“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name” (Ephesians 3:14-15)
If the Yuletide season is not the right time to think about the institution of the family then when? Christmas is a time of family – with all the positives and negatives that come along with that. It’s a time when we who have families celebrate with our families and it’s a time when we who deal with suicide prevention try to support people who feel radically alienated from their families.
The association with family is inevitable at Christmas time. The ‘Holy Family’ of Mary, Joseph and the baby are the focus of our attention. For most of us this brings out our maternal and/or paternal instincts though, as I say, I appreciate that for many people this vision of the ideal family at peace can serve only to rub salt into deep and lasting wounds.
Even so, perhaps this makes a focus on the ‘holy family’ all the more important, for perhaps in this archetypal (if unique) semi-divine family unit we will find something that will bring healing to our own family wounds.
For there is something deeply spiritual about the family that none of us can escape. Indeed, I believe that one thing that we all have in common, regardless of the strength of our family experience – whether we’ve just been celebrating our families in recent weeks or doing our best not to think about them – one thing that unites us is that we all yearn for home.
I spent most of yesterday driving back from Ange’s parents’ house in Narooma where the rest of my immediate family still is. I drove back by myself and I decided to take a bit of a detour via Kiama where my paternal grandmother once had a holiday house and where I spent some very significant days in my youth. I found myself strangely yearning for home.
My upbringing was very much at the dysfunctional end of the spectrum and yet there are indeed times when I yearn to be back there, and I don’t think that’s too odd. On the contrary, I’m told that the experience is universal!
I was listening to some lectures by the great Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, recently and he was addressing exactly this issue. We all yearn for home. According to Rohr, even children who have been brought up in entirely abusive environments grow up yearning for home!
Rohr suggests that the only way to explain this is to recognise that behind our yearning for the home of our upbringing is a deeper yearning for our true home. We came from God and we know that we are ultimately heading back to God. Deep down we yearn to return home, and the warm memories of our youthful abode really point beyond themselves to that place of true security and peace.
Now … with that insight that sounds like it should come at the conclusion of the sermon rather than at the beginning, let me offer you a few snapshots of the Holy Family that as we find them in the Bible, in the hope that these might enlighten our understanding of both family and home.
I say ‘snapshots’ because this is all we get in the New Testament. There are no lengthy depictions of the family life of Jesus. Even so, the snapshots that we are given are instructive.
The first snapshot, of course, is the one we are so familiar with over the Christmas period: Mary and the baby Jesus, with Joseph in the background. This is the central image of Christmas – ‘round young virgin, mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild’.
It’s an image without words. Even the little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes! Apart from the lowing of the cattle this image is noiseless and static – an image of true domestic tranquility.
Of course we know full well that the scene could not really have been as peaceful as countless religious artists and sculptors have portrayed it. In truth, the Nativity scene is one of displacement and discomfort.
Jesus would not have been comfortable in the manger. Mary would have been far less comfortable. We have no idea as to the role played by Joseph at the birth – whether he himself played the role of midwife or whether he relied on the attendant group of shepherds with their skills in animal husbandry to provide the necessary gynecological expertise.
However we put the pieces together, this was not a good start for the family of Mary and Joseph and their baby. One could only hope that things would improve from there.
The next snapshot of the family comes twelve years later during their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem where Mary and Joseph lose Jesus completely!
The story is recounted in Luke chapter 2. I’m sure most of us are familiar with it. It’s a bizarre scene. Every sermon I’ve heard on this passage goes to great lengths to explain why Mary and Joseph were not to blame for losing Jesus but it seems to me like a blatant case of negligence!
At the same time, Jesus’ behavior in disappearing and eventually reappearing alongside the religious scholars in the Temple does seem to have been an entirely wilful act on His part.
This snapshot is not without words but includes a sharp exchange between mother and child:
[Mary] said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:48)
Mother and child were not communicating well. Again, one could only hope that things would improve from there, and yet they don’t improve from there. On the contrary, they degenerate.
The next snapshot we get of the Holy Family has Jesus as an adult, attending a wedding with His mother at Cana in Galilee. Joseph, who didn’t get a speaking part in either of the previous two snapshots, isn’t even present in this one!
What happened to Joseph? We have no idea! While the Scripture commends Joseph as a ‘good man’ (Matthew 1:19) for not abandoning Mary during her pregnancy, it doesn’t say he didn’t abandon her later on!
Of course we like to assume that Joseph died, which paints him in a slightly better (though no less tragic) light. Either way, we have no idea how many years Mary had bringing up Jesus as a single mother. What we do know is that the tensions and misunderstanding between them had not been overcome.
The Gospel-writer John tells us that when the wine ran out at the wedding at Cana in Galilee Mary said to Jesus “They have no wine”. (John 2:3)
Evidently there was more not being said than was being said in that statement, and this is reflected in Jesus’ harsh response to His mother, “What have you to do with me, woman! My hour has not yet come!” (John 2:4)
Evidently Mary had expectations of her son and Jesus felt pressured by those expectations. At one level that sounds like pretty standard mother and son stuff. In the context of Jesus – son of Mary, son of God – it looks all the more distressing! One could only hope that things would improve from here.
Rather than improve though the relationship between Jesus and His mother hits rock bottom after this!
All three synoptic Gospels give accounts of Jesus’ mother and His siblings trying to interrupt the ministry of Jesus to take him home (Matthew 12:46ff, Mark 3:31ff, Luke 8:19ff). Evidently this was a scene that was well remembered by the early Church.
The exact details of the family’s concern for Jesus are not spelled out but clearly they thought He had lost the plot. They come to take him home just as I’ve had parents and siblings come to take people home here that I’ve had resting in the church building – people with mental illness, people who are delusional, people who are a risk to themselves and who need to be put to bed.
Jesus’ response to His family’s attempted intervention is brutal, of course. Jesus simply disowns them!
“Someone said to Him, “Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside seeking to speak to You.” But Jesus answered the one who was telling Him and said, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Behold My mother and My brothers!…” (Matthew 12:47-49)
One could only hope that things improved from there, and of course they do improve in the end. We know that because we know that Jesus’ earthly brother James was the leader of the early church in Jerusalem and wrote one of the letters in the New Testament.
Clearly there were plenty of things that were worked through between Jesus and His disciples and His family in the post-resurrection period. Even so, the last snapshot we get of Jesus and His mother in the Gospels is in some ways the most painful of all!
“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!”” (John 19:26)
The scene is the cross. Jesus is in the throes of death and in agony and His mother is there, and these are amongst His final words before death. Jesus disowns Mary once again, in a sense, though in a far more tender way this time.
One thing that does surprise me when I read this passage is that, as far as I know, no tradition of sharing the care of your mother with other members of your church community grew out of this!
One might have thought that the church throughout history might have drawn from Jesus’ example that you should always care for your mother in her old age and that if you, by virtue of death or incapacity, can’t fulfill your responsibility then you should designate a brother in the church as your mother’s care-giver.
It would have made sense to me had these words been the foundation of an institution of Christian care. No! These words and this relationship between Jesus and His mother seems to have been unique between the two of them – “Mother, behold they son. Son, behold they mother.”
And with that painful snapshot the family album of the Holy Family is complete!
What can we say about the Holy Family – that it was dysfunctional, that it was full of tension and miscommunication, that it was unique, or that in some ways it all seems very familiar!
We could say all of the above, though we would not want to overlook the one unifying element that is common to all of these snapshots we have looked at, and that is the element of love!
Whatever else we can say about the Holy Family, there was love there! There is love between mother and child in the Nativity scene. There is exasperated love as the parents seek their lost son and find Him in the temple. There is love in the way Jesus’ family tries to shut Him down as an adult – all be it misguided – and there is most certainly love on display at the cross. It is love in the context of agony and bitter grief but it is love nonetheless.
This is the mystery of family, I think – that love and dysfunctionality are by no means mutually exclusive! And this is why we yearn for home, I think, regardless of how dysfunctional our homes were. We yearn for that deep and secure and abiding love that was somehow mysteriously there all the time during our earliest years, even if it was so regularly obscured by human failing.
I think Richard Rohr is right though and that our yearning for home is really ultimately a yearning for our eternal home. Our parents gave us a glimpse of that true home, despite all their fumbling about and miscommunication just as we who have children give them a glimpse of eternity, despite our constant fumbling about and dysfunctionality.
It’s OK to be dysfunctional. The Holy Family was dysfunctional too! If Mary and Joseph couldn’t get it right with Jesus, what hope have we got? Even so, there are glimpses of eternity in our familial relationships too. Through our fractured families the holy light still shines!
For in the end there is only one father and one mother, one family, one love!
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 12th of January , 2014.