My family lived in Dublin until I was six years old. One time when I was about five 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.
Another time, at about the same age, I ran away from school. There was construction going on in the school and the builders had a fire in the yard, to heat tar. I became scared of the fire, convinced that the whole school could burn down. I pointed this out to the teacher. She tried to reassure me, but I wasn’t convinced. So I asked to go to the bathroom and made my escape. When I eventually found my way home, my parents brought me back to the school. My poor parents and my poor teacher! Family life is not easy.
Today we celebrate a feast, which I think can often make us feel disappointed with our own families, although we may not admit it. It seems to tell us that our families are not what they should be. Things go wrong and we drive each other crazy. Someone gets into trouble and lets the family down. Marriages don’t always work out. We are afraid what others will think of us. Children stop talking to parents and won’t allow them to see their grandchildren.
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 and then they became refugees. 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 presented to us as a 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, learn to be responsible, learn the Jewish traditions 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. There is an African proverb which says, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ We all have a part to play, even if that is just encouraging those who are struggling. If there are young families around you who are struggling financially, especially one parent families, look out for them. There is a couple I know who were telling me recently that at one stage, because one of their children was sick, they lost their home in order to pay hospital bills. The husband told me that for several months they lived on next to nothing and they were both working. We never know how people are struggling and we must look out for each other.
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 mission which He lived out for the last three years of his life, teaching people about God and sacrificing himself for us.
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. It is easy to become 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 can work out a lot worse than we had intended. Does it matter? Not in the eyes of the Lord. The Lord is not the one to say ‘You should be different’. 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 came across in the Gospels. He took them exactly as they were, including many people who were causing public scandal. It didn’t matter what faith or cultural background they came from. 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. The Lord knows well that we often mess up, but that doesn’t matter. Everything that we go through plays a part in forming us as people. 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.