There is a common complaint today about the changing nature of family life in the United States. Family life is changing, and apparently not for the better. The rate of divorce in the United States has remained steady, at 51%, since the 1970’s. However, the number of children born to single mothers has increased dramatically; 48% of all first births are to unmarried women. So, too, the number of children being raised by grandparents rather than parents is increasing. These and similar disturbing trends show every indication of continuing into the future.
Many people have first-hand experience of the difficulties of family life during the Christmas holidays. Divisions within families are often a source of conflict during the holidays. Those who have recently lost loved ones tend to feel the loss more intensely at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The pressures of gift giving and entertaining can push the calmest people beyond the limits of their coping skills.
The Christmas holidays seem to present us with an unattainable goal: a happy and peaceful family life. Today’s celebration, the feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph is emblematic of the unrealistic expectations that we put on ourselves and our relations during the holiday season. The Scriptures seem to paint a picture of remarkable tranquility. Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple after his birth where they were greeted by two very pious elderly people. Our Gospel reading concludes with the words, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” (Luke 2:40)
While it’s very tempting to get caught up in an idealized picture of the life of the Holy Family of Nazareth, we shouldn’t let our imaginations run wild. Joseph, Mary and Jesus lived in a tiny village in a very unsavory territory, Galilee. Joseph was a skilled laborer who would have had to travel continuously in order to remain employed. This meant not only that he was away from his family for extended periods of time, but that he would have been looked down upon by others because of his absences.
If we could be honest with ourselves, we would admit that there are no normal families. All families have their quirks and dysfunctions. The Holy Family of Nazareth was far from the norm of the time. Rather than pursuing an irrational and unattainable goal, we could pursue something that is both attainable and far superior to normalcy.
The Scriptures says, “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,
if one has a grievance against another;
as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.
And over all these put on love,
that is, the bond of perfection.
And let the peace of Christ control your hearts,
the peace into which you were also called in one body.
And be thankful.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,
as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another,
singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs
with gratitude in your hearts to God.
And 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.” (Colossians 3:12-17)
This passage of Scripture describes a life that is holy, and centered on God. Happily, such holiness does not depend on having uncomplicated lives and harmonious family relations; it depends solely on living in God’s presence. The ideas of a “normal life,” or “a normal family” are merely constructs; they don’t exist in the real world. The real world is diverse and messy. Some of the disorder in our lives can be remedied, but not all. In contrast, the lack of holiness is entirely remediable.
Would you like your family, with all its idiosyncrasies, to have something much more valuable than “normal” relationships? If so, then be holy: be compassionate, gentle, patient, forgiving and thankful. These virtues, more than any other, make for a happy home.