Brief synopsis of the readings: We have a choice of readings today. I have chosen Genesis 14: 1-6. 21:1-3. Here God spoke to Abram and promised him a great reward. Abram responded by reminding God that he is childless, and one of his servants will inherit his wealth. God then told Abram that he will have children and his descendants will as numerous as the stars in the sky. Abram’s wife Sarah soon conceived and bore a sun who was named Isaac. Near the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. Here Mary and Joseph took the newly born Jesus to the Temple to be presented (in accordance with Jewish law). There they met Simeon, a righteous man who had been told that he would not die until he met the Messiah. Additionally they met an elderly widow and prophetess named Anna. Both of them told Mary and Joseph that their child would be the deliverance of Israel.
OK, show of hands: how many of us grew up in dysfunctional families? Right. It’s a stupid question. When we think of the family we grew up in we can easily identify our strengths and weaknesses. Maybe we were wealthy but some of us struggled with addiction that caused pain to everyone. Or maybe we were poor and learned to depend on each other which developed relationships that continued long into adulthood. Maybe we were raised by a single parent and had to figure out why our family was different from others around us. Or maybe we were taken from our family and wandered from foster family to group home and back.
I say this because for too many of us the Feast of the Holy Family was presented as the family we were supposed to be. And let’s face it: as children we had precious little control over how our family worked (or didn’t). Today’s Gospel, alas, doesn’t help us feel better if we already think we don’t measure up.
A little context here: newborn boys were circumcised at 8 days old and this was seen as an important event in the life of a Jewish boy. It was important enough for them to travel to Jerusalem and perform a sacrifice to God; since Mary and Joseph were not wealthy they could sacrifice a turtledove or a pigeon instead of a lamb.
This Gospel does not explain that since Mary wasn’t married to Joseph she was essentially a single mother. We read today from Luke and not Matthew and that means we don’t read that the Holy Family fled to Egypt out of fear that Jesus would be murdered on orders from Herod and this made them refugees with little or no protection.
Many Christians idolize the Holy Family because their own families were blessed with good fortune and they wish to use that to claim their own good fortune as reward. They look at manger scenes and see a family without hardship or conflict. I can’t help but think of the two families of Strom Thurmond.
Strom Thurmond of South Carolina was born in 1902, thirty seven years after the end of the Civil War. His family was blessed with enough wealth to employ Carrie Butler, an African American maid. When he was 22 and she was 16 they had an affair that resulted in a daughter. This daughter (Essie Mae) was placed in the care of her aunt and uncle and taken to Pennsylvania where she grew up, lest anyone find out. When she was thirteen she learned the identity of her biological mother and when she was sixteen she learned her father was a white judge in South Carolina who would later have a storied career as US Senator of South Carolina from 1956 until 2003.
And he was an avowed racist even though he fathered a biracial child out of wedlock. To his credit he did provide financial support to his daughter, but he married twice and fathered four other children who had no idea their half sister existed. Only after Senator Thurmond’s death in 2003 did his daughter go public about her father. And his four white children accepted her into their family.
Is the Thurmond family a holy family? In a strange sort of way I think they are. For decades the white children didn’t know about their biracial sibling. They didn’t know that their father broke the law in 1925 by being with an African American woman. But they took the high road and welcomed Essie Mae. They recognized that they had been family all along, even though they didn’t know about each other.
We see this everywhere if we choose to look. In the 1960s most of us opposed marriage between heterosexuals of different races. A few decades later most of us opposed marriage between people of the same sex. Both claimed backing from the Bible.
If our call as Christians demands that we love one another without prejudice, we need to see marriage and family as part of God’s plan, regardless of who we are and who we love.
As many of you know I’m a hospice chaplain. I parachute into families who are in crisis and am tasked with palliating their spiritual pain. This greatly enriches my life but I’m often called to define who is family. A gay man, dying of AIDS, loves his partner but is excluded by the biological family who thinks God punishes gays with AIDS and see this partner as little more than a murderer.
Or a child separates himself from his family for decades and on finding his father is dying, comes back into the picture demanding a voice in how decisions are made.
Just because all families live with a variety of healthy and unhealthy patters doesn’t mean all families aren’t holy families. Let us not forget that just as the Holy Family faced persecution, holy families today share this. My friend Pete runs a charity called “Truck of Love” (you can google it) in South Carolina. Deep in the forest outside of town a few dozen homeless people wandered into each other’s lives. They watched out for each other, they pooled resources, and with the help of my friend Pete they began each day in prayer. But when one of them was savagely beaten Pete contacted the local sheriff. That turned out to be a mistake as the sheriff responded by warning Pete to stop helping them and ran this community off, forcing them to go deeper into the woods.
I think about them when I think about the Holy Family. They were not related by biology, or even by choice, but by desperation. Once they found each other they loved one another. They celebrated each other’s victories, they mourned each other’s losses, and they healed each other’s wounds.
As we celebrate the annual Feast of the Holy Family let us not only recognize that our family is a holy family, let us also celebrate the holy families we see around us.