Tolstoy once said: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I’m not too sure that you can neatly divide the world into happy and unhappy families. Rather each family is somewhere along the continuum, a mixture of both. Also families can move between stages of happiness and unhappiness. There is no doubt however that good, happy families are something special, radiating way beyond themselves and into the neighbourhood, casting their fine spell of good will on many others. This is borne out by research which claims that marital happiness contributes far more to global happiness than any other variable, including satisfaction with work and friendship. Good families have a more powerful impact on our well being than income or employment.
Family life, need I say, is not easy. It’s not just a walk in the park. Take today’s gospel where Jesus is gone missing for three days causing serious conflict and misunderstanding. Parents know all about this where even losing a child for a few minutes can cause anguish. Your little one was with you at the shopping centre. You turned for a moment to look at something on a shelf, and when you turned back, they had wandered off, without a trace. Did you not suddenly fear for their safety, and in your panic wonder if you’d ever find them again? If losing a child for a few minutes can set your heart thumping, what must it have been like for Mary and Joseph who spent three days searching for Jesus? Listen to the anguish in Mary’s remark. Here is a translation that I like: “Look, your father and I, filled with pain, have been seeking you.” “Filled with pain!” We all know what that means.
Tolstoy says every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. I think one could broaden that to say that all families are different in their own way. The Holy Family is no exception. It has often been cited as the perfect family – a neat jigsaw of married parents and children. Perfect perhaps but not typical. Mary is found pregnant outside of wedlock. Jesus is a child of mysterious patronage and Joseph who, despite his fiancée being pregnant, was prepared to marry her and take her as his wife. All this was far from typical. But that’s the consoling part because this ‘very different’ family is held up for us as an example and model for the Christian family. Obviously what makes for family goes much deeper than neat jigsaw pieces.
Today there is a major breakdown in family life leading to all sorts of social problems. It’s important to remember therefore, in this Jubilee Year of Mercy, that God is not a God of condemnation. Rather God is a God of mercy and compassion. Every family, no matter what makeup; no matter how unhappy or dysfunctional, is nevertheless held close in God’s loving embrace because of God’s mercy. Let me quote Walter Kasper: ‘From the very beginning, God’s merciful action is powerfully effective. His mercy is how God provides resistance to evil, which seems to be getting the upper hand. God does not do this forcibly and violently; God doesn’t simply do battle; rather, in his mercy God repeatedly creates new spaces for life and for blessing.’ This suggests that no matter where one finds oneself family wise, God can create a space for something new to happen.
Mary and Joseph were desperately looking for a space in which to understand why Jesus left them without telling them a word. His plain response to her must have been surprising, to say the least. “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” For Jesus the family isn’t something absolute and untouchable. It’s much more. What’s decisive isn’t the blood family, but that great family that we humans need to build by listening to what the one Father of all desires. Even Jesus’ parents will have to learn this, not without problems and conflicts. What’s most important is the family of humanity: a society that is more fraternal, just, living in solidarity – the way God wants it.
Today’s feast and Jesus holding out for the larger family of humanity before God is a challenge to our faith. How are our families doing? Do we live committed to a better and more human society, or are we exclusively closed in on our own interests? Do we teach solidarity, peace-making, sensibility and compassion toward the needy, or do we teach living for bottomless well-being, abundant wealth, and forgetting everyone else?
What’s going on in our homes? Is the faith being nurtured, do we remember Jesus Christ, do we learn to pray, or do we only pass on indifference, unbelief and a void where God was? Do we educate for living from a moral conscience that is responsible, healthy, coherent with Christian faith, or do we favour a style of life that is superficial, without goals or ideals, without criteria or ultimate meaning?
Families can well be different. The Holy Family, whose feast we celebrate today, was different. But what made this family both holy and happy was a deep loving trust in a merciful God. May all our families be a place where faith in a loving merciful God is nurtured, where Jesus is remembered and prayer is seen as a basic necessity!
Sunday, December 27, 2015