“DID YOU HAVE A PERFECT FAMILY?” (Mt 2:13-15, 19-23): 30 December 2007 (Holy Family, Sunday)
Family portraits are supposed to be picture perfect. In every family portrait, the family should be complete, all the members present, positioned comfortably in their proper places. Aside from wearing our Sunday best, we’re also expected to wear our best Close-Up smiles regardless of how we are feeling.
I remember such a scene in a movie I saw back in 1980 called “Ordinary People” directed by Robert Redford. It won the Oscar Best Picture that year, among other awards. It’s about a family that’s dealing with the accidental death of their eldest son, who happens to be the mother’s favorite son. The mother, played by Mary Tyler Moore, blames the accident on the younger surviving teenage son, played by Timothy Hutton. There’s a lot of pain and anger in the family, partly from the tragedy, but also, as is often the case in our families, mostly from one another. In that one telling scene, the visiting grandfather convinces the father, mother, and son to pose for a family portrait: They oblige him and stand close to one another, but their discomfort is so palpable that even you the audience actually feel restless and begin to fidget in your seat. But all of a sudden, for one brief moment, all the discomfort miraculously disappears and they all flash their best smiles for the camera. Even they, with all their hurts and rage inside them, can’t have anything less than a picture-perfect family portrait.
Today is the feast of the Holy Family, and my question to God is: “Did you have a perfect family?” That’s what we expect, but today’s Gospel reading doesn’t paint a picture-perfect family portrait. The Holy Family is on the run. An angel appears to Joseph again to break the bad news about Herod’s plan, and the entire family quickly takes a trip to the faraway and alien land of Egypt to flee from Herod’s wrath. The family life that the Gospel gives us is far from perfect, portraying the Holy Family much like a refugee’s family, fleeing for their lives from certain danger to an uncertain future.
I think the Gospel wants to show us just how far God was willing to go so that He could become one of us. When God became human, He didn’t just pick the picture-perfect parts, exempting Himself from everything else that’s not good and beautiful. When God decided to become one of us, He wanted to really be one of us—as Scripture puts it, “like us in every way, except sin.” And this meant embracing everything that goes with being human, the entire package, including the things that are not so beautiful and not so comfortable: like being limited, like being weak, like getting scared for our lives and for our future, and not knowing what’s going to happen next.
Now, let’s take a look at God’s choice of a family. It’s a rather strange choice. Since this concerns the Son of God himself that we are talking about, God could have picked a perfect and model family. But Jesus’ human family was not a perfect and model one—at least not from the human point of view. As we know, Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father. He was only his foster father. To make things worse, the neighbors suspected as much—and continued to whisper about this long after Jesus grew up. When Jesus returned to Nazareth to teach in the synagogue, the villagers whispered: “Is this not Jesus, the son of Mary?” According to Biblical scholars, for the Jews to label you as the son of your mother is to claim that you are not your father’s son.
So we can say that the family that God selected for his only Son was less than perfect, and his family life was also less than ideal. Family counselors today would say that these are all the ingredients you need for a classic dysfunctional family. Yet we are told that Jesus grew in wisdom and in grace.
Maybe God is asking us to think about our own families: On the one hand, yes, the family is truly important and crucial because it shapes us more deeply and more definitively than we suspect. But on the other hand, there is no such thing as a perfect family or a perfect family life, no such thing as a family without shadows or secrets, no such thing as a family without stain or pain. What matters is not so much that our families are perfect—because again, this is simply quite impossible. Rather, what really matters is that we accept our families—shadow, stain, and scars—and do our best to shape our families into families of love. For just as our families can affect us, we too can affect our families. Just as our families have the power to shape us, we too have the power to shape our families.
It’s not easy, of course. Because of all the emotional history involved, sometimes all it takes is one word, one gesture, one event to trigger us and we react automatically and helplessly, all our emotional buttons pressed. But we can try. If we look at our Lord’s family–I guess it wasn’t perfect, but it was no less holy. I guess this tells us that you don’t have to be perfect to be holy.
Something to think about. Maybe there’s hope for our families.