently simply strove to understand him. And in response to their understanding and restraint, Jesus ended up being obedient to them, Mary held these things in her heart and treasured them, and Jesus “advanced in wisdom and age and favor”.

    It’s a beautiful model for how to deal with teenagers — and I’ve also found this to be a model for dealing with anyone — always seek first to understand their point of view before passing judgement.

    • Thank you, but, oh, do you realise how blessed you are to have such control! Not everyone does (I know I don’t), but I trust we all pray to be given the grace to understand others. Luke’s presentation of the finding of the child Jesus in the Temple is a very careful construction susceptible of a number of interpretations to which a short post like mine cannot, alas, do justice..

  4. As a child being raised in difficult family circumstances I truly believed I could be part of the Holy Family as a child of Mary if only I could become RC. That process became a reality as a grownup. Of course my newly adoptive family, the Church, is as dysfunctional and troubled as any earthly family might be, but love and compassion flows abundantly from the head of this family, our Lord and His teachings.

    I’m not keen on the saccharine portrayal of Mary nor of the sidelining of Joseph but find inspiration in our Holy Mother’s faithfulness and strength and in St. Joseph’s persistence and gift of service. Encouragement, yes, that’s it. Yesterday my husband and I celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary on the Feast of the Holy Family – we attest to the Holy Family as being role models in good times and in bad.

  5. Thank you for your kind words, Sister, which I have shared with Harold. As to the finger, much healing yet to be accomplished. Two finger typing and overall clumsiness with the splint. Harold cooked the Christmas feast to perfection. I’m now calling him “Turkey Man”. He’s getting on very well in the kitchen without a word of grumble. I am blessed!

  6. You can choose your friends but you cannot choose your family. You are born into the latter and are very much conditioned by their tenets as you grow with them. Your Church is an extended family and are like a sweet assortment. Being Christian, they all contain sugar but individuals come in different flavours. Some have hard exteriors or centres whereas others are soft, chewy, in milk, dark or white chocolate. You have favourites in the family and in Church just as with a chocolate assortment. These leanings translate into how one deals with society as a whole.
    Accepting and acting on God’s teaching to love one another with grace, peace, kindness and equanimity gives us the basis for coping with the trials and tribulations of life within the family, Church and the wider community.

  7. Am I misinterpreting Luke; but how many carpenters kids were testament academics, or scholars, could read & probably write, maybe helped Joseph build, craft in their family workshop. I’m thinking this wasn’t your average Nazareth Holy Family.

    • Literacy has always been high among Jews, and the ‘son of the carpenter’ we sometimes take as a belittlement was, according to Geza Vermes, a compliment — the kind of thing one would say to a precocious youth. So, I think the jury is out on this question, especially as Luke brings a more Hellenic perspective to the gospel.

  8. I am interested in what you say about Benedictines not being that keen on the family model. Do you think you can point me in the direction of something further on that?
    I’m writing my masters’ dissertation on what mothers can learn from the rule and yours is an interesting counterpoint.
    If you’ve got time of course.
    Thank you for your blog, I read it all the time and it is a wonderful blessing to this non conformist mum!

    • Thank you. I would suggest you start by looking at the Rule and the tiles St Benedict uses for different people: he envisages a community of brethren. The abbot is called father, but only because he represents Christ to the community, and it is only one of the tiles given him. The ‘family model’ only really becomes popular with the later development of religious life..

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