My family lived in Dublin until I was six years old. One time when I was about 5 I was brought to a party of a school friend, but for some reason I decided that I didn’t like the party and that I wanted to go home. I figured that the best way to do this was secretly. So I told my friend that I would hide out in the garden and that he should come and try to find me after a few minutes. I then made my escape and headed home. The only problem was that I had no idea how to get home. So I headed off and asked a post-man how to get to ‘York Road’ in Dun Laoghaire, where we lived. He looked at me suspiciously but told me where to go. When I finally arrived home I found a big police motorbike in the front drive. Everyone was out looking for me. My poor parents were not the better for this experience. Family life is not easy.
This is a feast day which I think can often make us feel disappointed with our own families, although we don’t admit it, because it seems to tell us that our families are not what they should be. Things go wrong, we want to kill each other; we drive each other crazy. Someone gets into trouble and lets the family down. Marriages don’t always work out.
Then we are presented with the ‘holy family’, who we imagine were living in bliss all the time. That is not reality. They were poor. When Jesus was born they were homeless. Then with a new baby they had to flee to Egypt to escape an attempt on the child’s life. When Jesus was brought to the temple, Simeon told them he was destined to be a sign that would be rejected. He would not be a ‘success’. Later they lost him for three days. Can you imagine the stress of losing one of your children for three days?
So why are they supposed to be our model? Perhaps because they had their priorities right. God was at the center of this family. It was the right environment for the person of Jesus to grow and mature. Jesus had to grow up as a person just as all of us do, and that takes a long time. It involves a lot of learning for each of us, and a lot of patience and sacrifice on the part of our parents. But how we are formed is vital.
We know almost nothing about the first thirty years of Jesus’ life, but no doubt it was very important for his growing and maturing as a person, and to help him be ready for the strange mission that He lived out for the last three years of his life, teaching people about God, discerning the Father’s will and offering himself for the human race.
The main role of our families is to provide a safe, loving environment for us to grow up in, so that we will blossom as people and learn how to deal with the world. None of us come from perfect families, but that doesn’t matter. We can often get discouraged thinking about how things might have been, or should be, but the bottom line is that we are the way we are. We come from the kind of imperfect families that we come from. The path through our lives often takes unexpected turns and things may not work out as well as we had hoped. Does it matter? Not in the eyes of the Lord. The Lord is not the one to say ‘You should be different,’ or ‘why aren’t you better?’ That is what people will say, but that is not what the Lord says. He is the one who always encourages, reassures and gives us new strength to keep going.
Think of all the people that Jesus dealt with in the Gospels. He took them exactly as they were, including many people who were causing public scandal. He always showed great sensitivity to their dignity. Satan discourages, but God always encourages. What is important is not how we ‘should’ be, but that we remain open to God. If we are listening and open, then the Lord can lead us forward. All God needs is our openness. Several times St. Joseph had to discern the messages he received in dreams about accepting Mary into his home when she was pregnant, then fleeing to Egypt and then not returning to where they had planned. He was able to do this because he was a man of prayer and listening to the Spirit. He was open. We are called to be this way too, so that the Lord can guide us in all that we do.
God is well aware that we often mess up, but that doesn’t matter. The only thing that is important is that we are willing to get up again, to begin again and turn to the Lord for help as often as is necessary.
Let us give thanks to God for the families that we grew up in, no matter how they are.