There is a story told of a few young Irish boys in the school playground who are discussing their families and what they are getting for Christmas. One young boy says to another, ‘your daddy was my daddy last Christmas’. It seems a far cry from what we celebrate today as the Feast of the Holy family yet all families are different in some way and the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph was no exception. The Christ-child or Íosa as the Irish language tenderly calls him, was not only human but fully divine as well. In this important sense, he was different as was his mother Mary, conceived without sin, and Joseph, his foster father and legal guardian.
Today, on this Feastday of the Holy Family, we leave the baby Jesus behind, as it were, and begin to deal with the reality of the growing child and, later, the grown man. His growth to maturity, like our own, takes place in the context of a human family. Apart from the story of the visit to the temple when Jesus was twelve years old, the Gospel of today is the only time the New Testament speaks of his life in the Holy Family. Scripture is very reserved about that part of his growing up that is referred to as his ‘hidden life’. He is fully human as well as being divine, and like the rest of us, he has to grow physically, mentally and spiritually within the context of his time and place and family. ‘The child grew to maturity, and he was filled with wisdom; and God’s favour was with him’.
Simeon, we are told, was an ‘upright and devout man’. Joseph and Mary were likewise upright and devout. They were observant of the laws and rituals of their faith. They were also poor. We know this by the nature of their offering at his Presentation, two turtle doves or young pigeons; the offering prescribed by the Law as expected of the poor. Aside from the three years of Jesus’ public ministry, the lives of the Holy Family were lived largely in ordinariness yet Simeon recognised the destiny of Jesus as Saviour and prophet and reveals the sorrow that Mary, like so many mothers, must endure. As our own poet and patriot Pádraig Pearse put it, ‘Lord, thou art hard on mothers. We suffer in their coming and their going’.
The Feast day of the Holy Family presents us with an ideal of a family growing in wisdom and understanding of each other. They have their difficulties and they have to negotiate the dangers of their own time. Jesus’ life begins in the shadow of violence; the threats of Herod that forced his family to flee to Egypt. He begins life as a displaced person, re-enacting the history of his people who were once exiled and enslaved. Like many of the children of our own time and culture, he experiences the world as a potentially dangerous place. He also experiences the care and compassion of his family who searched for him when he was lost and who worried about him and what might become of him.
We take the stability of our own families for granted sometimes and often, we fail to give thanks for the ordinariness and the extra-ordinariness of our own humble upbringings. Home, it is said, is where we behave most badly and are treated the best. It is where the making of mistakes is mostly tolerated and where we learn the life-skills that allow us to develop and mature. There are difficulties within family life for we are all human and fragile and our families appear to be more fragile than ever as new ways take hold and old rituals and beliefs are discarded. Sometimes it seems as if marriage vows are disposable rather than permanent. The excuse for all kinds of bad or selfish behaviour is often given in the phrase, ‘so long as you are happy’. The happiness that is bought at the expense of other peoples’ suffering is a poor and often temporary reward. Cheating and adultery seldom bring anything but fleeting pleasure and lasting pain. Children are cheated, in many cases, of the security that they need in order to mature and often their innocence is stolen by their being forced to grow up far too quickly. We have duties to each other and an outline of these is given to us today in the readings and in the Feastday.
There is the duty of parents to care for children; to be present, physically and emotionally to them. There is a duty to show good example and to enforce discipline. Conflict and anger are normal, even commonplace, within a certain range, within the security of family. There is the hard work of sorting out differences and learning to cope with personalities. There is the eternal conflict of the idealism of youth and the caution of age.
Parents have a duty not to be corrupt, uncaring or hypocritical in what they teach their children and what they do themselves – not to say they believe yet behave as if they don’t.
There is the duty of children to honour father and mother, to be respectful and obedient. It has always been considered important to respect the wisdom and the intentions of parents. Most parents do their best and it is important to thank them while we still have the opportunity. Despite the best efforts of some, things go wrong and much suffering results. ‘A sword of sorrow…
It is important for older, adult children to make provision for their elderly parents in a fair and dignified way, not letting the burden fall on one person in the family. There is also the modern habit, beloved of those who write misery-literature, of making parents into scapegoats for all that has gone wrong in one’s life and of taking no responsibility for their own actions and decisions; blaming others and absolving themselves of their own responsibility.
The ideal of the Christian family is of a group growing together on their common journey through life. It is a community of common respect and dignity, full of forgiveness and quick to heal and show understanding. The Christian family is a community presenting itself before God, respectful of the traditions of the community and of the faith, and eager to do God’s will in all things. It is an ideal of growing towards maturity and perfection together, learning from each other, teaching each other, and all under the inspiration of Christ and his parents, the Holy Family, Jesus, Mary and Joseph.