“...be clothed in sincere compassion, in kindness and humility, gentleness and patience”
(Readings: Ecclesiasticus 3:2-6, 12-14; Colossians 3:12-21; Luke 2:41-52)
Introduction to Mass
The readings for the Mass on the Feast of the Holy Family seem to focus on two things. One is obviously the Holy Family itself, and the unique role Mary and Joseph played in forming the environment that Jesus grew up and was formed in. And the other is a more general reflection on the principles and standards of Christian family life, especially in the second reading from Saint Paul.
To begin Mass let us call to mind our own failures and weaknesses and ask God for his pardon and healing.
I don't believe that we're supposed to draw too many lessons about our own family life from the example of the Holy Family, not least because Mary and Joseph weren't really what you would call a normal married couple and Jesus himself was far from being a conventional child, as we just heard.
In the gospels there aren't any detailed descriptions of the day-to-day reality of life in the Holy Family. What we get are little snapshops like this one in Saint Luke's gospel, and we're left to make certain assumptions about the pattern of family relationships which evolved as Jesus was growing up, based on the conviction that Mary and Joseph were themselves the products of all the best aspects of Jewish spirituality.
The real significance of the Holy Family is as an image, an image which grew out of the Church's reflection on the Christmas mystery: the mystery of Jesus' identity as both God and Man. And that's why the feast of the Holy Family falls within the Christmas Season.
However we want to try to explain what we believe about Jesus' divine nature, it is still true that in his human nature Jesus needed all the care and love and protection which every other human being needs during his or her infancy and childhood. He also needed all the formation and education that parents give their children in fostering their character and their moral principles, and whether they're going to be open or closed to the spiritual realm or not.
So I don't think we're meant to see Christ as someone who had his identity and his spirituality planted in him completely by God from before the time he was born. We're supposed to attribute Mary and Joseph with a lot of the responsibility for the adult that Jesus became, the priorities he had, his passion and deep devotion to God.
That's not denying God's involvement. It's only claiming that when it came to Jesus' Incarnation, God was working the way he usually works - through ordinary people, through their personalities and characters, through their history and the concrete circumstances in which they find themselves. That's what the whole principle of Incarnation entails.
And that is the bridge between the Holy Family and a more general reflection on our family life as believers in God and disciples of Christ.
It would probably be wise for priests to be a bit cautious or circumspect in giving out advice about family life - although let's not forget that the Church's priests were also brought up in families themselves. It would be a mistake to think that the complexities of modern family life - which are not as novel as many people tend to assume - are completely alien territory to the clergy.
But when it comes to the joys and sorrows of married life and "parenting", as it's called now (child-rearing as people used to call it), priests are observers and spectators of family life rather than participants, and so they should be modest in the prescriptions they hand out on the subject. Personally I would only like to make one point about it.
There's a famous poem by Philip Larkin which many of you will know. I won't quote Larkin's expletives directly, but it's a poem about how your parents "muck you up": they pass on all their own faults and flaws to their children and add some more while they're at it.
Of course, the family is the place where children learn their basic values and their basic emotional responses. Are they brought up in an environment which encourages trust, or mistrust? Do they learn to accept other people or try to manipulate them? Is the home a place of security, or anxiety? Are they taught a kind of fundamental respect for others, or do they grow up with a generally predatory attitude?
These are the basic approaches to life that I believe are learned first of all in the relationships among the members of our own families.
But it's a tall order to demand that every couple provide an upbringing for their children which is perfect in every respect: perfect diet and physical health, perfect education, perfect emotional adjustment and so on, no shadows or flaws of any kind. The stress on material welfare in our society has produced a tendency towards that sort of thinking at the moment, but it's not a particularly Christian tendency.
In a Christian perspective, the family - as Saint Paul seems to be suggesting in today's second reading - is the place where we should learn to bear with each other’s failings, not where we should expect to experience perfection. It's the place where we should learn mutual tolerance and patience, not where we're served up with a seamlessly happy life.
This is where I thought about Larkin's poem, because it has always struck me as a very sour, ungracious and unforgiving poem. Perhaps for some of us our family life and our early influences have messed us up and left us damaged. I don't want to trivialise the harm and the cruelty that some people have experienced within their own families.
But it's always inspiring when we see someone, who did in some manner have a bad time as a child, later on reaching a level of understanding and forgiveness towards their parents, or their brothers and sisters.
From the point of view of what we believe about how God's grace transforms people if they're open to it, it's surely part of our belief that people don't have to be imprisoned or completely determined by the unpleasant experiences they undergo. Of all people we should be the last ones to doubt God's ability to bring good out of evil situations, or to produce holiness out of suffering, or to guide us towards a loving and compassionate approach to life as opposed to becoming trapped in resentment or bitterness.
Paradoxically, the main area where many of us have the opportunity to learn these things is in the area of our earliest relationships, the relationships we have with the members of our own family.
So on today's feast when we're encouraged to reflect on the image of the Holy Family, let's pray for a greater openness to God's grace and a greater readiness to allow both our positive and negative experiences of family relationships to educate us in the qualities St. Paul talks about: compassion, kindness, forbearance, patience and forgiveness. The better we learn these attitudes within the close confines of our own families the better able we will be to put them into practice beyond those confines, in the wider circles and communities to which we belong.
(Larkin's Poem, This Be The Verse, can be found at http://www.artofeurope.com/larkin/lar2.htm)