I grew up in a family of seven children. I am the middle child with two older brothers and a sister and two younger sisters and a brother. My father was a university professor and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. Like most families, as children we spent a lot of the time fighting with each other and resenting each others’ presence. The more of us there were, the less attention we each got individually. But now that we are older we are good friends. Now we can also see that all the struggling and fighting we did with each other was part of what formed us. We were learning not to be so selfish, that we can’t have everything our own way, that we had to learn to share and that we also had our part to play in contributing to family life by doing chores, etc.
I am amused sometimes when I visit my brother or sister’s families who have small children and I see how selfish they can be when they are young. They don’t want to share anything, they all want to be first and have all the attention, but they gradually have to learn these things and that is one of the most important aspects of family life; we are learning what it means to love and serve, which is what the Lord calls us to do. That is really what our life is about.
Jean Vanier—who started the L’Arche community which has mentally handicapped people living together—says that it is only when we live in community together that we realise how selfish we are. Others help us to learn about ourselves.
At Christmas we celebrate the Son of God taking on human flesh and being born into a human family and that means that he grew up in a human family just as we all did. It means that they will have had all the ups and downs of any family, the joy of birthdays and celebrations, the sorrow of death and sickness, the worries of finance and providing for each other. I think that we forget that side of things. Jesus grew up in a normal family just like us and that is telling us something. It is telling us that family life is important because it is where we are formed and more than anywhere else it is where we can learn how to blossom as human beings. When you read about the upbringing of many famous people you can see how their family had a part in forming them for good or bad. Mother Teresa said that her mother always taught her that she should never eat anything that she wasn’t prepared to share with someone else. You can see how this influenced her.
We also know that it doesn’t always work out for families as we would like it to and often one parent ends up trying to raise their children on their own, which has to be very difficult. That is where the whole community comes in, offering support and encouragement. There is an African proverb which says, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ Well we are that village and we all help each other to grow. And so at weddings we celebrate and support the couple; at funerals we stand by those who are grieving, and so on. Jesus grew up in a human family like any of us.
Today the idea of the family—which is the most basic unit of our society—is under threat. We are told that a family can be two men or two women raising children, but that is not the teaching of the Lord as we understand it. It doesn’t mean that we don’t respect those who see things differently, but it doesn’t mean that we have to accept it either. We stand by and stand up for what we believe is right. Every child has the right to have a mother and a father. Our children are not just products to be used, but people who deserve the same care and respect as everyone. We do our best to help them grow with dignity and good values and every chance to become the best version of themselves that they can be.
So as we celebrate the family that Jesus was given, let us thank God for our own families, imperfect as they were and let us also pray for the protection of the family so that we can provide as best we can for those who come after us.