The Feast of the Holy Family, December 29, 2013
Each year after celebrating Christmas the Church gives us this feast and reminds us that Jesus, the Son of God, came to this earth and was born in the usual way into a family just like ours. How many people, can really believe this?
Oh, no, we think! There’s no way Christ was born into a family like ours! Things can get really crazy sometimes. Our family has it’s share of disfunction. We have loud relatives who argue about politics and football. Some have stopped speaking to us for some reason we can’t remember. We have hyperactive two year olds and difficult, know-it-all teens. We have uncles who drink too much, family dogs that eat socks, and parents who give our kids too much candy. No, Christ certainly wasn’t born into a family like ours, with all it’s imperfections and problems.
All we have to do is look at a Christmas card or a Nativity set to see how perfect the Holy Family was. Mary is lovely, her clothes and hair are neat and clean as she adores her happy baby. Joseph looks on it all with wonder. Jesus is a pretty baby all sweet and chubby with a full head of curly hair, lying there in a clean white blanket. He smiles up at the little angels hovering nearby like crib decorations. Everything is perfect, peaceful and serene just like…well, a Christmas card. The reality is that things weren’t so perfect for Jesus, Mary and Joseph either…
To begin with, Mary was an unwed mother. No matter how it happened, Mary’s pregnancy outside of marriage could have resulted in her being stoned to death. Joseph had the right, legally, to let this happen beause they were officially engaged, just as binding as a marriage, yet not living together when she became pregnant. Yet he was a kind and compassionate man, so he was considering divorcing her quietly. But because of a message in a dream he put his trust in God and brought her into his home anyway. This must have been humiliating when his friends, family and neighbors found out about it. By taking Mary in, despite the pregnancy, he was declaring that the child was his and that he couldn’t wait the required time to consummate the marriage. It would raise eyebrows at the very least.
In the late stages of her pregnancy, Mary and Joseph were forced to travel about 75-80 miles, about a 4 days journey, through rough and often dangerous country. I remember the late stages of pregnancy. It was no day in the park. It was uncomfortable to even sit in a recliner. Sleep was impossible because of the stress on my back from the added weight. I felt unbalanced and huge and my blood pressure was elevated making me cranky and miserable. Yet Mary had to endure this trip, whether she walked, rode on a donkey or was carried in a caravan. Once they got to Bethlehem, there was no guarantee that there would be any place for them to stay. Joseph did what he could, but by the time they got there lodgings were hard to find and his wife was showing signs of being in labor. They had to make do and trust.
She gave birth in a stable, a place inhabited by animals with all the filth, germs, smells and biting insects that are usually found in barns. Mary delivered her first child without any older female relatives to help her through it, as was customary. Even with the services of a local midwife, it was not the ideal conditions for bringing new life into the world. Her baby would be laid in a manger, an animal’s food trough. I’ve been in hay before. My grandfather had a farm and the cousins and I would jump from the loft to the hay below. It’s anything but soft. It was prickly and gave me a rash. Ican imagine how Mary felt about giving birth in those conditions. Imagine what Joseph was going through, perhaps feeling guilty that he wasn’t able to provide a better place for them. Yet they trusted.
Jesus was still an infant when they became refugees, undocumented aliens, fleeing for their lives to another country where they didn’t know the language or customs. How would they survive there? But there was no choice. With Herod’s soldiers on the lookout for their tiny son, it was the only way to protect Jesus from being one of the little ones slaughtered by Herod’s jealousy and paranoia. They had to trust God to deliver them.
At the age of twelve Jesus was somehow left behind in the big city of Jerusalem while on pilgrimage, because each parent thought he was with the other one. Pilgrimages were usually made with a group of people. In these groups men traveled with other men and women traveled with other women and small children. A twelve year old boy had the option of traveling with either group. Imagine the conversation Mary and Joseph had when they realized they had to go back to Jerusalem to look for their son. Imagine the panic they must have felt – probably the same way I would feel if I lost a child in New York City. Jerusalem was a bustling city with pilgrims coming in and going out constantly, merchants, peddlers and those there on business. There were Roman soldiers, highly visible, keeping a sharp eye out, ready to intervene at the first sign of trouble. There were tax collectors and theives, and all manner of strange places and sights to country folk like Mary and Joseph. How would they even know where to look? Yet, they went back to the Temple, the last place they saw him and there he was. They were exasperated, but they still trusted.
At some point during these hiden years of family life Jesus had to deal with the grief of losing a parent at the death of Joseph. We don’t know when he died or what age Jesus was when it happened, but Jesus went through what we all go through when a parent ages and leaves us. From what little we know of Joseph; the kindness he showed to Mary, the way he accepted the will of God and the trust he had, we believe him to be a perfect model for fatherhood. It couldn’t have been easy for Jesus to say goodbye to the man who supported him and raised him as his own. Mary, too, had to face the reality of being a widow alone after her only son left her side to fulfill his mission on earth. Sons were expected to take care of their mothers. Widows didn’t have many opportunities to earn enough to keep body and soul together so they either had to beg or starve. Mary had a perfectly healthy son who could have been a wage earner, but he had to leave her to fulfill his purpose. It must have puzzled her relatives and neighbors – in fact, once they tried to get her to take him home because they thought he had lost his mind, yet she still trusted God and let him go do what he needed to do.
Things were far from perfect for the Holy Family. They had their problems, setbacks, fears, sorrows, and joys – just like our own families! Yet, through it all, they had unwavering trust in God as they carried out their mission of raising his divine Son; teaching him, nurturing him, loving him, and preparing him to fulfill his purpose of saving the world from sin and death.
What I love most about The Holy Family is that by really looking at them, not just the cards and the art work, I can see that they were very much like my family, with all its imperfections. They had to deal with some very extraordinary circumstances. Still, they teach us that ordinary family life, with all the problems, worries, messiness, joys, triumphs and frustrations, is holy. We just need to trust.