Brief synopsis of the readings: In Sirach (yes, another book Catholics accept while Protestants and Jews do not) the reader is instructed to honor his parents and this will ensure he is honored by his children. Further: “My son, support your father in his old age, do not grieve him during his life. Even if his mind should fail, show him sympathy, do not despise him in your health and strength.” Luke’s Gospel gives us one of the few glimpses in Jesus’ life as a child, and the only one where he isn’t an infant. Here Jesus is 12 years old and his family journeys to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. On their way home they lost track of him and recognized that he was not with their group. They rushed back to Jerusalem and it took three days but they found him in the Temple where he was making an impression on the doctors there. When Mary asked Jesus why he wandered off he responded: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father’s affairs?”
When defending certain actions or decisions Christians will often point to a similar action by Jesus. Tell me anger is a sin and I’ll point to Jesus’ turning over tables in the Temple. Tell me that fear comes from a lack of faith and I’ll tell you about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. And when I was a child and my parents demanded to know why I had wondered off in a public place I would answer: “I wasn’t lost. I knew where I was all along” and point to this Gospel.
All kidding aside, the Feast of the Holy Family can be a source of difficulty for many of us. We have this idyllic idea of a family that has more to do with Little House On The Prairie or The Cosby Show than anything we experience.
These shows also have little to do with what we read of the Holy Family in Scripture. When someone waxes eloquent about how we should be more like the Ingalls or the Huxtables I recognize how little they’ve read about the Holy Family. In fairness we read today the only account of Jesus who is neither an infant or an adult. It’s also the last appearance we have of Joseph.
Today we have Luke’s account where Jesus is in Jerusalem but Matthew’s Gospel describes a family running for their lives. Herod had heard about Jesus and was determined to kill him and the family fled to Egypt.
I don’t need to draw a bright line to the incredible number of refugees and exiles we know about today. And there is a silver lining here: because news travels globally at the speed of light we have the opportunity to learn about and provide assistance. We may not be able to identify Syria or South Sudan on a map but organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Doctors Without Borders allow us to turn guilt into compassion and make a real difference.
On a deeper level Holy Family calls us to expand how we define family. Joseph and Mary were pretty homogenous. They were both Jews likely from the same or nearby towns who lived under Roman occupation. The idea of a Jew marrying a non Jew would have been unheard of.
But the 12 year old in today’s Gospel ushered in a faith that would look to the horizons and seek out those who were different. From the earliest days of the ministry of St. Paul we have reached out to people all over the world.
For centuries we’ve been able to do that with little thought to how that changes how we view family but the last few centuries have demanded that we expand how we see family.
As some of you know I’m descended from a group called the Acadians. In the 1600s my ancestors sailed from the west coast of France and settled in what we now know as Nova Scotia, Canada. For the first few decades virtually all of them were men. When they arrived in this new land they encountered and had good relations with a group of Native Americans (called “First Nation” in Canada) called the Mikmaq. Some of the Acadians married Mikmaq women and began families. Decades later Acadian women began to show up and it was assumed that Acadian men would marry only Acadian women.
In the next few centuries we saw a great deal of movement around the world: the British and Dutch settling in South Africa, British building a life in what is now the United States, Chinese immigrants arriving in California, etc., etc.
With this came laws that not only restricted immigration but also outlawed mixed (today we would say blended) families. Here in the United States the introduction of African slaves in 1619 complicated matters immensely. Even after slavery ended in 1865 the idea of intermarriage was thought unthinkable, except by those who looked at a person of another race and imagined becoming a family. It wasn’t until 1967 that the Supreme Court determined that marriage between people of different races could not be prohibited.
And finally in the last few decades we’ve had to imagine marriages between partners of the same sex. Whether we call it gay marriage or marriage equality it’s not something most of us expected. But the reality is that some of those we love are gay. They want only what the rest of us take for granted: to live in integrity and form families.
At the end of the day the call to celebrate the Holy Family means stretching our imagination. Because if we see family as a community that stays together and protects each other out of a profound mutual love, we need to accept those who surprise us.
I’m reminded of an encounter I had with someone years ago. He and his wife adopted two children and one day he realized that none of them were related by blood. But, as he told me, they were as much a family as anyone else.
And please be patient with the precocious 12 year old who is puzzled when his parents need to find him. Someday he will do great things.