We are told by some that the Holy Family is an impossible ideal, that the family life of Jesus, Mary and Joseph - at least in the way it has been sometimes portrayed in spiritual writings doesn’t seem real or convincing - they seem too impossibly sweet and overcoloured to be of any use to us in the world in which we now have to live. Even as an ideal the Holy Family doesn’t work too well because ideals give us hope for the future as long as they are really part of our world, of the kind of life we can recognise to be our own.
I have to say I don’t accept this line of argument at all. If the situation of Mary, Joseph and the child Jesus doesn’t represent true reality, I don’t know what does. During this Christmas season we celebrate the taking of human flesh of God’s Son, the fact that God has really become a human being and made the world as it is his home in the midst of an actual human family and real human relationships. Yes, Christians have sometimes and in some places been guilty of over-sentimentalising the childhood of Christ, but what do we want, an episode of “Eastenders?” The events recorded in the scriptures tend to point in the opposite direction altogether from sentimentality, and they completely confirm the Church‘s theology that here is the Incarnate Lord come to share our human nature, and our human circumstances as they are, in order to lead us to the life of God which has no limit.
As a family, things begin rather shakily, to say the least, for the Holy Family. At its beginning there is the discovery by Joseph of his wife's pregnancy, knowing he was not the father of her child. His thinks about putting her on one side without any public scandal affecting Mary herself. He is that sort of man, a true descendant of the house of David; not for nothing has he been chosen as the foster father of the Incarnate Lord. But he is frightened. And for her part, Mary has to bear an encounter with God, with the Holy Spirit, which has baffled her with its uniqueness and strangeness.
The birth of Jesus happened while his parents were, because of Government dictat, forced to be away from the familiar security of their own home, and the birth itself in an overcrowded town drew a certain amount of attention and a few fairly improbable and exotic visitors. As we know from St Matthew’s Gospel, much worse was to follow. The authorities under King Herod felt threatened and ordered a purge and a series of appalling murders, a massacre of innocent children, to try to guarantee the regime’s stability. Now unexpectedly in the spotlight, the family fled to a nearby country in search of temporary asylum and safety.
The story of the killing of those children we call the Holy Innocents and the flight into Egypt are terrible enough; life doesn’t get much more “real” than this; and when we set this alongside the Advent yearning of God’s people for the coming of the Messiah, these events seemingly dash those hopes to the ground. Yet the Gospel accounts of the goodness and love of God coming among us in the person of Jesus is all the more uncompromisingly effective when that goodness and love are set in the context of human nature as it actually is - in the context of the evil and hatred which do very often take hold of human hearts and minds. Switch on the television, open a newspaper.
From the very beginning, Jesus had to grow up in the knowledge that he had a Father who was not Joseph and that his destiny was quite unlike those amongst whom he was living. It’s quite clear from the Gospel this morning that Mary and Joseph themselves struggled to make sense of this profound union between Son and divine Father, even when Jesus was quite young. In his maturity as a grown man, doing the will of the Father at all times and at all costs meant that Jesus left home for an uncertain and dangerous life with a group of close followers. The shadows deepened, the number of his enemies grew:
"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."
"And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light..."
The gospel accounts soon lose track of St Joseph - one fairly early tradition says he died before Jesus reached adulthood. As we know, Mary does appear - always at the crucial moments - in the gospels, and the scriptures describe a relationship with her son that takes little for granted in human terms. She who from the moment of the Annunciation - the encounter with the angel - had been given so much to ponder, in the end had to watch helplessly while the tortured body of her son was nailed to a cross until he died. Mary realises from the beginning what it takes us so long to appeciate - that our loved ones don’t belong to us; first and foremost they belong to God.
This was the reality of the Holy Family. None of its essential realism should be glossed over to make it sentimental or glamorous; although in one way it can’t help being the most glamorous story of all time. Yet this story shouldn’t be told only as the tale of one more persecuted and oppressed family living in the region we still sometimes call Palestine. Despite the myths, they weren’t homeless, nor were they "asylum seekers" or refugees for very long, Our Lady wasn’t an unmarried mother, by the standards of those around them they weren’t even particularly poor. The wrong kind of so-called realism stresses the “political” aspects of the Christmas story and avoids and leaves out much of importance that was really going on in this particular family. As someone has written, "the events, the relationships, the free responses to God and to one another were upheld by a divine grace that did not spare Jesus, Mary and Joseph the mess, the cost and the suffering of life, but did not permit them to be limited or destroyed by that. Here was love and here was holiness, neither happening on the cheap or without a price to be paid." Here, hidden away from the eyes of the world, and our eyes too, is God at work. Jesus Christ, the Word of God, by taking human nature makes us all part of the divine plan and makes us sharers in the nature and life of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The Christmas story is one of hope and not despair. When we put the fact of God dwelling alongside us against the callousness and brutality of the world - given our human nature without divine grace, the world as it was then, the world as it is now - it shines all the brighter for us. Here is God showing what is, even to us much of the time, an almost unimaginable solidarity with his people. Here is God teaching us how to live, as we journey to the life of heaven, in the most fundamental and important of human relationships, the family. Here is God in Christ leading us to the holiness, truth and beauty of a life without end. Because of the first Christmas, because too of the hidden childhood of Jesus, this is a not an impossible ideal but, with God's grace, a real possibility for us. This is our destiny and the life of the Holy Family helps to guide us towards it.
Another "one-handed" mass this morning for the feast of the Holy Family. At least, with a solid plaster and a little more mobility, I managed to ditch the hooded cassock alb, which was the only possibility for the Midnight Mass. Even so, it was only possible to say mass at all (and then without being able to administer Holy Communion to the people) with a great deal of assistance - a humbling thought as we celebrate the Incarnation. My particular thanks to Fr Mark for his help over the last few days.