The Human Family
The Feast of the Holy Family. Fr John Farrell meditates upon the trust and the care needed at the heart of every family. (Our Christmas sermon can be found here.)
At the wedding feast of Cana (John 2:1ff) the mother of Jesus plays a prominent role. She is there with her adult son and his disciples. But there is no mention of Joseph. Perhaps we can take it that he has died. As Mary is diligently concerned for the happiness of the newly married couple she herself is a widow. We rarely think of Our Lady as a widow. Families exist over time and have their times and seasons.
Today, immediately after Christmas, we focus on the young family and the joy and the wonder of the birth of Jesus. Christmas cards portray the scene of the Holy Family as imagined by artists throughout the ages. But Jesus, Mary and Joseph do not form an exclusive family. Already God is extending the holy family as angels summon in the poor and marginalised from the sheepfolds on the hill and a star leads pagan searchers after truth and wisdom. As Jesus will later say of those who do the will of our Father in heaven: ‘Here are my brother and sister and mother’ (Mark 3:35).
Joseph is a character on the Christmas cards but does not have Christmas card character. He has taken on enormous family responsibilities, and he fulfils them. Trust is at the heart of the Holy Family: his trust in his pregnant fiancée. He protects her dignity, her good name, her life. In our world where women can face such psychological, verbal and physical violence he is a respectful and sensitive husband. And she places her trust in him. Together they will have to face uncertainties and dangers as well as the shared joys of family life with a growing child.
At the Presentation in the Temple the young couple receive a frightening prophecy from Simeon of the cost of their commitment to their child. Soon they will be refugees fleeing to Egypt like the young families of asylum seekers we see on the daily news.
In today’s gospel there is a more domestic distress. They lose their twelve-year-old boy for three whole days. Such a sense of being failed parents. Such anguish, followed by outrage at their adolescent’s inability to realise the pain he has caused (see picture above). Even holy families are not always happy families.
Joseph and Mary’s graced trust in each other is consecrated within their graced trust in divine providence. Mary gives her fiat at the annunciation: ‘Be it done unto me according to thy word.’ Joseph receives three angelic annunciations in dreams declaring that prophetical oracles of the ancient past are to be fulfilled by his family. But Joseph is not just a dreamer: like his namesake he is also a man of action. He does not have nightmares in his dreams. It is when he wakes that he must deal with the nightmare world of power-crazed dictators plotting genocide, as in our world today. As her son is crucified by the powers of this world, the widow Mary, Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, will stand at the foot of the cross. But she is not alone. She is supported by women of the larger family her son has called into being.
Families exist in time and depend on fortitude, perseverance and forgiveness. In the wedding ceremony there is the beautiful phrase ‘to love and to cherish.’ Cherishing: cherishing in families, in the Church and in the common good of society. During this time of the pandemic, we have come to appreciate how ordinary people have taken on roles of cherishing within the family of our society. We have come to realise how much we properly need to depend on each other not just for expertise, time, and effort, but for love and cherishing.
At the Annunciation, Mary became the mother of Christ. At the cross and at Pentecost she became the Mother of Christians. At her Assumption she is crowned as the Mother of all humanity and, indeed, of all creation. Mary and Joseph have unique and privileged roles in the family of the Church as Mother and Protector. In this Christmastide season, open to all, we celebrate this Holy Family within the holy family of the Church and the even larger holy family of all humankind guided by the Spirt, and summoned by angels above Bethlehem, to become sons and daughters of our heavenly Father.
Image: detail from ‘Christ Discovered in the Temple’ by Simone Martini, 1342, Walker Gallery, Liverpool.