When we think of family in today’s society, what are some images that come to mind? If you are of a certain generation, you might think of Archie, Edith, Gloria, and Meathead from the television show “All in the Family”. Archie is the typical 1950’s urban racist with his diminutive wife, Edith, and daughter, Gloria, who dared to marry the open-minded, anti-authoritarian Michael, nicknamed “meathead” by his father-in-law, Archie because of his left-wing political stances. This image seems to permeate the meaning of 1950’s America and is used, by some, to show the weakness of the nuclear family in a time in which the nuclear family was supposed to be at it’s strongest. Today, if you look at the media’s portrayal of family life, you can see that this portrayal perdures. Many television shows portray an overbearing father who pushes his wife around making ridiculous decisions for his entire family that seem to only benefit himself.
On this Sunday the church invites us to reflect on the nature of the family through the lens of the Holy Family. This Sunday is situated in the midst of the octave of Christmas, an eight-day celebration that begins at Christmas and ends with the celebration of Mary, the Mother of God on January first. This octave is partially a reminder that Christmas can’t be a one-shot deal. Christmas is too important to last one day. I’m always thankful that we do this after, not before December 25th. It’s as though our church is saying that while the commercial version of Christmas begins after Thanksgiving and ends on Christmas day, we wait until the fervor of consumerism has died away in order to spend eight days reflecting on the spiritual meaning of Christmas. The octave also allows us to reflect on different aspects of that fateful night when God became one-with-us in order to save us. Today, we discover that Christ came as part of a family in order to give us an example of a Holy Family. I found it fascinating that the first two readings focus on the entire family but the gospel shifts to offer some time to reflect on the one person that can get short shrift during the Christmas season, Joseph. But there is something that connects all three readings and it is, I believe, the reason the church has us reflect on these three passages in particular. Each, in its own unique way, portrays an essential obligation of marriage.
The first reading from Sirach clearly paints for us the image of a family that is open to life. Parents are to be honored by children and a parent is to live honorably. It is through these familial relations, according to that first reading, that one atones for sins, has prayers heard, is blessed with children, and has a long life. Despite attempts to redefine the idea of family in our modern world, we must safeguard this image both because it mirrors the image of the Holy Family and because it is the best environment to raise children.
The second reading is another one of Paul’s attempts to help us understand love. The laundry list of proper dispositions, including “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another…” only makes sense when cloaked with love. Otherwise, any of them could result in abuse, discouragement, or a one-sided relationship. Certainly, Paul’s closing statement, “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord” has been abused in the past and deserves the constant paring of “Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them.” Humility, love, and subordination are all related in this statement. Paul is also telling husbands to be subordinate to their wives by telling them to love their wives.
Love and openness to children are the first two pieces to this puzzle but it concludes in the gospel with the commitment that is necessary for a family to succeed. Joseph has no reason to stay with Mary and Jesus when the angel appears. This isn’t his son biologically. This very well could be the second or third wife that Joseph has had in his life. Yet, Joseph doesn’t run away when life becomes difficult. He steps up and does what God wants him to do in order to keep his family together. This is the truly radical notion of family that we have to put forth. Far too many men believe that, when family seems to take away their masculinity or rob them of their ability to be in charge, then they can either react with force toward their wives or find a way to escape. The Christian message through Joseph is that the image of Archie Bunker, Homer Simpson, and Peter Griffin is insufficient to the type of holy family each of us should strive to have. We must build our families on commitment, on love, and on a willingness to share in the divine creativity that first brought us into this world and then brought about our salvation through Christ.