Reading the daily obituaries always gives me a new lease on life. As a firm believer in the motto, “It is better to be seen than viewed,” I try to maintain a perspective that allows me to be appreciative of every day. Some years ago, I lingered over an obituary of a man who was born on my exact birthday and lived a parallel life in Minneapolis. We had never officially met until the morning I read about him in the paper. I must admit, however, he lived a most interesting life and left behind a remarkable legacy including a wife of fifty-two years, six children, eleven grandchildren and one great grandchild. The epitaph for his tombstone read: “Always give more than you take.”
Christmas is over and the New Year is about to begin. Do you think you have come to any new conclusions about how you will want to live your life differently in the coming year? Given the craziness of this past year in which we were held hostage by the threat of escalating wars in the Ukraine and Gaza, we continue to face a nation divided by an upcoming presidential election. Do you think you have the strength to not be overwhelmed by racial unrest, climate change and the absurdity of a presidential platform dedicated to revenge?
Today we are celebrating the Feast of the Holy Family, and we are challenged to look at what it means to be family. The story of Jesus, Mary and Joseph often falls into a sentimental array of plaster statues located in a manger, surrounded by adoring shepherds, angels, sheep, and kingly figures. Bracketed by the Feasts of the Incarnation and the Epiphany, the Holy Family remains frozen in a period of crisis and poverty. In trying to normalize the flesh and blood lives of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph we run the risk of exploring the story of a family that was not normal by any stretch of the imagination.
It is the story of a teenage mother conceiving a child before she was married and an anxious and confused fiancée who faced a scandalous divorce decision. It is the story of a family forced to become refugees, living as immigrants, fleeing from the law, and coming to the realization that Jesus was a very unusual child. The gaps in the chronology of the Holy Family give rise to speculation regarding the normality of daily life; however, it is important to maintain the human image of the Holy Family as a way of identifying them as real people and not some stereotypical or heroic action-figures.
The Feast of the Holy Family generally falls on the Sunday after Christmas and provides an opportunity to appreciate the gift of family. There is nothing ancient about this feast; it was only added to the liturgical calendar by Pope Benedict XV in 1921. However, the family events of the early years of Jesus, Mary and Joseph come alive in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. In today’s gospel reading (Luke 2:22-40), we are offered a glimpse of the family at a threshold moment in their lives. Completing the prescribed rituals of purification, Joseph and Mary brought the child Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.
While Joseph and Mary were in the Temple they encountered Simeon, a righteous and devout man, who would not see death before he had seen the Messiah. When Simeon held the child, he said: “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for the revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.” Luke uses this prophetic individual to enhance his theological narrative regarding the revelation of the messianic mission of Jesus. In this incident, Mary and Joseph were amazed at what was being said about Jesus. “When Mary and Joseph had finished everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom and the favor of the Lord was upon him.”
In 2002, when Pope John Paul II added the Luminous Mysteries to the recitation of the rosary, the portrayal of Jesus as an adult emerged. No longer portrayed in the last of the Joyful Mysteries as a run-away child who was found preaching in the Temple, the Luminous Mysteries begin with Jesus being baptized as an adult by John the Baptist. Inexplicably, Joseph vanishes from the picture and the interaction with Mary over the next three years of Jesus’ adult life help us to understand the intimacy of family life, especially between a mother and a son. The absence of any mention of Joseph beyond the days in Nazareth does not diminish artistic portrayals of Joseph on his death bed, being attended to by Mary and Jesus. This conjecture of intimacy was understandable, especially in Jewish families.
Any family, even in the chaotic circumstances of surviving heroic problems, will find ample empathy with the Holy Family in the harrowing stories outlined in the gospels of Luke and Matthew. Despite the frightening statistics of families plagued by dysfunctional relationships and the displacement of refugees because of war and economic instability, the ideal of the Holy Family remains a model worth pursuing.
In St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians (3:12-21), he invites all of us to: “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything in perfect harmony.”
With or without the therapeutic interventions of angels or therapists, a beautiful family plan for happiness unfolds in this excerpt from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. Finding ways to translate the ideal into reality becomes the ongoing challenge of families, churches, and societies. Perhaps the real secret to creating a well-functioning family, church, government, or any organization is in the simple realization that “one should always give more than one takes.”
Family life provides us with a life-long practicum for how to live this life and survive in the absence of loved ones. We might adhere to the poet Mary Oliver’s observation: “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your life depends on it; and, when the time comes, let it go, let it go.”
Not unlike Simeon’s observation in today’s gospel story, all of us need to find the peace of Jesus within our hearts and minds, always giving more than we take, and when the time comes, “to let it go, to let it go.”
Peace and Happy New Year, Fr. Joe Gillespie, O.P.