Today is the Feast of the Holy Family, pre-empting the usual feast, the Holy Innocents. I always am a bit apprehensive on this feast day as it seems the Catholic Church rarely remembers the variety of families that exist…or do not exist for that matter. The Holy Family, as a beloved former pastor used to say, conjures up images of an ideal unit that no other family can live up to. Can you imagine Mary throwing a hissy fit because Joseph forgot to mention he had invited friends over again? What if Joseph was snitty one day and reminded Mary that he had stayed, even though he was not the real father of Jesus? I do not know that things always went smoothly in the Holy Family’s home but I like to think they were real. I think really, the perfect family did not exist then and still does not. Why compare anyway? What do we really want?
The Holy Family shows us that the word family is diverse and interesting. This is a family whose life together started in poverty, and soon would take to flight for their very lives. This is the family that caused other families great grief because their Son was hunted and other sons died in the feast that is also remembered today. The mother could have been a single mom had Joseph not been persuaded to do the right thing by an angel. Joseph might have walked away in shame and pride if that angel had not convinced him otherwise.
Not many of us have an angel come to our rescue. We who sit in the pew on this day are orphaned, are single parents, are gay and straight singles, are abandoned by our families, have been incarcerated, have walked out on abuse and mental torment. We are abusers, violent, haters. We may not come from the white-picket fence, married to the man or woman of our dreams, one boy and one girl families. The very idea of family may turn us cold. Now our church family might also remind us that we may not fit into their family either.
Yet isn’t this precisely why that Baby came–to stop the divisions, the judgments, the holes in our hearts? If we look at the Incarnation, Jesus came so that He might be one of us. He did not come into a palace with armed guards and to a king and queen. No, like Moses, Jesus was born into an oppressive society that wanted him dead. That is the family and situation into which He arrived. His family ran for their very lives because another family wanted to murder this Child. People judged what a perfect family was then and we still do today. We do this instead of trying to understand each other and to share the world with another.
The definition of family can be exclusive and limiting. I have all kinds of friends who define family broadly. At some churches today, the priest may have asked families to stand or come forward for a blessing, excluding many gathered who struggle to fit in. Single people have parents and siblings who may not be there with them–do we not deserve a blessing? Some will sit sorrowfully in their pews, remembering the vacant seat that was once occupied. Some women will sit barren, pierced by yet another year of not having a child of their own. Others will sit next to a partner of the same sex and feel the stares of rejection by those who cannot find compassion to call this union a family. This is not why Jesus came.
In today’s readings we see a God who creates out of glory. Sarah laughs as she lovingly births Issac. She and Abraham stand in God’s promise that have been spoken into their hearts. In Psalm 105, God is mindful of the covenant forever. Hebrews 11 illustrates how unique and amazing the decision to use Abraham and Sarah was to glorify God in this way. The two people who might have been seen as society’s outcasts back then are the ones raised on high. Simeon and Anna, in the Gospel, are the ones who have long-awaited this Saviour who is a Light to generations. Mary had a lot to ponder after hearing their words. Perhaps this day, a double feast day, should move us to ponder the definition of family, the way we exclude people in our Church family, and the way we continue to slaughter the innocent. Christ came to set us free. May we rejoice in this knowledge and truly bless the families that we embrace. For those who struggle with the concept of family this day, may you find God’s grace and comfort.