Do you remember your years in Catholic schools? Do you recall the nuns who made you write “JMJ” on top of your homework and test papers? Of course “JMJ” stood for Jesus, Mary & Joseph – the Holy Family whose feast we celebrate today. Back then I thought of the Holy Family as being pious and peaceful: Mary dressed in white gown, blue veil and folded hands; an elderly Joseph looking more grandfatherly than fatherly, and the boy Jesus who was obedient, did as he was told and never caused his parents problems.
Well it didn’t take long for my thoughts to change. A real family is never like that; and Jesus, Mary and Joseph were a real family! Scripture tells us that the birth of Jesus was quickly followed by King Herod’s threat to his life; so this family was forced into a hasty, dangerous journey to Egypt where they lived as refugees. This must have been a time of unimaginable anxiety, not a time of quiet and peace for this holy family.
Then we have the incident in today’s Gospel wherein the young Jesus stays in the Temple though he knows his parents expect him to go back home with them. Mary and Joseph, half out of their minds, the Scriptures tell us, search high and low for him. Finally locating Jesus in the Temple, they confront him, question him, and still can’t understand why he scared them half to death. All I can say as a parent who helped raise two teenagers of our own, “Mary, Joseph, welcome to your kid’s teen years! There’s so much more to come!”
Now you don’t have to agree with what I am about to say. We talk about the “Holy Family.” I think we should talk about the “Whole Family” – not just JMJ. The Scriptures identify Jesus’ brothers by name and even acknowledge his sisters. Personally, I do believe Joseph and Mary had many more children. And I know there is little enough peace and even less piety in families that size.
Is there estrangement in your family, emotional distance and even hostility between family members – between parent and child, between children? Welcome again to the “whole” Holy Family. When Jesus was still a young man, he left his family, parents and siblings, and went off to the desert in the company of a weird prophet by the name of John the Baptist. John dressed in animal skins, ate locusts and wild honey and constantly preached repentance – not the kind of company parents want for their children. Bible scholars tell us that his family thought Jesus was going off the deep end. He and his family distanced themselves from each other emotionally as well as geographically. Jesus had no time for them, nor they for him; so Jesus gathered men and women disciples and referred to them as his new family.
Jesus was not the obedient son his parents hoped for. In a book, Jesus The Rebel, John Dear, the author writes: “Jesus breaks the law. Over and over again, throughout the Gospels, Jesus breaks every law that legalizes oppression or injustice. As far as the religious leaders are concerned, he is not law-abiding or pious or charismatic or holy. He is a trouble-making, law-breaking, disruptive revolutionary fanatic.” Without a doubt, he is the black sheep of his family. But miracle of miracles, with the grace of Abba God, this black sheep becomes the Lamb of God. And the Holy Family, this estranged “Whole Family” also responds to God’s grace and is reunited: mother and Son rejoined in suffering on Calvary’s Hill, and brother James becoming a leader of his brother’s new Christian faith community based in Jerusalem.
So what do we learn from this very real family? We learn patience and courage. We learn that we cannot control each other’s lives, no matter how much we try. We learn that the pious statues and holy cards of our youth are figments of some artists’ imaginations, artists unfamiliar with the real story of this family as told in the Scriptures. Hopefully we learn too that our own lives are patterned after the lives of Jesus and his family, “Through suffering and death to resurrection” as our community prays in the Liturgical Creed of our Sunday Mass. Finally, we learn that each and every family goes through tough times but God’s graces are always there for us if our hearts remain open. That’s the lesson of today’s feast: the feast of the “whole” family of Mary and Joseph and their son Jesus, and his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Jude and their unnamed sisters as well.
Here’s my toast to family: to the entire Holy Family, to your families new and old, and to my own, and to all families on earth that hurt and hunger for peace; may we all find the healing and true love that carries us to eternity!