Too Good to be True

Too Good to be True

Feast of the Holy Family. Fr Robert Ombres finds the Holy Family good enough to be true.

Among Catholics there has been a special and popular devotion to the Holy Family for centuries. Today it is found to be less convincing. The family group of Jesus, Mary and Joseph can appear too good to be true, not relevant to us in the kind of world we have to live in. They seem to belong to a naive world of unreal, cut-out religious figures. When devotion to the Holy Family concentrates on the time when Jesus was a child, then this can easily create an atmosphere of sentimentality.

Nowadays, we are acutely aware of the strains and stresses on family life, we know the statistics about the average time-span of recent marriages and the general decline in the birth-rate in the Western world. We are alerted to marital infidelities and all kinds of violence within families. All this knowledge can make ideals seem less plausible and not supportive.

Perhaps too many television programmes, films and newspaper stories give realism and importance chiefly to moral weakness or sin, while showing virtue as flimsy and difficult to believe in. We are made suspicious of goodness or it is presented as boring. The goody-goody type of person is smugly and obtrusively virtuous. As for holiness, that can look glib, uninspiring and certainly of not much use in getting on with complicated lives and relationships.

A vast number of people have read or seen adaptations of Evelyn Waugh’s great novel Brideshead Revisited. According to Waugh himself, the theme of the novel is the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters. One particular family is at the centre. Despite the author’s intention and skill, some will have been captivated by aspects other than the workings of divine grace. Some, for a variety of reasons, will have been convinced and strengthened by what came about.

The Holy Family keeps its sustaining power and attractiveness, not least because its members and their goodness are for real. Most of the family life of Jesus, Mary and Joseph went unrecorded, yet we are told significant things. The birth of any baby tends to require change all round; the birth of Jesus had a greater impact.

Joseph grappled with the discovery that Mary was with child, and not his child. The circumstances of the birth of Jesus were not the easiest and, on returning to the land of Israel from seeking refuge in another country, the family had to move house out of fear and go to live in Nazareth. Mary was deeply disturbed by the words of the angel Gabriel, and she did not find their meaning plain. Someone called Simeon, in the Temple at Jerusalem, had baffling things to say about the child’s future, and predicted that a sword would pierce Mary’s soul. And he turned out to be right.

Having found the young Jesus in the Temple after he had gone missing, Mary asked her child why he had done this to her and Joseph. Jesus’s reply was that they should have known he must be in his Father’s house. St Luke notes that they did not understand what he meant. Years later, his relatives had to set out to take charge of Jesus, it being said that he was out of his mind. Family life has its anxieties.

Jesus’s attitude to his family and to family relationships in general was not at all complacent, and there are various challenging texts in the gospels where Jesus considers kinship and faith. Just think of his words: ‘Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother‘. Those who think that the Holy Family is made up of flimsy figures acting mechanically should read all the relevant texts.

For the members of the Holy Family there were human lives to be lived, always real and at times demanding even for Joseph (a saint), for Mary (without sin), and for the incarnate Son of God. The goodness of the Holy Family was tried and tested, and is therefore true and reliable.

Readings: Ecclesiasticus 3:2-6,12-14|Colossians 3:12-21|Luke 2:22-40

fr. Robert Ombres, former Procurator General of the Order of Preachers, lives and teaches at Blackfriars, Oxford and at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome.