Letting ourselves be human
A reflection for the Feast of the Holy Family, Year C
by Kristina Glicksman
This time of year more than any other, we are surrounded – nay, overwhelmed – by images of the Holy Family: in a tidy stable Mary and Joseph gaze in serene adoration at a baby who is either sweetly sleeping or welcoming them into his presence with a beatific expression of awareness uncharacteristic of a newborn. Other images we might encounter throughout the year show a mutually loving and supportive Mary and Joseph holding a clean and well-behaved Jesus, who looks out at us with intelligent eyes. All are surrounded by auras of holiness. They remind me an awful lot of those Christmas cards we get with the entire family carefully groomed and smiling and perfectly lit.
I wonder if this penchant for seeing the Holy Family as perfectly harmonious has more to do with our own desires and unrealistic expectations for our own families than it has to do with God’s reality. Because the family we see in this Sunday’s Gospel reading – the only story we have from Jesus’ childhood – doesn’t exactly fit the bill of a perfectly understanding and harmonious unit.
For one thing, I still can’t get my head around the fact that Jesus just took off without telling anyone. If I had done that at his age? It doesn’t bear thinking about.
And then after three days of searching, his parents find him in the Temple. I can imagine Mary of the beatific family photo saying with relief, “Oh, there you are! Come along, Jesus; it’s time to go now.” But the real Mary reproaches
her son. “Why have you done this to us?”
And does the perfectly behaved, precociously self aware God-child smile apologetically and say, “Oh, sorry, Mom. I thought you knew where I was”? Well, kind of, but the way it comes across – at least in the translation – it sounds like Jesus is giving his mother a bit of lip. And Luke makes it clear that Mary and Joseph certainly did not understand what Jesus was getting at, and it seems Jesus doesn’t bother to explain himself.
So what do we make of this strange passage?
It’s no secret that this time of year can cause a lot of stress and strain on families, opening up or revealing cracks in our relationships with the human beings who share our DNA. It doesn’t help that many of us insist – and our culture tells us – that this is the time of year we need to spend with our families, even when, perhaps, our own personal situations make it wise for us to maintain a healthy distance from certain family members the rest of the year.
Surrounded by images and ideas of the happy family Christmas, we can often feel as though our family falls short. And perhaps it doesn’t help that immediately after Christmas, Holy Mother Church gives us this Feast of the Holy Family.
How can we compare with this vision of perfection in which one member was God and two were born without sin?
But then the Church also reminds us that there was a time when Mary told Jesus off and he talked back to her. Even in the Holy Family there were misunderstandings. That’s because they were real
people, a real
family, not a picture postcard. Pope Francis said during his recent trip to Cyprus
“[A] little disagreement does us good – perceptions and differing ideas, because it is not good never to argue. When there is too strict a peace, God is not present. In a family, brothers and sisters argue and exchange points of view. I am suspicious of those who never argue, because they always have hidden agendas.”
So maybe we should give ourselves a break and cut our own families some slack.
But we also have to make sure we get to the end of this Sunday’s Gospel reading. Otherwise, we miss out on an important part:
“He went down with them … and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart.”
Mutual love and obedience even in the midst of misunderstanding. We don’t have to understand or agree with one another all the time in order to live together in love and respect.
God could have come down among us in any manner He chose, and He chose to become part of a human family. He, the Creator of all things, chose to have parents to obey – the Creator obeying His own creatures. This was not simply a whim. He chose to become one of us, and family is an important part of what it is to be human. In our modern Western mentality which idolizes the individual and autonomy and choice, we often lose sight of that fact.
I’m sure many of us wish we could have “perfect” families with perfectly harmonious relationships, but the fact of the matter is, like the Holy Family, we are real
people. And the beauty of having relationships with real people is that the more imperfect and difficult and human
they are, the more grace there is when we live them with compassion, kindness, patience, and love.
So this Christmas season, let’s try to model our family relationships on the example of the Holy Family – not by living in perfect harmony but by living in love even amid misunderstandings.
The readings for the Feast of the Holy Family, Year C, are
Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14
Kristina Glicksman is Content Editor and Writer for Salt + Light Media.