The Dysfunctional Holy Family

Readings for Holy Family Sunday: Sir. 3: 2-6, 12-14; Ps. 128: 1-5; Col. 3:12-21; Lk. 2: 41-52 

Today is the feast of the Holy Family. We’re used to thinking of it as a cozy group of 3, Jesus, Mary and Joseph living in ideal circumstances, the way we picture them in our nativity crib scenes. Or we imagine Jesus’ early life as we find it depicted in medieval paintings of the carpenter Joseph’s workshop. There we often find a loving haloed and elderly foster-father instructing Jesus in his trade while Mary smiles in the background.

However, if we take seriously the “infancy narratives” coming from Matthew and Luke, we must draw the conclusion that Jesus’ home life was more complicated than that. You might even say that it was “troubled” right from the beginning. So for the moment, let’s suspend disbelief surrounding the historicity of the narratives about Jesus’ early years. Let’s try instead to unpack the stories at face value. Doing so, I think, shows them to be quite relevant to our own experiences – especially to that of our family dysfunctions and to our own experiences of being no one, without face, identity, or power before the world’s problems.

To begin with, think about Jesus’ family, the focus of today’s liturgy of the word.  It wasn’t perfect. The holy family was larger than we’re accustomed to imagine. Joseph and Mary probably had 7 or 8 children. According to the gospels, Jesus’ brothers’ names were James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon. Jesus is also said to have had at least 2 unnamed sisters. On the one hand, a large family like that would have been helpful to peasant farmers, if Mary and Joseph had any land. On the other hand, a family of 9 or 10 people would have been hard to maintain for rural peasants living in a backwater like Nazareth. It is likely then that hunger and struggling to make ends meet was a major part of Jesus’ early experience.

Jesus’ country was also war-torn at the time when he was born, and that certainly impacted his family. At approximately the moment of his conception, the Romans had razed the city of Sepphoris, located just an hour’s walk from Nazareth. Sepphoris was the capital of Galilee where Nazareth was located. Galilee was a hotbed of resistance to Rome’s occupation of Palestine. And a rebellion had erupted in Sepphoris about the year 4 BCE. That meant that the countryside would have been crawling with Roman soldiers at the time of Jesus’ conception. Inevitably, many young Jewish girls would have been raped by the occupying forces. Some see that fact as lending credence to an anti-Christian tradition claiming that Jesus was the product of rape of Jesus’ mother, Mary by a Roman soldier called Panthera.

In any case, Mary’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy would have raised many eyebrows in the rural village of Nazareth. Town gossips would have snickered and talked behind their hands about the young girl’s “virginal conception.” We know for certain that Mary’s mysterious pregnancy put Joseph in crisis. According to tradition, he suspected she had been unfaithful and thought her condition reason enough to break off their engagement. We also know that Mary chose to leave town “in haste” and travel to the hill country of Judah to her Cousin Elizabeth’s home – possibly to get some distance from small village talk.

Once that problem was resolved, the holy family’s troubles continued.  There was the matter of Jesus’ homelessness at the time of his birth. For the occasion, Joseph and Mary had to make do with a filthy stable with all of its animal droppings, noises, smells, vermin, rodents and cold.

And things got worse after that. The story goes that the local king Herod ordered an infanticide of all children under the age of 2 in the area surrounding the place of Jesus’ birth.  For Mary and Joseph, avoiding such unspeakable violence meant fleeing to Egypt in the middle of the night. It also meant trying to survive as immigrants in that far-off country – not speaking the language or knowing the customs, or feeling at home among those prejudiced against foreigners.

Once back in Palestine, things apparently settled down. However, the episode in today’s gospel reveals tension in the holy family that will resurface later in the gospels.

“The Finding in the Temple” is a coming of age story. At the age of 13, all Jewish boys would accompany their parents for the first time as a “genuine Israelite.” Each would then become a man, “one who goes up to the temple.” In Jesus’ time, the 13th year was anticipated by a year as a kind of preparation for the “big step” into adulthood.  Coming from a place like Nazareth, the boy from the country would have been dazzled by the splendor of the Temple with its colonnades, precious woods, unending polished steps, gold and silver candelabra. It would have been easy for him to wander away with other boys and become lost in it all.

His parents find him, we are told, easily conversing with learned men from the city whose manners, accents and clothing would have been intimidating to Jesus’ simple parents. And yet here was the country boy Jesus astounding the city people with the incisiveness of his questions and the wisdom of his answers. No doubt, the rural parents waited till they were out of earshot of their “betters” till they gave Jesus the dressing down they thought he deserved. The scolding may have lasted the entire three-day journey back to Nazareth.

His parents, we’re told in this morning’s reading, did not understand their son. We find out later on that the lack of understanding continued. At one point in Mark’s gospel, his mother and his siblings are described as thinking Jesus was out of his mind (Mk. 3: 34-35). This led to a formal estrangement between Jesus and his family. He more or less disowned them. When Jesus was told that his family has come to rescue him from his madness, he said in effect, “My mother – my family? That’s not who those people are. Instead, you (the outcasts, beggars, insurrectionists, prostitutes, unemployed, and ne’er do wells, who were his companions) – you are my real family, my real people.”

And yet today’s gospel concludes that Jesus went back to Nazareth with them. He advanced, Luke tells us in age and wisdom and grace before God and his neighbors. And that’s it. We hear no more about him for 20 years or so. He disappears. He becomes nobody.

And that brings me to the other part of today’s reflection – being a nobody. What does Jesus’ disappearance, his “hidden life,” tell us about the human condition?  According to our faith, Jesus was the full embodiment of God. Presumably, then, he had infinite power at his disposal. His world was as filled with problems as ours. There was Roman imperialism and the occupation of Palestine with its brutality, torture, rape, exploitation and oppression. There was political corruption among Jesus’ own people as the leaders of his time climbed into bed with the Romans. There was extreme poverty alongside obscene wealth. There was religious corruption. There was disease and ignorance.  And yet as far as the record is concerned, this embodiment of God did nothing.  For 97% of his life, Jesus did absolutely nothing!

Why? Do you think it might have been because, like us, he could do nothing significant about all those problems? And even when around the age of 30 he did finally emerge as a more or less public figure, what did he really do? He spoke some inspiring words, healed a few people, and worked some miracles that his contemporaries dismissed as parlor tricks. He provoked the authorities in a temple demonstration for religious purity and social justice, was arrested, tortured and executed as an insurrectionist.  That was pretty much it as far as his “public life” was concerned. Afterwards, the world mostly continued as it had before his arrival.

I somehow find comfort in both Jesus’ family dysfunctions and in his “nobodiness.”  None of our families is perfect. Unexpected pregnancies, suspicions and jealousies dividing couples, financial struggles, problems with neighbors and gossip, displacement, lost and alienated children – it all seems about par for the course. I’m not even sure that Mary and Joseph didn’t wonder at times where they went wrong. There was a lot for them to process in their pillow talk as they saw their son hanging out with the wrong crowd, apparently losing his faith, and then getting into political problems they didn’t understand. My God, he finally ended up on death row! The black sheep of the family . . . .

And then there are our own little lives and their apparent lack of meaning. In the end, we’re nobodies, all of us. That’s what death makes apparent as we lose our physical form and minds and all that we worked for. We’re nobodies.  Few will remember us or think of us after we’re gone. We’re born, get married, have children, buy and sell a few items, and then die. And what became of all our hopes and dreams? What does it all mean?

Does it mean that it’s all O.K.; it’s all good? Does it mean “that’s life” – what it’s about? In fact, our vocation is to be precisely nobody instead of constantly striving to be Somebody. In the end, death discloses the truth about our vocation. It is the same as Jesus’ vocation. And that is to be open, faceless channels that disclose the presence of God in our very ordinary lives with their family dysfunctions and personal failures. It is to rise above such limitations or rather to use them to express the unbounded love of an apparently powerless God to those around us – especially to our family members who might not even understand.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

One thought on “The Dysfunctional Holy Family”

  1. This is excellent Mike.
    A great full-stop, exclamation mark to the old year.
    Interesting, informative and sensible.
    Some however believe it is also – all good!
    We may not have it in it’s proper perspective yet.

    Like

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