One of the great privileges of being a priest is friendship with families. It’s a gift, to be allowed in, as it were, to see something of the daily life and follow the inevitable ups and downs. To share births and bereavements and growing and ageing. To watch fathers and mothers cope with their children. To see them navigate the challenges from outside, from a secularised and over-sexualised society, from the confused and confusing messages about gender given at school . It’s like watching a boat making its way through turbulent seas.
Marriage and family are holy ground: the relationship between husband and wife, the unfolding lives of young ones, the presence of the elderly. These are sacred things.
So, it’s good to have this feast and renew the connection between our families and Jesus’ family, the Holy Family, to encourage some symbiosis. When the Son of God became a human being, he didn’t become an abstract “human” or an isolated figure. He belonged to a place and a people and a family. Nor did that family sail through life on a gentle wind of unruffled perfection. Having Jesus in the boat didn’t change the nature of the sea. One thinks of Joseph, presumably imagining a quiet life with his betrothed, only to discover she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit and to be immersed in a dilemma. Mary too had already been disturbed by the message of an angel. Divine acts overtake them both and overrule their plans. Then, they must have anticipated Jesus being born in Nazareth, only to be thrown into disarray by the Roman government and the need for Joseph to register in Bethlehem. Or again, what baffling messages about Jesus they receive from the shepherds and from Simeon and Anna, and how taken aback they must have been by those exotic characters from the east, and their gold, frankincense and myrrh. What next, they must have wondered. Then came the brush with horror: the manic cruelty of Herod, the slaughter of the innocents, the flight in the night towards Egypt. What must it have been like for Mary to hear how children had died because of hers? This was real trauma, surely. Then, the need to find work and accommodation in another country, living what refugees live. It’s topical. Then, the cautious return to their own country, heading round the danger in Judaea and settling back in Mary’s Nazareth. And the anguish of today’s Gospel: “my child, why have you done this to us?” – to be met by a brusque reply from their 12 year old. “And they did not understand what he meant.”
This is not an untroubled family. It seems like frequent disruption, expectations upended, puzzling events defying comprehension. Perhaps every family knows something of this. Yet nothing undid the bonds of love between this trinity of souls. Today’s Gospel ends: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favour with God and man.” Throughout his youth, Jesus was becoming what he was meant to be, he was growing into his mission. The mystery of his involvement with us was deepening.
Under the guidance of Mary and Joseph he would be learning to “earn his keep by the work of his hands”, learning a trade, and being initiated into synagogue life, “reciting the traditional prayers and expressions of his people’s faith and coming to know that ancestral faith until he made it bear fruit in the mystery of the Kingdom” (Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia 65). And as Mary pondered, it emerged how all the unexpected events – the virginal conception, the birth in Bethlehem, the flight into Egypt – were a working out of God’s plan and the fulfilment of ancient prophecies. The upset of Jesus’ flurry of independence at the age of 12, staying behind in the Temple, was more still for her to ponder, a further initiation into the identity of her Spirit-filled child. “For those who love God”, St Paul will say, “all things work together for good” (Rom 8:28). Slowly but surely, and in family life too.
Marriage, we say, is a reality of the natural law, as is the family life that normally flows from it. It is part of the created order. It’s in the genes. It goes back, if you like, to Adam and Eve: “Here at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”, “be fruitful and multiply”. It’s the bedrock and springboard of social life. This is how the human race perpetuates itself and where we discover what being human is about. It was part of the mission of Christ to endorse this, to rescue it from its distortions, and actually to enhance its meaning and goodness. Through the sacrament of matrimony, the Lord graces nature, “christifies” love and life. He began his public ministry with the wedding feast of Cana, saving a couple from embarrassment. He went into Peter’s house and healed his mother-in-law. He befriended Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and calmed a domestic row between the two sisters, comforting them when their brother died and even giving him back to them. He sympathised with grieving parents, gave Jairus back his daughter and the widow of Nain her son. The context of these three raisings from the dead was always the family. He spoke with the Samaritan woman with her complicated relationships and with the woman caught in adultery (cf. AL 64). These episodes from his earthly life are signs of what the risen Lord does now, in our families, through the Holy Spirit and the grace of the sacrament of matrimony. The Christian family is a “domestic church”, we say. It’s a place where Christ grows in wisdom and stature, not in himself now, but in us. It’s where, as we had in a prayer before Christmas, “through his passion and Cross he leads us to the glory of the resurrection”. However tossed the boat, he is in it, keeps it from submerging and leads it to shore. He is bigger than any brokenness.
Here too, God is with us.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph, befriend and bless our families. Amen.