December 30, 2016
Dear fellow pilgrims,
Today the Church celebrates the feast day of the Holy Family, the unique and sacred ideal of human family life seen in the intertwined lives of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. It's easy to imagine the cheesy Catholic, glossy, Barbie-like images of the Holy Family posed perfectly in a nativity scene that usually looks like a barn you'd find in Iowa... but this was not how the life of our Holy Family really looked. These depictions just go to show that the artists had their own idea of what this Holy, "ideal" family life means, which is very often depicted according to a physical ideal of a particular culture (e.g. The westernized version of Mary with giant Disney eyes and perfectly clean and dainty hands barely touching in a prayer position). Rarely do artists depicting the Holy Family focus on depicting the much deeper ideal embodied in these three lives: the extent to which the family, in all of the real, unsavory and sometimes ugly details can represent complete conformity to the Divine Communion of God through these earthly, lived experiences. This ideal is much better represented in virtues and love that permeate and guide these experiences, as is explained more abstractly in the first two readings and very concretely in the Gospel reading.
We as a church are provided with a brief glimpse into the unpredictability and risks the Holy Family had to endure post-Nativity scene, which included an impromptu and arduous journey to Egypt to avoid Herod's wrath, waiting there for a sign to return, and then making another arduous journey back to Nazareth. All these transitions and challenges, however, were marked from the beginning of time in God's plan, and the obedience and strength it took for Jesus, Mary, and Jospeh to carry them out is what marks them as "holy," set apart, ideal. We are not given a personal narrative here, but rather, a "God-said," "they-did" version. God said "Rise," Joseph rose and led his family. Only once are we given a detail that Jospeh was afraid, but that only amplifies his obedience; he followed the Lord anyways.
What trust in God's provision! This example of the Holy Family convicts me in my comfortable "settling down" mentality; it is best to heed God's calls to decide when a family "settles" in one place for continuity and deepening community...
The intrinsic desire for this close, deepening community with other humans is not bad, of course. It has been stamped into each one of our hearts from our conception, and is especially fruitful when guided in a family that orders these desires back to their creator. But then again, this desire for a true, ideal, God-like family life can be easily warped into a desire for portraying a surface-level, "Instagram-worthy" aesthetically pleasing existence, which, when pursued for itself, is so baneful to the works of the Lord. There is something so beautiful in the "hidden years" of the Holy Family, in that a large part of the normal, everyday existence of God's life as a man has been reserved and set apart for this particular group of husband, wife, and child to be sold keepers of. We should take note of this in a society of over-sharing (preaching to myself, too, here), and seek to truly cultivate a Marian heart, one that takes time to gather these seemingly banal moments of family life if only to gaze jointly upon them with their Giver.
As my husband and I are about to embark on our own journey into being the heads of our household, with the development of another soul placed chiefly on our shoulders, I am finding that it takes no less than a quiet, listening heart to ponder the direction God has in mind to feel true peace about family life. Because, the truth is, there is a temptation to order family life according to this vague conglomerate belief in what families "should" look like, which is the sum of all of my exposure and responses to various cultural notions of "ideal" and "non-ideal" families. I have felt this most recently in giving to God my fear surrounding the fact that Aidan and I are having a child before either one of us is "settled" in our career, and especially in moments when I respond to people asking our plans, and I only have a solid two-year plan instead of a ten-year plan. I feel this especially in New York City, where marriage and family life are often began around the mid to late-30's.
And this battle is true outside of marriage and family life: What apparent "ideal" are you shooting for? Is it the hidden ideal in the mystery of God's plan, or is it the more tangible, comfortable time line or aesthetic ideal that the world provides for us to chew on and pine after?
On this feast day of the Holy Family, may we be reminded of the fact that reason why we honor Jesus' earthly family as "holy" is because they lived attuned to their unique mission deigned by God, not performing for the world, but always acting in response out of a deep, hidden, and personal relationship with God.
In Jesus, Mary, and Joseph