Anyone who has a twelve year old has probably had an experience like the gospel describes today. Parents find themselves frustrated, or scared by one or another event in the life of their twelve year old son or daughter. And, the twelve year old son or daughter simply cannot see why their parents are so upset. Or maybe they can, but they do not really care. At any rate, it is not difficult to relate to the anxiety in Mary’s voice when she speaks to the boy Jesus when they find him in the temple. One can only imagine the anger, the relief, and the fear that bubbled to the surface. (Losing the Son of God does not make a good case for Mother of the Year.)
But Mary spent so much of her life contemplating God. She clearly had moments where she sought to understand Jesus. She would spend a lot of times trying to understand her son. But through it all, she remained ever faithful to God. Perhaps that is why she is known as the refuge of sinners. She knows what it is like to lose Jesus. Even though she did not sin, she is able to understand sinners because she knows what it means to lose Jesus.
St. Thomas Aquinas speaks about the fact we can not always find the right word to describe something. Rather, we can only find a word that approximates the meaning. The most notable example is God. Since God is far beyond our ability to understand and comprehend, as are the qualities of God, we put our best effort into trying to approximate who God is and what God is about. We speak in analogy. There are other words, such as the transcendentals, things like love, or beauty, or goodness whose meanings we can only partially grasp. Today, I suggest the concept of family is also one of these words difficult to fully comprehend.
I remember reading somewhere, it was estimated there were as many single-parent families during the revolutionary war period in United States, as there are today. While the reasons were different (men were being killed in war) the result was similar. But one key difference during those days, concerns the existence of an extended family, a family that formed a larger community to help each member to flourish. I think of my father’s brothers and sisters many of whom lived very close to where they were born and grew up. In fact I can think of four of them who lived less than a 10th of a mile from each other. There was many a summer day, where I am not sure that my mother and father, my aunts or uncles honestly knew where my cousins and I were. It was clear my life and the lives of my cousins were clearly shaped by a lived experience that involves a family beyond my nuclear family. The collection of experiences, wisdom, and love from my relatives caused me to look beyond the world I knew at the time. And these days were fun.
So just what is a family? When we hear the word, the first thing that might come to mind is our nuclear family. Mother, father, sons and daughters. In our highly mobile society, is much less likely that parents and children find themselves in close proximity. We also use the word family to describe other realities, because of their similarity to how we understand family. We use expressions like the family of nations, or by referring to a parish as a family. Dominicans also prefer to the various members of the order as a family, priests, brothers and sisters, contemplative nuns, and lay men and women.
Rather than simply attempting to define what it means to be a family, perhaps it is more important, as a member of multiple communities referred to his family, that we seek to remember that what we celebrate today is not the feast of any old family but the feast of the holy family. In other words, the emphasis is not simply of being any old kind of family, but to discern what it means to be a family that is holy.
And so as we look to the example of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary I encourage us to ask simple yet profound questions. What does it mean to be a holy father? When does it mean to be a holy mother? What does it mean for a holy mother and a holy father to raise holy children? The answer of course, can be found in the holy family. The start of their lives, which we have witnessed time and again is rather interesting. Through the challenging and awesome events of the beginning of Joseph and Mary’s life together, we see a pathway to holding us. A relationship grounded in God sustained and comforted both Mary and Joseph as they faced the trials of their lives together. The omnipresent God surround the early days of their life with miraculous occurrences leaving no doubt about God’s role in the incarnation.
Asking the questions is the easy part. Come to think of it, so too is the Answer. All we need to do is to imitate the holy family and do the will of God. So what you waiting for?