We do not get to pick our family of origin. Whether yours was a family in which you felt continually happy and safe or whether yours was one in which it was difficult to grow up, the household in which each of us grew was part of our formation into the person we are today. Regardless of which type we experienced, the idea of picking our family is not a reality of life. Though we can choose our friends, who may be nearer and dearer to us than our actual blood relatives, the truth is that we do not choose our origins. However, God our Father has chosen us to be part of His family and we do have a choice as to how we respond to that. One of the greatest blessings we have is this invitation since this particular family is the one Body of Christ. We are children of God which means all the baptized (and those preparing for it) are part of the same spiritual family which is one body with Christ as the head. This family is bound together in love through Jesus Christ, the birth of whom we celebrate during this Christmas season.
This week we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family. Many of the Scripture readings remind us that we are all one in this Baby who was brought into the world through a family. The ‘yes’ of Mary and Joseph is what made it possible. That God chose to send His only Son into our world by placing Him into a family should not surprise us. The Father could have sent Jesus in any manner which pleased Him, so it seems that families must please Him. In fact, if we go all the way back to the creation story in the Scriptures, the first thing we learn is that people were meant to be together. When making covenants with His people God repeated many times that they were to be fruitful and multiply. The story of Abraham, to whom God gave the charge to begin a nation, revolves around promises of descendants and of a long-awaited son, Isaac. It was his family that populated the Promised Land: the twelve tribes of Israel were the descendants of the twelve sons of Israel (who was originally named Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham). It was to their descendants that the land was given. It was this people to whom God sent His own Son when the time was right. And God made sure that His Son would be born in the family line of a man beloved to Him, King David.
We may have wondered why Matthew began his birth narrative with a somewhat long genealogy. It is not merely a list of names. It is the symbolic list of the generations of men and women - (yes, there are five women in the list, four of whom are named and one who is ‘an honorable mention’)* - who were ancestors of Jesus. This list gives us a sense that God had a plan. God did not send Jesus into the world willy-nilly. Rather He had a time and place that only He knew until the time came. The other writer of a birth narrative, Luke, placed the genealogy of Jesus a bit later, right before Jesus was baptized. He placed it after the birth stories because he wanted us to know that Jesus had an important mission to fulfill. His version of the genealogy links Jesus back to Adam as if to say that we are indeed one family. Just as Adam’s sin caused us to need a redeemer, Jesus overcame sin by giving His life for us. He healed the rift between us so that we could be reunited in the waters of baptism. Jesus strengthened us as the family of God.
In the letters of the New Testament, especially St. Paul and St. John, we see the term ‘brothers and sisters’ often, revealing to us that the early Christian community thought of themselves as a family. They simply followed what Jesus taught and what the Holy Spirit revealed: they were a community of believers, yes, but they were also brothers and sisters. This is why St. Paul said there are no divisions. In this family there is not Gentile or Jew, male or female, slave or free. There is one Body without divisions, just as a family should have no divisions. We are one with a common identity in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Many of the great saints also had an appreciation of family. For example, St. Thérèse of Lisieux had such a great love for her birth family that she could hardly bear to be separated from any one of them. She followed two of her older sisters into the same Carmelite convent. It is clear she had a vocation, but I think she also loved her sisters so much that it gave her great comfort to be near them during the duration of her short life. Leaving her father almost crushed them both, but Thérèse came to offer up the pain of that separation as part of her ministry. It gives us the understanding that God does not intend to separate us completely from our loved ones. Rather He intends for us to remain connected and be part of each other’s lives in one way or another. For some it will be a connection during this earthly life and for others, (especially as we get older) it will be through the bond of baptism with which we remain joined to those who have gone before us in death.
The Holy Family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus should be our role model for family life. Lest we somehow believe their lives were unlike our own, they, too, had their struggles. Remember, relatively soon after the shepherds and magi left them, they had to flee, living as aliens in a strange land for a few years in Egypt. They were of a lower class economically and were relatively poor, Joseph being a carpenter. There is no evidence of any wealth after they returned to Nazareth; they must have lived on the gold, frankincense, and myrrh they received from the magi while being on the run from Herod. They lived humbly and worked hard. But Joseph and Mary modeled family life to their son, Jesus, and taught Him everything He knew about being a man as He grew in obedience and wisdom in their household.
There is no doubt that they taught Jesus through their example. Jesus had sensitivity towards the sick, the outcasts, the poor, and the marginalized. He was alert to injustice and worked against it. He taught His followers about being strong in our weakness, how to live with mercy and in peace, and how to respond in a loving, non-violent way. Surely He learned a lot about this from His parents, though He was God and also learned from His Father in Heaven. But Jesus desired for His human family to be whole, therefore He came to heal that which divides and that which wounds. All of these were values that came from His humble family. His sinless mother, Mary, must have taught Jesus through her reflection and prayer and Joseph must have been an example of quiet strength, teaching Jesus how to live with humility when there would have been a lot of temptation to be known as a person of importance.
Let us learn from the lessons of the Holy Family. They did not make a show of who they were. When the shepherds and magi came to worship Jesus they did not let it ‘go to their heads’ knowing they were the parents of God’s own Son. They did not fight the authorities. Rather they accepted their poverty and learned from it. They teach us that we must reach out to those around us with respect and humility. They teach us that we are one family in Christ and that it is up to us to reach out to the poor, the lonely, the hurting and the lost. We are the ones who have to work for peace by bringing love wherever we may be. We are the ones who need to recognize that we are part of the Holy Family, not onlookers off-stage who merely gaze on the Nativity scene. No, they draw us in, not only to be active participants, but as their brothers and sisters. Let us embrace our true family of origin which is the Holy Family of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. Let us find our identity as one with them.
May we be grateful for our membership in the family of Jesus! May we recognize that we are all brothers and sisters, even with those who seem so very different than ourselves! May we be filled with compassion and mercy for those with whom it is difficult to relate! May we realize that as members of the Holy Family we must respond by actively reaching out to our brothers and sisters! And may we have gratitude for the love of the Holy Family which is extended to us! Let us meet and adore at the foot of the manger alongside shepherds and kings, Mary and Joseph! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
*The four women named in the genealogy of Matthew are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Mary, with special emphasis on Mary as mother of the Messiah. The 'honorable mention' is the wife of David and mother of Solomon: Bathsheba. She is described, but not named outright. (Matthew 1:6)
The two icons at the top are the work of Fr. William Hart McNichols. The first is The Holy Family for Holy Family Hospital of Bethlehem. It is one of the most lovely icons of the Holy Family I have ever seen. The version I used here is the unframed version, though the framed original is also very beautiful. The original is in Bethlehem, Israel as the title indicates. The unframed version is found at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery-views/jesus-gallery/product/343-the-holy-family-for-holy-family-hospital-of-bethlehem
The framed version is at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery-views/jesus-gallery/product/345-the-holy-family-for-holy-family-hospital-of-bethlehem-with-frame. You can obtain copies of these here or also at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/2-the-holy-family-for-the-holy-family-hospital-of-bethlehem-william-hart-mcnichols.html
The next illustration is called The Holy Family with a Palm Tree (1506) by the great artist Raphael. You can find this at https://www.flickr.com/photos/mbell1975/6341430767/
The last picture is from a long lost Christmas card from many years ago. I keep it in my Bible and have no idea from whence it came.
Heart Speaks to Heart