It always feels a bit awkward when Christmas falls on a Saturday, because all of a sudden it’s Holy Family Sunday.
Funny to look at Sunday’s readings compared with Saturday and the night before. Twenty-four hours ago, Jesus was an infant, and today He is twelve years old, wandering off in the temple without His blessed parents. The cousin of Jesus who was barely in the third trimester when we learned about Him at Mass two weeks ago, will be a man in his thirties insisting he can’t baptize God and then doing it anyway when we hear that Gospel in about two weeks more. A few weeks after that and it will be Lent, and then Jesus will die on the cross and rise again.
My daughter used to be hilariously confused about the cycle of seasons and readings in church. She participated in the parish Christmas play as an angel when she was little; then she came home and put on an “Easter Play” which took place a few months after Christmas as Easter does. Jesus was still a baby. Saint Joseph was an inept father who kept getting into quarrels with Him. Mother Mary was a delightfully grumpy mother who tried to tell Saint Joseph when he was wrong, but Saint Joseph wouldn’t listen. The Angel Gabriel would appear every so often to fish Jesus out of the river where Saint Joseph accidentally dropped Him. Sometimes the Angel Gabriel would chide Saint Joseph for giving Jesus a spanking or forcing Him to wear socks when He wanted to go barefoot. Easter is only a few months after Christmas, after all, and that means Easter happens when Jesus is still a baby. Her logic was impeccable, but somehow still wrong.
A lot of grown-ups I have met are equally confused about the Gospel and the Holy Family.
The Gospel tells us that, once upon a time in an ancient empire that valued family above nearly anything else, there was a young virgin. She was betrothed to a man, and this was important, because in most ancient cultures, marriage and bearing a man’s children were the thing that women were expected to do. There were some notable exceptions, but most women were presumed to be the marrying-and-having-children kind. And most every man was a have-children-to-carry-on-your-family-traditions-after-you kind of man. Biological family was how you knew where you came from and what sort of person you were, and having offspring was how you could be sure you’d be remembered after you died. The family you belonged to determined nearly everything about you– what your role was in life, how you were to pray and worship, who you had to defer to and who was supposed to defer to you. Getting married and having children was a duty. Barrenness was a curse. Illegitimate children were a disgrace. Women who got pregnant under strange circumstances were in heaps of trouble. Everyone who didn’t do exactly what they were expected to do was under deep suspicion. In that last respect, it was much like today.
In any case, the Gospel tells that once upon a time there was a young virgin called Mary, who was visited by an angel, who gave her a very different sort of plan. Mary said “yes” to the angel’s plan even though it involved her uterus, which was legally promised to a man. She didn’t go and ask permission of the people at the temple who for all intents and purposes owned her until her marriage was finalized. She didn’t write a letter to her fiancé and ask him to give the okay to the angel. She recognized in God the supreme authority, and she said “be it done unto me according to your word.” And from that moment she was pregnant with a baby who wasn’t her husband’s.
The Gospel tells us that her betrothed, a respectable working man called Joseph, heard that his fiancée was knocked up and knew that he wasn’t the father. Legally speaking, he had the right to see her stoned to death for this insult– some might say he had the duty to do so. But he decided to quietly cancel the upcoming wedding so that the girl could marry whoever it was who got her pregnant. That would shield her from shame, however much it seemed she deserved it. But then the angel appeared to Joseph and told him not to be afraid to take Mary into her home, so he changed course. He took her into his home, even though the neighbors would consider him a cuckold for doing so.
From there, things got complicated. The Holy Family was supposed to be in Nazareth, but they got stuck in Bethlehem and gave birth in a cave unexpectedly. They didn’t have the money for a lamb when the time came for the expected ritual, so they ended up bringing two turtledoves. They accepted a visit from pagan foreign people their culture told them they should shun. They ran away to Egypt, the traditional enemy of their people, to take refuge from a genocide. Eventually they made it back to Nazareth where everyone thought Saint Joseph was a cuckold and the Virgin Mary was a loose woman. They embarrassed themselves horribly on a family trip to Jerusalem several years later. Sacred tradition tells us that Joseph and Mary never had any other children, and that the people the Gospel refers to as Jesus’s “brothers” were really His cousins or perhaps His half-brothers from Saint Joseph’s previous marriage. In any case, Jesus also didn’t have the expected high regard for biological family that his culture told Him He ought. When His mother and brothers came to collect Him one day during His public ministry, He said “whoever does the will of my Father in Heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
The Holy Family is a family that blows human notions of family out of the water. It’s a family of three unusual people bonded together not by blood or social convention, but by not being afraid to do the will of God and by not being afraid to shelter the vulnerable. It’s not a family according to tradition. It’s a family by virtue of taking care of one another. It’s a family by virtue of respecting people’s unique vocations. It’s a family by virtue of not caring what the neighbors think, but doing the will of God anyway.
Somehow or other, this bizarre and wonderful trio became the mascot for the conventional nuclear family. Holy Family Sunday became a day to preach sermons against anyone who doesn’t have a conventional nuclear family. People who carry prayer cards with idealized, oddly Caucasian portraits of the Holy Family like to chide and humiliate women who end up raising children without their biological fathers for whatever reason. People use the gentle and protective Holy Family as an excuse to badger and humiliate abused women into staying with terrible husbands. They use the Holy Family and their one single Child to pick on families that don’t have as many children as quickly as the bullies think they ought. They invoke Saint Joseph who agreed to do what men of his culture weren’t supposed to do, when decrying men who don’t fit their own cultural definition of masculinity. They invoke Mary who got pregnant out of wedlock to humiliate girls who end up in difficult straits. They invoke Jesus who said “whoever does the will of my Father and Heaven is my brother and sister and mother” to beat up on anybody who doesn’t look they way they’re expected to look.
The Gospel shows us a family based on charity, compassion and protecting one another in spite of everything, in the face of their culture’s expectations.
Somehow that got turned into an excuse to hurt people who don’t fit in.
Strange how that works– strange and tragic.
I think I like my daughter’s apocryphal Easter plays much better.
Image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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