1 Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28
1 John 3:1-2, 21-24
Merry Christmas! Here I make my annual encouragement to keep those Christmas decorations up as we have only just begun the Christmas season. We have another two weeks of reflecting on the profound implications of the Incarnation of the Son of God. Today Mother Church celebrates the feast of Holy Family and invites us to reflection upon the mystery that the Son not only took on our humanity in flesh and blood, but that He even grew up in the midst of a family to be like us in all things but sin.
The Gospel we just heard about the finding of the Lord at the Temple is one of those that can be something of a sigh of relief for us all, and particularly for parents. We know that the Holy Family – the incarnate Son of God, the sinless ever Virgin Mary, and the pure and holy St. Joseph – is a model for families to look to and imitate, but I’ve heard from several people that they struggle with that model because it seems, well…perfect. The passage we just heard helps us to realize that while Jesus, Mary, & Joseph were sinless, that doesn’t mean that they were perfect. Sinless, but not perfect. I’m sure there were many nights when little baby Jesus didn’t sleep straight through the night (especially with that little drummer boy parumpapumpuming outside the door) and Mary and Joseph struggled to tend to His needs. I’m sure there were times when they were at their wits end trying to raise their son and discern what was best for Him. I bet that Mary and Joseph on at least a few occasions had little disagreements themselves that might have strained things a little bit. These and more remind us that thought they were sinless, they weren’t perfect.
On Friday I was taking part in the annual tradition that my family often observes on Christmas Day of watching the movie A Christmas Story, the story of little Ralphie and his own experience of imperfect family life. As I sat there watching it I began to tie that experience with the story of the Holy Family and three things came to my mind and heart.
The first thing that struck me was ‘The Scott Farkus Incident’ when Ralphie beats up the bully that had been chasing he and his friends around the whole movie. As he was on top of the boy punching him relentlessly, a string of obscenities came out of his mouth that he didn’t foresee, intend, or have any ability to stop. The interesting thing about that is that it was exactly what his father would do at various points throughout the movie – sputtering and muttering a string of (more growls than actual words) obscenities. His father was an example that he followed to the ‘t’, although the example wasn’t really a good one. In contrast we have the Holy Family in the Gospel going up to offer the festival sacrifice in Jerusalem. They fact is that they, too, were setting an example. It was Jesus custom that only the father of the family had to go to Jerusalem to offer the sacrifice on behalf of the family, but St. Luke tells us that they all three were going up and that it was their normal custom to do so. Mary and Joseph were not only fulfilling obligations but were going above and beyond them, travelling together to celebrate their faith and to honor the Lord God. They were setting the example quite clearly for Jesus that ‘this is our faith and we are proud to profess it’ (as our baptismal rites remark). They set the example and we can be sure that the child Jesus had learned the implications of it over the years.
The second things that struck me about the movie was when Ralphie went to help his dad change the car tire. What caught my ear was his response when his mom suggested that he go help: “Never had it even been suggested that I help my father with anything.” And as he hopped out of the car to help you could see the delight on his face and the enthusiasm in his voice. I know for myself that I can easily miss the immense good that can come from inviting others to do things along with us. Whether it’s children, grandchildren, godchildren, nieces, nephews, someone else’s kids, or even our peers or elders, there is a great gift in asking others to help with things. I can remember countless times where I was asked to help fix something or paint something at my house, knowing full well that my parents would have to go back and re-do it and clean up the mess I’d made trying to do it the first time. The bigger picture is that when we invite others to join with us, we honor their dignity and show them that they are loved and wanted. St. Joseph showed that same things to Jesus in this journey. It was custom also in the Jewish world that boys would become men in the eyes of the law at the age of 13 and would begin making journeys to the Temple soon themselves and so the fathers would begin to take them along when they were 11 or 12 to get used to the trip and introduce them to their faith. St. Joseph was essentially bringing Jesus along not only because Mary was coming but also to help him transition to manhood. I wonder what conversations were had. Did he teach him about the paths to take or places to stop along the way? Did they discuss the prayers that are prayed and what sacrifices are done and how? Did he explain why these things were done to begin with and help the boy to grasp the honor he was giving God? Surely the boy Jesus knew these and many other things, but it was at the invitation of Joseph that He began to be truly a son of the Father under the Law. How often do we do the same in our own lives?
The last point that this passage and the movie highlighted were that it is okay not to be perfect. When God took on flesh He did so not in a way that was sanitary and clean, away from our sinfulness and messiness. He was born in a place where there was no home to stay in and laid in a manger, a feeding trough for the animals. He came not to avoid the messiness of life but to walk with us in it and to sanctify us by it. We may not be sinless like the Holy Family, but we are called to do our best in the midst of the messiness that is this life. We are called to holiness not separated from our daily life, but in the course of it. And this the Holy Family teaches us. Jesus misunderstood, Mary and Joseph were frustrated and anxious. But at the end, they went home and all continue to grow in God’s grace and favor. May the Holy Family watch over us always and help us to be holy families to shine for others.