Sunday, 31 December 2006

The Holy Family

The mosaic from the chapel of St Joseph forms an appropriate heading for today's Feast. You may well feel that celebrating the Feast of the Holy Family straight after surviving Christmas en famille is a bit rich. Having withstood Christmas Day together, having put up with the in-laws and endured charades, having received a ghastly jumper and found that the alka-seltzers have vanished from the bathroom cabinet, rather than praise the family, you may want to murder them.

Families can seem, at times, like the brussels sprouts that come with the turkey: you've got to have them, but they leave you feeling dreadfully winded. And so, today, as we gaze at the serenity of the family scene in the stable, you may well be thinking that it is very far from the festive scenes of near riot at your house.
But perhaps they are not so far apart.

Families, remember, are big enough to survive Christmas. They do so because whatever rows or strains they throw up, what holds families together is far stronger, and far more flexible. Love. Love is not just reserved for cute carol singers on Christmas cards, nor cherubs floating above picturesque cribs gently powdered with snow. Love can be unbelievably tough. Families go through good times and bad. Families sometimes hang on by their fingernails. But families win through, because whatever bad news the file contains, the filing cabinet can contain it, and put it in a bigger context. Families are about love, and the price paid for love. And that's a very Christmas theme.

For the Holy Family, like any family, is a haven. Against the uncertainty and dangers of a confused world, the members of a family - especially children - find the secure space to grow, develop, and equip themselves for life. Just as the family of Jesus shielded him from the terrors of a violent world (in their case, the wrath of Herod), so within our families, children have the space to grow, to learn to love, and to respect love.

That doesn't make families easy - as many of you can testify. Families are real. If you belong to a real family, you don't need a priest or a bishop to tell you that the romantic stable in Bethlehem also contains a great deal of pain. That peaceful scene was won at the price of deep suffering by Mary and Joseph. It was their sacrifices, their pain, their courage in the face of fear, that enabled Jesus to be born amid peace, love and security. They would have done anything to keep him from harm. Any parent would.

Yet, can that cosy image that is so familiar to us (here, above, is a detail of the Cathedral crib) - the happy, blessed family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph - really be the pattern of all families? Most of our families are far less than perfect. Fewer of our families these days measure up to the traditional image. The Holy Family of Bethlehem seems an impossible ideal, too perfect!

But let us also look at what we know about that Holy Family. The story begins with Joseph discovering that his financĂ©e is pregnant. Next, the Government forces him to travel several hundred miles with his pregnant wife to his original home, where her child - who, we recall, is not Joseph's - is born in an animal pen. They are then forced to flee the country as refugees to Egypt. Later, we hear that when Jesus is 12, he wanders off from his parents on a trip to the big city. They don’t miss him for an entire day - an extraordinary feat of negligence - and when they do find him and tell him off, he answers back in terms that would certainly have earned a child of my generation a good hiding.

Later, at the Marriage Feast of Cana, Jesus seems to tell his mother to shut up. We read later in the gospels that his family thought he was mad, and when they came looking for him, would not let them in to see him.

I note all this not to shock, nor to be an iconoclast, but to point out the real truth of the Holy Family; that it is truly a pattern of families - but not just ideal, TV advert, get-everything right families. Jesus, Mary and Joseph are also the pattern for families where things do not go right, where problems seem to overwhelm, where relationships do not always work out. This was not a painted family carved in gilded wood; it was a real, human family with real human problems.

All of us, then, whatever the state of our families, however easy or difficult we find them, whether they fit the traditional image or don't fit it - we have a reason to rejoice on this feast. God chose to be born in a family. So all our families are blessed; Christ has made his home with us.

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