Sunday, May 31, 2009

12-28-2008: Holy Family (B)

Genesis 15:1-6; 21:1-3/Psalm 128/Hebrews 11:8,11-12,17-19/Luke 2:22-40
When facts are unknown, fantasies flourish, a wise old social worker once told me as he mused on the debilitating effects family secrets exert on the integrity of the family. Today, on this Feast of the Holy Family, we might admit we know virtually nothing about the relationship shared by Jesus, Mary and Joseph during Jesus’ formative years at Nazareth. So we fantasize and idolize the Holy Family, projecting onto them, as a family, the perfection we so obviously lack in ours.

We think: since Jesus was God, and Mary so pure, and Joseph quite quiet – there would have been no fighting or yelling, no outbursts of anger or tears, no childish pouting or teenage rebellion, no vengeful rebukes or nasty comments. In other words, we might conclude, that Holy Family was nothing like mine. We are constrained, of course, by the facts of our faith: that at least two of the members of that family were incapable of sinning. Thus, if the above mentioned “negative” characteristics are indeed sins, then they would have not occurred in the Holy Family; or, on the other hand, we might consider the possibility that if they did occur, then they may not be sins.

“The family is that privileged setting where every person learns to give and receive love…enabling men and women to grow to the full measure of their humanity.” Such a definition of family (as Pope Benedict has put it) could apply to any and all families – even the Holy Family, because Jesus too had to learn to grow in his humanity (you can’t grow in divinity – by definition). The church, and other religious bodies, have become a bit testy of late regarding how that privileged setting might be achieved however. That’s too bad, really. Making distinctions about what kind of family is best – two parents; two parents married only once; two parents: one male, one female; two parents of the same race; two parents of the same religion…etc., does no one any good. Just because families are formed in different ways doesn’t exclude them from being a family and, more importantly, doesn’t preclude them from achieving that privileged setting. Difference doesn’t necessarily mean better - or worse; it can simply mean different.

I recently heard a story of a man orphaned as a young child and raised in an orphanage. He grew to become increasingly aware that he had lacked much of what a traditional family could have provided, but he was nevertheless immensely grateful for what he did receive. His lack, he came to understand, did not prevent him from experiencing the essentials of being part of a family. He knew he had had that privileged setting despite the deprivations of his particular experience.

Dwelling on what could have been can be a fruitless and even debilitating endeavor. And it’s not unrelated to idolizing. Using current criteria for what constitutes the ideal family, we might wonder about the Holy Family as well. Let’s see: Mary was pregnant when she married Joseph – but not with his child. Joseph was probably considerably older than Mary. Mary and Joseph never had conjugal relations which, according to current church teaching, would probably invalidate their marriage. Mary conceived Jesus without the assistance of any man – a condition shared by not a few women who have become pregnant by current reproductive technologies. And Jesus, raised an only child, would have lacked for sibling relationships. According to so-called traditional ideals, the Holy Family doesn’t quite make the mark.

But building families into privileged settings, where each learns to give and receive love, has no set formula; it relies almost completely on the desire of each to sacrifice for the other. And the commitment to do just that can be achieved to some degree by anyone, whether in a traditional family or not; one created by natural or artificial means (by ordinary biology, enhanced biology, or adoption); where there is only one parent (due to divorce, death, or choice); where all might even be of the same gender (funny, we never questioned that criterion when we praised same-sex church orphanages in their caring for children).

True, families sometimes fail. Some do not seem to achieve any semblance of that privileged setting. But those failures occur in all types of families, not just non-traditional ones. And families that endure just can’t be fit into pre-conditioned categories. They are made up of human beings, diverse and creative, incredibly adaptive, struggling with all kinds of weaknesses and debilities but nevertheless capable of giving and receiving love on some level which need never be quantified or compared.

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