CYCLE B | CHRISTMASTIDE | FEAST OF THE HOLY FAMILY
– By Fr Ugo Ikwuka
A couple drove several miles down a country road without talking to each other. They had quarrelled. As they passed by a farmyard of goats and pigs, the husband sarcastically asked: “Are those your relatives?” “Yes” replied his wife, “I married into their family.”
Today we celebrate the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. How reassuring that this model family had its own fair share of troubles right from the beginning. This is foreseen in the old man Simeon’s prophecy regarding Mary as Jesus was dedicated in the Temple in today’s Gospel: “You see this child: he is destined … to be a sign that is rejected, and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” What a devastating prophecy to hear on what should be a joyous day for a young couple. Why should they suffer because of the child?
In this, however, they were no different from any other parents. Because parents love their children, everything that happens to their children has an impact upon their lives, be it sickness, maltreatment by others or the child getting into some trouble. Yet this family is distinguished as the holy family notwithstanding that with some of their experiences, they fall wide off the mark of the ‘ideal’ family. For instance, Mary was pregnant before marriage and it was not by her husband, and the ‘illegitimate’ child was something of a prodigy: there was some oddness about him.
However, the Gospels present Mary and Joseph as calmly meeting each challenge the baby’s life brought. And they could be this responsible essentially because they consistently obeyed God; their love for their child was subordinated to their love of God. Even when virginal conception was inexplicable, Mary said “Yes” to God. When Joseph discovered that Mary was with child that was not from him, he took Mary home as his wife at the prompting of God, notwithstanding the ridicule to which he was exposed.
Again, Joseph was told that the king was out to eliminate the baby and he had another divine injunction to embark on the tortuous dangerous journey to Egypt, a distant and strange country, with a vulnerable nursing mother and a delicate baby – all bizarre sounding ideas, and yet he went. Then, after a while in Egypt, following another divine prompting in a dream, he uproots his family once more for a return journey to Israel but to a different location. From the perspective of health and safety alone, this could pass for abusive behaviour.
But what Joseph consistently did was subordinate his love for his family to the will and purposes of God even when it meant danger to his family or when God’s intentions were not clear. Loving within the bounds of the love we have for God is what makes people holy. This is exemplified in the lives of the holy men and women in the Bible. When God made the incomprehensible request, Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac the son of his old age through whom God’s promise that he would be the father of multitudes was to be fulfilled. That’s what made Abraham holy.
Childless Hannah had prayed with all her soul for a son whom she promised to offer back to God. When she had Samuel, she loved him, but once the child was weaned, she handed him back to the Temple. Putting God first, that’s what made her family holy. Hannah’s offering finds echo in the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Mary and Joseph are very careful to observe the Jewish laws about offering the first-fruits of family and field to God. There is a demand higher than even the demand of the most intense love we feel here below. It is loving within the bounds of that higher demands that makes people holy.
At 12, Jesus who was lost as the family returns from pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover would be found in the same Temple. And when Mary questioned him, he retorts devastatingly: “Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father’s affairs?” Again, the love which he undoubtedly has for Mary and Joseph is now situated in the higher context of his love for God, his Father. The Father’s business is more important, more pressing, more demanding than even the most pressing family obligation.
While there is nothing wrong in romanticising family connections, the truth which the Bible teaches is that a family will paradoxically be stronger the more it is subordinated to God’s will and purpose; the more each member of the family subordinates their love for the family to the greater love of God. Relationships endure to the measure that people fall in love, not just with each other, but together with the transcendent third, with the greater good that transcends each other. The tranquility of the Holy Family and all holy people is the result of their subordinating their will in trust to that of God.
United with God in this way, our families can calmly deal with the challenges of life. Perhaps there is a sword that will pierce the hearts of all parents. There are anxious young families. But we have no reason to be afraid. We can be a holy family by putting God first. When we do, everything falls into place. Indeed, there are already many ‘holy families’ among us; families that have mutual respect for one another, where differences are accepted, where richness of life is not in terms of the material but in terms of well-adjusted, mature and loving persons using the gifts they have to make this a better world to live in.
Such homes are warm and welcoming. Because they receive quality reassuring love, members of such families have no gaps to fill, hence they don’t end up in addictive and self-destructive behaviour. Image and status, being purely external, have little relevance. It is a place where there is love and forgiveness, where there is support and understanding, where there is genuine sharing – not just of things, but of ideas and feelings, of joys and sorrows, and where there are ears willing to listen and to understand.
For the Christian family, it is a place where the values of Jesus have become the family values, especially that of unconditional self-giving. One thing common with such families is that they put God first i.e. their love is within the bounds of their love of God. They are families where God’s will prevails. Such a family is a real blessing, not only for its own members but for its neighbours and all those who come in contact with it.