‘Holy Families, Happy Families’
When I was a child, my grandmother had a beautiful statue that she would put out on the feast of the Holy Family. It showed Joseph leading a donkey with Mary on it holding on Jesus. It was clear from the way the figures were carved that both donkey and Joseph were struggling in the wind and that all four were tired.
Just a week after the joy of Christmas, we are celebrating the feast of the Holy Family; we read in Matthew that soon after giving birth to Jesus, Mary and Joseph fled into Egypt.
The Holy Family spent the first formative years of Jesus’ life as refugees. In our parishes we have people who have left their homes coming here to seek a safer, better life. But it is all too easy to disregard them as aliens; dangerous, untrustworthy, stealing our jobs, seducing our children. The list of prejudices is endless. I would challenge you instead to see in the stranger – the exhausted woman carrying her child or the anxious father trying to make a living for his family – a modern likeness of the Holy Family.
The beautiful artworks that abound at this time often sanitise the Christmas story: the stable looks warm and glowing; the flight into Egypt appears folded into dreamy renaissance clouds.
In the same way, the Holy Family as a religious symbol can be unrealistic and idealised. Too often priests – who either cannot remember their own family lives or do not spend enough time with modern families – use the Holy Family as a model to beat up on people. Why can’t all mothers be like Mary? Why can’t all families be like Jesus’ family?
Well, because they are not. (And I suspect the Holy Family was not as perfect as we sometimes like to imagine!). The reality is that having a child (even if he is the Son of God) is hard work; having a baby and having to flee for you life to another country is terrifying. We can imagine Joseph seeking work in a country where he does not speaking the language. Mary had to cope alone, because one of the realities for many refugees is that they are separated from the wisdom and support of their extended families. Simple things like dressing the baby, and keeping up with the washing – babies are incredibly dirty, especially with no disposable nappies – become so much harder when you are alone.
In my own life I have found having children to be wonderfully grace-filled, but also exhausting and highly stressful. So I reflect on the Holy Family. I ask myself how did Mary cope? Or how was Joseph able to support and contain his family’? These sorts of questions have been a source of grace for me. How can I be present to God and to my children in the noise and bustle of life? Especially when the wheels fall off: when I or my husband have been sick, or when our family has had to deal with some tragedy. Then for me thinking of Mary and Joseph managing to give Jesus the security and love he needed, re-inspires me. If they could love him enough despite the stress of being refugees in Egypt, then I too can love my children enough despite all the stresses and pressures that I have to deal with.