by Russell Pollitt SJ

Family life is messy! We might be tempted to think that the Holy Family we celebrate today was a perfect little family with no issues. In fact, very often the Holy Family is presented just like that. A careful analysis of the Scriptures will soon reveal that Joseph, Mary and Jesus had to negotiate the normal struggles of family life. Here are five obvious struggles:

First, before they are even formally a family, there is a pregnancy out of wedlock and talk of a divorce! There is no doubt that Joseph and Mary struggled to come to terms with their unconventional circumstances. Both said yes to God – Joseph after having a dream telling him not to seek the path of divorce and Mary’s famous yes to the angel Gabriel. Notice too that, in both cases – the dream and Gabriel’s visit – the words “Do not be afraid” are spoken. They were afraid because circumstances were messy; things were not easy.

Second, we are told that Jesus was born in less than appropriate surroundings: a stable. Joseph and Mary were poor. By the time they got to Bethlehem there was no space for them. Maybe they left late or were delayed by an argument. Maybe the traffic was bad en route. They never booked ahead. They were tired. A stable is not a conducive place to have to spend the night, let alone give birth. How did Mary feel about not being able to give her child the best start?

Third, close family and friends did not surround them that night. Unsavoury characters – like shepherds – pitched up to see what had happened. Shepherds did not have the greatest of reputations. They were, surely, not the kind of people Mary wanted hanging around in the hours after giving birth.

Fourth, Joseph and Mary soon had to flee their own country for fear that their son would be killed. They were asylum seekers. They went to live in a foreign land and put up with all that entails. To add to the pressure of the strange circumstances of their son’s birth, they now had to negotiate a new culture, a new way of life and perhaps even put up with xenophobia. All this puts strain on a relationship.

Fifth, on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Jesus goes missing. Had he been kidnapped? Trafficked? Did Mary moan at Joseph for not watching him more carefully – or vice versa? They must have panicked. Then, when they find him, Jesus is hardly repentant. He seems quite insolent when he says, “did you not know that I would be in my Father’s house”!

No family is or will ever be perfect. That’s exactly why Pope Francis called the Synod on the Family in October. The Holy Father knows that family life is difficult. It’s not about perfection. The Holy Family was not perfect. Holiness is not about perfection. It’s about travelling the path with and to God together, through the struggle. It’s about learning that in the messiness of family life God is present and inviting us to be holy.

All families are ‘holy families’ when, despite all that’s wrong, they trust and know that God is in their midst.