Family: It’s heights, depths, and everything in between

A few observations On today’s feast of the Holy Family, in which we rejoice at the mystery of the family.  

First, how does family come to be called a mystery?  When did family become a mystery… akin to the mystery of redemption, or the mystery of the Eucharist?  Family has always existed, at the very least, as a natural institution.  For the propagation of the species, family has always existed.  Because it’s easier to survive in groups, family has always existed.  Even Scripture confirms this basic reality:

“Two are better than one: They get a good wage for their toil. If the one falls, the other will help the fallen one. But woe to the solitary person! If that one should fall, there is no other to help.  So also, if two sleep together, they keep each other warm. How can one alone keep warm?  Where one alone may be overcome, two together can resist. A three-ply cord is not easily broken.” (Ecc.es 4:9-12)

With the birth of Christ however, family – like all other earthly elements – becomes sanctified as the Lord clutches it to himself elevating it to the level of something mysterious, an instrument of salvation.  The particular avenue of this elevation leads straight to the heart of God Himself. 

When Jesus is born he begins immediately revealing to us the fullness of God.  Existing as the Holy Trinity, God is a communion of loving persons eternally bound together: God the Father loves God the Son… God the Son loves God the Father… The love between them is so strong that it takes on its own personality in the Holy Spirit.  By entering the world in the context of a family, Christ draws our attention to this reality.  Family is no longer just an earthly reality.  It becomes a living, breathing icon pointing us to the image of the Trinitarian God Himself.  

The Trinity!  It doesn’t get higher than that.  Truly, there’s not much more the Church can do to exalt the family.  At the same time, the very height of our honor for the family also draws attention to its converse: our mourning when family doesn’t work.  Here, we find our second observation: We need to acknowledge, that family rarely looks -today- as it did in the manger 2,018 years ago.  Some families get started along what seems like a good path, and then break up.  Sometimes death or tragic circumstance creates great difficulty in families.  And sometimes, family is never even given a chance: parents walk out on kids, men and women have a hard time meeting the right person… you name it, there are all sorts of reasons the family process short-circuits today.  When this happens, it puts me in mind of that wonderful moment in the Gospel:

“When [Jesus] disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” (Mk 6:34)

When you and I see families that have been so battered by the powers of the world, our hearts should be moved with pity.  All of us have the same yearnings for happiness, for fulfillment… and when a neighbor’s pursuit of those legitimate human goals is complicated by the world, our first response should be to aide our neighbors however we can.  I’ve seen so many examples of folks who, when the grace of (let’s call it “standard”) family life is challenged, find that grace anew through the extended family of the parish… a large group of persons bound together by love.  In the secular world too, we see this.  People find meaning through service of the community in government or civic organizations etc.

This brings us to our third observation: While I don’t know that we can truly say (if we’re using precise philosophical language) that there are many “kinds” of family.  I think we can say that there are various degrees of participation in the definition of family.  We’ve already noted one of them: the parish.  

It’s not quite what the Trinitarian definition of family points to in the manger scene, but it certainly participates in that mystery by extension.  Likewise, the many families I’ve encountered in the inner city where classical structure (mother, father, child) is missing, and replaced by grandmother, mother, children (often from different fathers).  This grandparent-centered structure is certainly a participation in the mystery of the Holy Family, but its members would be the first to tell you they wish it could’ve been otherwise, that the traditional structure of mother, father and child could’ve come together.  

Once I was approached by a couple.  I had just witnessed their marriage and they needed a favor.  Their tango instructor had died in a car accident, and the groom was asking if I would offer some words of comfort at a memorial service.  I was happy to… The instructor wasn’t of any particular religion.  His students came from backgrounds too numerous to count… and boy were they numerous.  This man, simply by being a great teacher had touched so many people.  They filled a local civic center hall for his memorial service.  They all knew, supported each other, and were there to comfort one another at the loss of a loved one.  Had you asked any of these folks, they would’ve affirmed in an instant that they were family to one another.  And in many ways they were right.  

But what guide do we have.  Surely we need more than merely the structure of traditional family if we’re going to talk about participation in its mystery.  Thankfully, St. Paul helps us out today in his Letter to the Colossians (3:12-21).  

Brothers and sisters:
Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,
bearing with one another and forgiving one another,
if one has a grievance against another;
as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.

And over all these put on love,
that is, the bond of perfection.

And let the peace of Christ control your hearts,
the peace into which you were also called in one body.

And be thankful.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,
as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another,
singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs
with gratitude in your hearts to God.

He’s listing for us the virtues of family and reminding us to lift it all up to God, “over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.”  Insofar as we participate in these virtues, and come together in the “bond of perfection” we are engaging in some degree in the mystery of family. 

When it comes to preaching this in the world and to working with families, I think the Church faces many challenges of mis-perception from the outside world… and indeed from among her members.  

Far too often, Catholics fall into the old temptation (common to soooo many heresies) to adopt a strictly dualistic view: “It’s nuclear family or nothing!”  “If for some reason I can’t receive communion it must mean I’m out of the Church.”  “People are either good or bad.”  In most of Church life, there’s much more gray than these dualisms admit.  It’s not always easy to get that across in homilies, but one-on-one conversations with parishioners often allow for much deeper, more nuanced explorations of family situations.  

Outside the Church, the world usually applies this same dualistic vision to our teachings.  Lately though, another challenge has arisen.  One would think that our world would be happy to accept a Catholic understanding of the various degrees of family I’ve described.  But for popular culture it’s not enough.  The arbiters of culture seem to reject dualism (…Good…), but they also seem to reject what I’ve described.  They favor a sort of equal and universal celebration of every degree of family… or as they’d put it, “every type of family.”  The sincerity of each “family’s” belief in itself is the only criterion for its celebration.  

The challenge to this pan-familial celebration is that sometimes it celebrates as equal two things that are each other’s opposite.  A divorced family… a traditional married family… a polyamorous relationship… heterosexual families… homosexual families… open relationships… monogamy…all are to be treated the same even though they often outright contradict each other.  I’d propose that what society is exalting is not “family,” but rather sincerity, since that is the one common factor between the otherwise contradictory examples I’ve offered.  That’s another much more wide ranging philosophical discussion, for another time.  

For now, on this Feast of the Holy Family we’ll just wrap up noting how we’ve celebrated the heights to which family can ascend… We’ve grieved the depths to which it sometimes falls… and acknowledging the goods that can exist at every point in-between.  Pray for families!  Pray for them and support each other in seeking their many blessings wherever we find ourselves participating in this beautiful mystery.