We’ve all heard of the Scottish Government’s Named Person Scheme. It has not yet passed into law, but is being piloted in various places, including here. It aims to provide each child in Scotland with a Named Person at the service of that child’s well-being. It’s well-intentioned. There are occasions, sadly, when outside intervention is needed, when children may need to be withdrawn from parents. But I know some young couples who’ve had experience of this, and are rightly disturbed. Someone turns up on the doorstep: ‘I’m your Named Person. Do you own this house, or do you rent it? Are you paying a mortgage?’ Extraordinary. Intrusive. Clumsy. We’re not first of all wards of the State, but members of families. We’re sons or daughters before we are citizens. The family comes first, with the rights and duties of parents. There is reason to fear that, as it stands, the legislation will allow unwarranted interference in the lives of families. There are surely other ways the State could support families and children. We need to be vigilant.
Today, too, we remember our best support is elsewhere.
‘Holy Family of Nazareth’, Pope Francis prays, ‘make us once more mindful of the sacredness and inviolability of the family, and its beauty in God’s plan.’ Yes!
We’re in Christmas time. Our Lord has entered our world as a human being, and everything he touches, takes on, involves himself with, he heals, restores, fills with new energy and goodness and lifts to a new level. He takes our flesh. He eats and drinks, sleeps and feels. He thinks and decides, talks and argues. He lives our life and shares our death. And the resurrection is the sign of the difference he makes, and its power is at work already.
Today, we’re reminded the Lord had a family. He didn’t just walk out of a forest one day. He had a genealogy, like all of us. He had a family tree. He belonged to a people, he was one of the children of Abraham. He belonged to a tribe or clan, that of Judah. More particularly, he was a descendant of king David, a Davidide. He had a flesh and blood mother called Mary. The man considered his father was Joseph, who named him, taught him his trade as a carpenter and joiner, and would have introduced him to the Scriptures and prayers of his people. It’s part of our Catholic faith that Mary did not have any children after Jesus, but remained a virgin. At the same time, the New Testament evidences an extended family. We’d expect that. So, in the language of the time, there’s reference to Jesus’ ‘brothers and sisters’ (Mk 6:3 etc). In our terms, they were either cousins, or half-siblings from a previous marriage of Joseph. We have their names: James, Joses, Jude and Simon, and the girls, according to tradition, Salome and Mary. There seems to have been an uncle Clopas and an aunt Mary. Even today, there are people in Nazareth who claim to be related to Jesus. This is the kind of environment, village life with plenty of relatives around, we should think of Jesus growing up in. It may have been devout, but surely not all that tranquil. It was here, as Luke says, ‘he increased in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and men’ (Lk 2:52). At the same time, we know from the Gospels that even Mary and Joseph found Jesus bewildering, and that when he began preaching other members of his family and his friends became positively hostile. They called him mad and tried to section him (Mk 3:21). He had to leave Nazareth and make his base in Capernaum, further north. But Jesus changes everything he touches, like water into wine. His family came round. They became believers. One of the people Jesus appeared to after his Resurrection was his ‘brother’ James (1 Cor 15:7). Surely Mary’s influence was a factor too. We see ‘the brethren of the Lord’ praying together with the apostles before Pentecost, with Mary in their midst (Acts 1:13-14). Grace has reached them, and powerfully. St Paul mentions some of Jesus’ relatives working as missionary couples (1 Cor 9:5). We know that some of them became leading figures in the church in Jerusalem, for at least two generations, especially his cousin or half-brother James, who was bishop of Jerusalem, and then later another cousin, Simon. We have a letter from that James and another from his brother Jude. From later still, we know the names of two grandsons of the family: Zoker and Simon, who were farmers and clearly leading Christians in northern Palestine, in Galilee. All these believing relatives even had a name: they were called “the Master’s”, i.e. his lot, the lot who belonged to the Master.
So we can think of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph as the centre and core of something larger, and as a kind of holy leaven. They were doing then what the Liturgy prays the example of the Holy Family will do now. They were a source of grace.
So there’s a message of today, for married Christians, for Christian or half-Christian families, for all of us: not to despair of the grace of God. It is at work. St Paul speaks of husbands and wives, children and parents. The family is the place where we overcome the tendency to “me, myself and I”, and realise we’re relational beings. We have to give way. We have to think of others. We learn to say ‘sorry’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ We move from being “me” to “us”. And this is the opening to grace, to the Trinity. It strikes me too that when we do see Jesus, Mary and Joseph by themselves, without the wider network, it’s in times of trouble: having to seek asylum in Egypt, or when Mary and Joseph go back to Jerusalem looking for Jesus. This is so often when the family proves its worth, shows its mettle. When one member is having a hard time, the family can be the place of comfort and a new start. The family is the first hospital, the Pope has said. There are wonderful stories of separated husbands and wives, or parents and children, hanging on against all the odds, staying loyal and finding their way back together. This is the power of love. And grace is in it.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph: they’re our named persons. Or how good to see chalked above a front door: CMB and the year. Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, the names of the three wise men. Families are funny things, sometimes frantic, sometimes frighteningly astray, always fragile. Sometimes we may have to get out, but normally not. Grace is in them. Christ has made family life a way to God.
‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
Graciously hear our prayer. Amen.’
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 30 December 2016)