The feast of the Holy Family is the Sunday after Christmas. It celebrates not only the family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, but indeed, your family and mine. It celebrates holy families, not perfect families. Consider a snowflake. To the common eye, each snowflake seems to be perfect. Each one is different, yet each one, at least to the common eye, is perfect in itself. But the truth is that most snowflakes are starkly imperfect crystals. Many snowflakes have patches of frozen carbuncles, or facets covered with icy zits. Families, holy family, your family or mine, are like snowflakes. There has always been the tendency to idealize Mary, Joseph and Jesus, to see them as the perfect snowflake family. But when we begin to put the total gospel record under a microscope, we get a real and more reassuring image of the Holy Family of Nazareth. Holy? Indeed. Perfect? Not at all.
All of the gospel writers, by their convenient silence, suggest that Joseph died early, and Mary was a single parent mom. And in Jesus’ public career there was never a nuclear family, rather a whole village. The evangelists portray a large extended family, most of whom are unsympathetic and even hostile to Jesus’ vision. Mark even writes that some of them, including his mother, thought he was crazy. And Matthew’s reading today does not portray a snowflake family, but rather a refugee family, constantly on the move for safety’s sake, trying to evade a terrorist ruler. The Holy Family lived through confusing moods and strange journeys, dealt with disgruntled cousins and people who just couldn’t understand. That is why this feast does not celebrate the idealized family: a perfect mom and dad, and an impeccable child. The feast is for a woman I know who was never blessed with children, and who sits and brushes the hair of her 88-year-old husband who is feeble and confused. The feast is for a woman whose teenage son is in the bone marrow transplant unit. She stays with him constantly while her husband simply cannot visit because of his fears. This feast is for the lesbian couple whose adopted son is taught his prayers and alphabet with a commitment that puzzles his own parents. This feast is for the single parent, struggling to do the best she can to raise her children. It is for the immigrant family, in a strange world, where everyone seems to have so much and they consider themselves blessed to have one another. This feast is for the grieving family who parent, whose loved one, is in an ICU, clinging to life and they cannot even hold his, hold her hand.
In all these families you cannot fail to see the principle of sacrifice at work. The word “sacrifice” means to make holy. In the old marriage ritual in our church, the priest was required to read an “exhortation” to the couple. It contained a great deal of wisdom capable of holding families and societies together. The heart of that exhortation is expressed in these few words: “Let the security of your wedded life rest on the great principle of self sacrifice. Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome; only love can make it easy, and perfect love can make it a joy.” Love, then, is another word for sacrifice. Someone has said, and I believe he’s right, that the absence of sacrifice in our homes, in our lives, in our nation, explains, to no small extent, the absence of familial, and personal, and national happiness.
In St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he writes: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.” (Col 3:12-13). Forgiveness is the key. It has to be spoken. Forgiveness can heal family wounds and tighten up family structures. Forgiveness means giving and restoring, reinstating and forgetting, when reinstatement and restoration may not be deserved. The Letter to the Colossians calls us to forgive as the Lord has forgiven us. How many of us say we forgive and then stoutly refuse even to try to forget, or let others forget? Who ever heard of forgiving a debt by requiring payment in full? And yet you can’t help noticing, when families get together, how some members exact painfully full payment by inflicting sharp words or long silences, deep hurts and stinging sarcasm on other members of the family? The Holy Family calls us to consider that God might be inviting you and me to walk on the path of forgiveness toward other members of my family from whom one or another might be separated, not spatially, but perhaps emotionally, psychologically, sexually or spiritually. This could be healing time. With the healing, comes a stronger family unit, and with that, a stronger and better society.
The Letter to the Colossians again. Paul tells us: “And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:14-17).
Now there you have a formula for a holy, happy family. Not a snowflake family, but a holy family.