Back in the 1950’s and ‘60’s popular TV shows like The Brady Bunch and Father Knows Best stressed the American family to breaking point. The reason for this was that the producers of these shows presented the American family as suburban, 2 parent, working father, stay at home mother, and pretty much everything was sweet and rosy in their lives. The majority of families did not fit this portrayal of family life, and judged themselves as falling short of the ideal, and therefore as inadequate. In many cases this was accompanied by guilt and shame. The truth was that the TV portrayal was inadequate and fake, and never dealt with the many issues that real families have, and the strengths and weaknesses that make real families work.
Something similar happens in the portrayal of the ‘Holy Family’ and its being held up as a model to follow. The Christmas card images of a happy and pious looking Mary and Joseph gazing down on a new-born infant lying on straw and surrounded by animals do nothing to help people identify with this family. What we need to do is clear our minds and imaginations of all the images set before us and focus more on the people in this family and what kind of model they might be for us. After all, a family is a group of people who bring their own strengths and weakness to the group. The strength of the family is not in the strength of each member, but in the love and support of members for each other, and the ability to deal with the challenges of life together.
Mary was a young woman when a messenger of God came directly to her. In her culture, it was not her place to make decisions about her future. They were made by her father, or by some other male head of the family. It seems that God skipped that step, acknowledging Mary’s dignity as a person to make choices for her life. Mary in turn recognized this and without consulting anyone else she gave her own response to God, knowing that she would have to live with the consequences of that response. No doubt, she drew her strength from that relationship with God. We have no reason to believe that she ever reneged or gave up, because in John we read: – Standing at the cross of Jesus was his mother.
Joseph is described as a just man, but he must also have been a man of great love. He cared too much for Mary to have her shamed publicly. Love drove Joseph into accepting a message in a dream. He was in tune with God, and God spoke to him in dreams, telling him to flee his homeland because the child was in danger, and later telling him when to come back home. It has to take a certain type of heart and spirit to have this type of tireless trust in God’s messages. The law and the customs were indeed a more certain guide, but both Joseph and Mary lived beyond the guidance of the law. They were surely soul mates guided together by the messages of God.
Jesus grew up in this household. He would have understood from an early age that God’s word supersedes all other directions. He was guided in life by those soul mate parents in tune with God. It is no wonder then that he, as scripture tells us, grew in wisdom and strength.
The author of Sirach gives directions for how family should operate. Paul gives some inspirational guidelines as well as some legalistic boundaries. But it is the life of the family from Bethlehem, through Egypt, to Nazareth, to Calvary and beyond that holds out a hand of hope for all families through their pains and struggles: It is not about the smooth ride, it is about listening together for God’s guidance, it is about being a community of soul mates.
Elizabeth Ferguson, OP