Opening the Word: The mystery of family life

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Holy Family painting, unknown artist. Adobe Stock

Timothy P O'MalleyThe feast of the Holy Family, celebrated during the Christmas octave, is rarely an occasion for homiletic genius on the part of parish priests. Perhaps, it is the exhaustion of the Christmas season. But the homily tends to follow a tired series of tropes that leave families hopeless.

We hear, every year, that we should make the Holy Family a model for our family life.

What hope is there for my family to imitate the sanctity of Jesus (the Word made flesh), Mary (the Immaculate Virgin) and Joseph (the righteous man of God)?

December 27 – The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph
Sir 3:2-6, 12-14
Ps 128:1-2, 3, 4-5
Col 3:12-21
Lk 2:22-40

My family, trying to find enough money to pay the bills. My family, struggling with a kid who rejects everything about the Church. My family, suffering from the death of a spouse. My family is not the Holy Family. Or at least, we imagine this to be the case.

And yet, one of the options for Gospel texts for this feast is the presentation of Jesus in the Temple.

We know the story well. Jesus is brought to the Temple by his parents. Mary has come to be purified after childbirth. And yet, she is greeted by Simeon and Anna. Simeon sings a hymn to God, proclaiming this child as the salvation that his eyes have longed to behold. Anna reciprocates Simeon’s longing.

And then, at the end of this stunning series of events, we hear, “When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” (Lk 2:39-40).

That’s it! There is no elaboration on what happened when they left that Temple, when they arrived home in Galilee. There is no discussion of potty training the Christ Child — insofar as such potty trained existed in the ancient world. There is nothing but silence.

And yet, those of us who belong to families, know what took place. Nothing remarkable. There were meals. There was education. Mary and Joseph discovered in their son, who grew in wisdom, a delight that any parent knows.

There were also nights spent awake with a child who coughed until dawn.

There was work, play, perhaps even fear that there might not be enough food on the table.

This, dear friends, is the deeper meaning of the feast of the Holy Family.

The Word made flesh, the splendor of the Father, entered the mundaneness of family life.

Yes, we are called to imitate the love of the Holy Family.

But we are equally called to recognize the mystery of love that Christ revealed by becoming a child to this mom and dad.

To Mary and Joseph.

Because our Lord entered this mundane mystery of family life, we cannot look at families in the same way.

Family life is a mystery, a space where divine love can enflesh itself through the mundane complexities of awaiting kids, raising kids and worrying about kids.

The task of the family is to take the time to see the mystery of love made present in the stunningly mundane task of creating a home.

So, on this feast of the Holy Family, let us worry less about how we measure up against the Holy Family. And instead, let us assume the vision of Mary and Joseph, who recognized in their son Jesus, the presence of a love beyond all telling.

Let us simply take the time to see anew the mystery of family life with all its joys and sorrows alike.

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is the director of education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.

Timothy P. O'Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is the director of education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.