Last Sunday (the First Sunday after Christmas Day) our friends in Roman Catholic Churches celebrated “The Feast of the Holy Family.” On this day, Mary and Joseph with their son Jesus are often presented as the ideal Christian family. Parents are taught to love one another. Children are encouraged to listen to their parents. And the mathematics of family is suggested to be that of one plus one equals a blessed three, then four, then five, and so on … One can be forgiven for hearing the sort of warped message that the more (re)productive one is, the more faithful.
But the Gospel (and, indeed, all of Holy Scripture) gives us images of family that go way beyond that holy family of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. The biblical family is not exactly the same as what artists and theologians sometimes present. When we look close, we begin to see that the images are not so clear.
The holy couple is a most unlikely pair. When we look at Joseph, we see someone who was probably older, and most likely died when Jesus was very young. Whether by death or some other reason, Joseph is not at the cross when Jesus is crucified. Joseph was not wealthy and seems to have been some kind of carpenter or repairman.
Then, there’s Mary, probably a very young woman, inexperienced and unprepared, from the small town of Nazareth. But she is faithful. And she’s hopeful.
The Holy Family gets started in Bethlehem with the birth of Jesus, but it begins to grow right away. And it grows in a way no one might imagine. First come shepherds, smelling like the field and the animals they tend.
Next come Wise Men from the East—strange people who are kings, or Persians, or astronomers—no one is exactly sure. But these different kinds of people, and probably others whose stories we don’t know, all make their way to the manger. And when they get there, they find an open door. They find a warm welcome. They find a home, of sorts.
But the family continues to grow. And Jesus himself seems to invite others in, from an early age. Remember the story from Luke about when Jesus is twelve years old, his parents take him to Jerusalem for the Passover. He gets lost, and when they find him, he is in the temple. He’s surprised at their anger and frustration. He says, “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
Once he’s a young adult, as Jesus is preaching and teaching and healing, some of his disciples tell him that his family wants to see him. (They’re getting worried that he’s gone a little too far.) But again, Jesus redefines and refocuses “family” as he asks, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” He stretches out his hand toward his disciples and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.”
Jesus doesn’t stop here, but it seems like he’s NEVER satisfied that his family is big enough or strange enough. In the calling of the disciples, he adds tax collectors and fishermen. Calling more, he adds rich folks, civic leaders, military officials and soldiers, former prostitutes, adulterers, thieves, bandits, and everything in-between. All at the same table – that table that was set and shared first in an upper room, but now extends through time and space to us. At that family table, everyone is welcome, all sorts and conditions of people. Even on the cross, Jesus continues to reshape what family is, as he looks at his disciple and his mother and says, “Woman, behold, your son!” And to his disciple, “Behold, your mother!” Another family member added.
Even as the Holy Family grows and expands, it holds together whenever there is a threat. And in today’s Gospel, the family moves to get out of the way of danger. They listen to the angel of God, they stick close by one another, and then they go where God sends them.
And so that’s what we do, too. We listen. We hold one another close. And we move forward.
We listen for God’s clues. Confused and overwhelmed, tired, and perhaps even a little cynical, we pray. We listen the scripture. We listen to the church. We listen to one another. What would God have us do in this new year? What would God have us be and how might God have us be toward one another?
Like the Holy Family, we cherish one another—even when we find there are members of our family we might not have chosen, ourselves. Christ has brought us together and so we hold on to one another through him. We can give thanks for those who God has put in our lives to love and to share love with. We become thankful even for those who make us mad, who rile us up, because we understand the fragility of life, the quickness with which it can come to an end.
And finally, like Mary and Joseph, we simply go. We go forward. We choose life and we try to share it as fully as possible. We follow the one who conquered death itself; we follow Jesus closely, knowing that he will never, ever leave us. We reach out for others. We give of our money and our creativity and our energy to those to suffer. Through Christ, we begin to see just how big our family really is.
Listening closely to God, holding on tightly to one another, and moving ahead with strength and confidence, we step into a new year.
The family of God gives us strength. In the family of God we find new gifts and skills and abilities and passions. We find new ways to support others, even as we allow others to support us. And it is with the family that God that we can celebrate a New Year.
Around New Year’s I think of a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The poem is part of a larger poem (In Memoriam) he wrote upon the death of one of his best friends, his sister’s fiancé. And so, this is a poem born out of a sense of family—the struggles and the joys, and finally—the wonder of family that is holy. Tennyson wrote
Ring out, wild bells.
Ring out the false. Ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind, for those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause, and ancient forms of party strife.
Ring in the nobler forms of life, with sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.
May God bless our families and continue to make us holy. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.