Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family. The glowing nativity scenes in our churches speak volumes about the integrity of the family as an enduring and graced human reality. God chose to use a human family as the way to bring his incarnate Son into the world as its savior.
The natural wonder of a man and a woman getting married and having kids became the context for the birth and growth of the Savior into the history of the People of God. Created reality became saving reality through the power of the Spirit of God: “the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”
Interestingly, on this Sunday we do not hear about some idyllic family scene with the kids romping on the lawn and parents sitting on the porch. Instead, we hear of the Holy Family under threat.
They had to flee to Egypt to avoid the murderous rage of King Herod. They were refugees as so many families are today. Yet they all went together to Egypt. There is no thought of dumping the child because of the inconvenience. Despite all odds, the sustained integrity of the family made it possible to face the threat. The Providence of God protected the natural organic group of the mother and father and child. He sent messengers to guide the family to Egypt – and later back to Nazareth.
George Bernard Shaw once said that: “Perhaps the greatest social service that can be rendered by anybody to this country and to mankind is to bring up a family.” The fact that a family exists and is stable through the years is an inestimable service to the history of mankind.
It is almost as if the regular family echoes the Holy family in performing a service to mankind at large. Vatican II spoke intensely of this rich network of relationships that we call family. It first applied the word “family” to the whole of humankind and then voiced the Church’s abiding concern for:
the whole human family along with the sum of those realities in the midst of which it lives; that world which is the theater of man’s history, and the heir of his energies, his tragedies and his triumphs; that world which the Christian sees as created and sustained by its Maker’s love, fallen indeed into the bondage of sin, yet emancipated now by Christ. (GS 2)
Within this often underappreciated communion, which the Church is here to develop, the council pointed out two sets of relationships that we cannot do without: namely, our family and our social and political structure. These are inescapable because “Man’s social nature makes it evident that the progress of the human person and the advance of society itself hinge on one another.” (GS 25)
Holy Family by J.M.W. Turner, c. 1800
This is the key: human growth and development require certain presences in all our lives. In a far from exhaustive list, we need a male and a female presence. We need to see the full flourishing of the male as man and husband, and the full flourishing of the female as woman and wife. There are many layers to each of these aspects of human existence as they ground interactions between younger and older, between man and woman, and much, much more.
In the married union of man and woman, there is a “transference of personalities” in knowledge and desire. (Gilson) They form a deep spiritual and physical union that leads ultimately to children. Vatican II described this union:
Firmly established by the Lord, the unity of marriage will radiate from the equal personal dignity of wife and husband, a dignity acknowledged by mutual and total love. The constant fulfillment of the duties of this Christian vocation demands notable virtue. For this reason, strengthened by grace for holiness of life, the couple will painstakingly cultivate and pray for steadiness of love, large heartedness and the spirit of sacrifice. (GS 49)
The story of the Holy Family is a story that radiates these qualities and it remains the type of Christian families as they deal with the tensions with each other and with the world at large.
The spiritual and psychological depth of the family just keeps on unfolding in such a way that “the family is a kind of school of deeper humanity.” (Vatican II) It is the sheer intensity of the number and type of interactions in the family that stretch and move each person into ever-richer habits and concepts of what it means to be a mother and a father and a son and a daughter.
This always presumes, of course, the large heartedness and spirit of sacrifice that are the Christian trademark. The little scenes of the Holy Family that grace our homes and churches speak of this communion of life and its constant opening out in deeper humanity. And they also tell of a life bathed in the Providence of Almighty God, which happens in a family – and nowhere else.