I must admit that I struggled with feeling comfortable providing today’s reflection on “Holy Family Sunday”. So much so, that this morning, I attended Mass at Newman---I guess hoping that the priest’s homily would inspire me to great thoughts, or lowly plagiarism, whichever came first. Best laid plans---today was Newman’s ‘forward thinking’ day, where they, like us, allowed members of the congregation to preach.
A married couple did the honors, and initially, for me anyway, their talk exemplified what was making me most uncomfortable about how I should reflect. They started off by talking about how many Christmas cards portray the Holy Family as a perfect trio, haloes and all and, they pointed out that this portrait is inconsistent with the reality of the lives most families lead today.
Yet for them, it was not the structure of the portrait that was inconsistent, it was its perfection. They proceeded to talk about the trials of raising four young children with one on the way, the disappointment that infertile and childless couples must feel, and at the end, almost as an after thought, they talked about single persons at Newman who “manage” to create unique family structures of their own.
I was finding it very difficult to relate to their talk. Then, I reflected on what for me, are the core themes of today’s readings about family---faith, love and acceptance.
Hannah had faith that God would provide her with a child, and when it happened, although she loved the child, she gave the child back to God for God’s use as a minister. Her husband, Elkanah, probably did not understand. After all, they had waited so long for a child, and now, like Abraham, they were going to give up their only son forever---except unlike Abraham, who got to keep Isaac, God did not intervene with Hannah and Elkanah. Still, Elkanah did not question Hannah. Because of his love for God, and his love for her, he accepted her decision.
Fast forward to Mary and Joseph. On faith alone, they accepted without understanding how or why, that Mary was to give birth to God’s Son. They accepted it, but probably didn’t fully comprehend what that meant. We do not know what happened in Jesus’ life from shortly after his birth to age 12. To his parents, he probably seemed like an average Jewish boy. Then, like Hannah and Elkanah before them, Mary and Joseph followed Jewish law by going to temple. Yet, unlike Hannah and Elkanah, they had no intention of leaving Jesus there. Think how dismayed they must have been to discover that he was not with them or with their traveling companions. Yet, when they returned and found him---instead of apologizing for causing them to worry, he basically explained that he was doing what he was sent to do, to learn and to teach in God’s house.
Not only did they probably not understand what he was talking about, and think him somewhat intemperate, they couldn’t have possibly forseen that 21 years later, Jesus would return to Jerusalem and then, instead of people being astonished by his wisdom, they would be outraged by what they saw as his arrogance in referring to himself as “God’s Son.” Mary and Joseph couldn’t have possibly known that Jesus’ devotion to doing God’s work would ultimately lead to His death. Yet, they accepted Jesus’ explanation and returned to their home. They loved him and raised him until he left for his ministry.
John tells us that we must do three things: 1. Keep God’s commandments; 2. Believe, or have faith in Christ, and, 3. Love each other. John’s reading does not reference the structural family we see in the 1st reading and the Gospel---yet his reading is much more profound. Why, because John is saying that we are all children of God, and if that’s true, then by definition we are family to, and for, each other---not because we have the same earthly parentage, but because of our relationship to God and Christ. Later in the New Testament, John says, and I’m paraphrasing, “If anyone says ‘I love God’, but hates her neighbor, she is a liar, for whoever does not love her neighbor whom she has seen, cannot possibly love God, who is unseen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love her neighbor.”
Those who are tempted to narrowly define the term ‘family’ must recall what Matthew tells us in his Gospel---that when Jesus was told that his mother and brothers were waiting for him, Jesus responded, “who is my mother-who are my brothers,” and stretching out his hands toward his disciples, He said, “Here are my mother and my brothers, for whoever does the will of God is my brother, sister and mother.”
Because of our faith, doing God’s will requires us to be gentle reminders to those like the couple this morning, and those in Church leadership that the term, ‘family’ encompasses more than ‘mom, dad, and the kids.’ The Feast of the Holy Family calls us to recognize that we are more than a Norman Rockwell painting. As God’s children, we must embrace, love and accept each other where we are, and for who we are.