Feast of the Holy Family, December 29, 2013

I was at Mass at St. Ignatius Parish in Tarpon Springs last week. The Children’s Choir was performing; two of the Choir members are the children of former students of mine at the University, and the parents had invited me to see the two kids’ solo performances.

The Choir performance was very well done; all the parents were eager to see and hear their children sing, but the singers weren’t the only entertainment. Many of the children in the congregation had brought figurines from their families’ Creche scenes. There was to be a blessing of Creches during the Mass. Unfortunately, not all of those Baby Jesuses made it back to their mangers safe and sound. Some were left behind in the pews after Mass; one porcelain Baby Jesus shattered loudly on the floor during Mass. Herod would have been jealous that those kids accomplished what he could not.

In addition to infanticide on a scale that Herod would have approved, there were numbers of children who got sick or cried, and a few who took the opportunity to dance in the aisles to the tunes sung by the Choir. I was there as a spectator only; I wasn’t presiding or concelebrating. Despite having no part to play in the Mass, I left exhausted. The noise, mayhem, occasional tantrum and injury were overwhelming.

I’m tempted to say that I’ve lived too many years as a celibate, and at this stage in my life I would find having a family to be a monumental challenge. The truth is, however, that family life has always been (and will always be), a monumental challenge. Today’s Gospel reading is sufficient testimony to the difficulties and challenges involved in raising a family.

Today’s Gospel recounts two further prophetic dreams Joseph had after Jesus’ birth. He was instructed by an angel to flee Herod’s jealous persecution, and later he was instructed to return from exile in Egypt. Joseph settled his family in Nazareth, an insignificant hamlet in a region that was considered to be less than completely kosher. If we can liken Jerusalem at the time to New York City today, with its notoriously high real estate prices, we would have to liken Nazareth to the western United States in the early Nineteenth Century; during the westward expansion a family could establish a homestead with nothing but the cost of their labor. Nazareth was the low rent district of Palestine.

The fact that Joseph settled in Nazareth tells us that he was very poor. Being a skilled laborer in a poor town meant that he would have had to travel extensively, and spend a great deal of time away from home, in order to earn enough to feed his family. The Holy Family of Nazareth had anything but an easy life; they struggled as much as any family at the time.

It is routine today to lament the many challenges that families face: economic struggles, bullying and other violence at school, a high rate of divorce, drug abuse and the like. These are serious social ills, and not to be dismissed. It is true enough that families struggle today, but that has always been true. If we addressed all of the social ills that have a negative effect on family life today, new ills would pop up as soon as the old ones were resolved. This normal sort of struggle is the unavoidable result of living in a finite universe.

The Holy Family of Nazareth struggled as much as any family, but they thrived amidst their struggles. This was due, in no small part, to the presence and actions of St. Joseph. Joseph is at the center of the Scripture readings on this feast dedicated to the Holy Family of Nazareth because he was able to navigate through severe difficulties, and provide a healthy and nurturing environment for his family. Jesus grew up in the lower socio-economic strata of the time, but he turned out to be more than just OK. Despite his disadvantaged infancy and childhood he grew into a man who said things like, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44), “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25), and “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3) Based on Jesus’ adult personality, I think we can surmise that Joseph was more than an adequate father.

Joseph succeeded at dealing with extraordinary difficulties because he possessed two crucial virtues: faith and courage. He was willing to take God’s Word seriously, and at the same time, he took his personal responsibilities seriously. Today’s second reading was written to a church community which was struggling with internal dissension. The letter offered guidance about how to deal with strife and discord, but it could just as well have been instruction by Joseph about being a spouse or a parent. “Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another . . . whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col 3:12, 17)

None of us are given a choice about the difficulties that are a normal part of life; we do, however, have a choice about how we face those difficulties. The difference between a life of faith and courage and a life lacking those virtues is illustrated in the Gospel. Joseph created a nurturing home for Mary and Jesus while facing extraordinary challenges. Herod had all the advantages of wealth and power, but lived in fear, and left a trail of blood as his legacy. The most important difference between these two men wasn’t the social conditions in which they lived; it was the choices they made about how they lived day to day.

Today’s reading from the Letter to the Colossians offers us a means to imitate Joseph’s courage and faith. “Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another . . . whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col 3:12, 17) Try starting each day this week with these words of Scripture as your morning prayer.