We associate Advent with penance and with family. The Church’s waiting for the Lord is a time of penitential preparation for the great feast of Christmas.
For those whose families include difficult personalities, even in years without pandemics and elections, notions of family and penance fit together easily, no effort required. Christ guides us in Matthew to leave “houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children.” (Luke and some translators of Matthew include wives, which can reasonably extend to husbands). At least a short break from argumentative (or worse) relatives might be a welcome start to that hundredfold return He promises.
Others wish they had a family, any family, contentious or not, to share the seasons, joyful and penitential, of the liturgical year, and the ups and downs of life.
The Church holds up the Holy Family at Bethlehem and Nazareth as our model for family life. The family is recognized as the most fundamental natural relationship from Aristotle to Scripture, Edmund Burke to Winston Churchill.
Those not given a gladsome family life may be painfully aware that the Holy Family was atypical. The mother and wife did not harbor the effects of original sin; the stepfather and husband received convincing dreams that his betrothed was faithful both to him and to the great plan of redemption; and their son was God.
That’s a model that fallen mortals find hard to follow, even in the best of cases. But the Church is right that our greatest earthly joy comes in seeking to live that model faithfully, in close families and communities, and that those who lack such love suffer greatly.
Christ strengthens our understanding of the family with his prohibition on divorce, his affirmation that adultery is a sin, and his obedience to his parents after his three-day runaway adventure in the Temple. The parable of the Prodigal Son stresses the love of a father for his wayward offspring and the need for an older brother to rise above the natural resentment of a dutiful son who feels neglected.
Christ’s miracles healing the children, relatives, servants, and even a mother-in-law of those who ask Him with faith show His regard for the special affection of the family. His first miracle was to provide wine for a wedding, where families celebrate the beginning of a new family.
And He heals the blind man whose parents, fearing the Pharisees and distancing themselves from their son, hide whatever interest in the matter they may have had.
Yet Christ clearly calls us to something beyond the natural family. He often calls our attention to another, supernatural family that is truly His own. The members of this family may or may not come from happy homes.
His first disciples drop their family or worldly businesses to join Him.
He tells one would-be follower not to pause over a presumably admirable wish to bury his father, and another that delaying to say goodbye to his family is no way to follow Him. He countenances no hesitation on the part of those He calls from their natural families to His own.
He insists that He has come to bring divisions in households and that anyone who loves father, mother, sister, or brother more than Him is unworthy of Him. All three Synoptic Gospels give a version of His demand that we leave our parents, siblings, spouses, and homes to follow Him.
Summoned by His own natural family while teaching, He replies that His family – His “brother and sister and mother” – are those who do the will of His Father.
Responding to a hypothetical question from the Sadducees about a widow who married seven brothers, He assures us that at the Resurrection we will neither marry nor be given in marriage. The vows that are the basis for the natural family carry no binding force after death, and there is no marriage as we know it here in eternity.
Is Christ denigrating the natural family? Hardly.
He is announcing another family, a final family that will endure into eternity. Just as St. Augustine explained that the earthly city is not our final polis and we are on a pilgrimage to the City of God, there is a final family beyond the one where we are placed now. St. Paul confirms this.
To make the point clear, Christ compares His kingdom to a marriage feast, the earthly event where a new family is formed.
He institutes this other holy family as, hanging on the Cross, His work on earth is completed. He tells His mother, “behold your son,” and He tells John, “behold your mother.” At perhaps the most poignant moment of His life, He uses the language of the natural family to orient us towards our final family.
This other holy family is not a matter of the circumstances of the home we were born into, with no choice on our part. Being the son or daughter in the final holy family requires our decision in faith.
The penitential seasons are the basis for the greatest family feasts. The hard journey to Bethlehem that we recall in Advent brings us the Holy Family at Christmas; and Lent brings us the other holy family at the foot of the Cross and their joy at Easter. The family who can’t find shelter for the birth of a child points to the family on Golgotha. The joy of the Incarnation that becomes visible to the shepherds and the world at Christmas points to the joy of the Resurrection
All of these seasons teach us that everyone – from homes where these things are understood and lived, or tragic homes, or no home at all – has the gift revealed in the Gospel of John, the power with grace to become children of God.
We are to be members of our families on earth now, when we too are seeking shelter and standing at the foot of the Cross, and finally members of the other holy family, for eternity.
*Image: The Holy Family (of Francis I) by Raphael (and his workshop), 1518 [Louvre, Paris]