Luke 2:41 -52 “….Jesus went back to Nazareth with his parents and lived under their authority . He grew in wisdom and strength and God was pleased with him….”.
We come together today to celebrate the holy family of Jesus Mary and Joseph but also to celebrate the human families that we live in and the sacredness of family life.
We are mindful that not all families experience joy and peace at Christmas time, as some will be concerned about what s missing in their family experience. But drawing on the scriptures, tradition and lived experience, I would hope to encourage us all to promote and enjoy family life.
In reality we don’t have much historical evidence about the life of Jesus Mary and Joseph as a family, but we do have this amazing story of a 12-year-old Jesus starting to exercise his independence by staying in the temple when the family returned home. We hear his mother’s anguish at his behaviour,but of course he does subsequently respect his parents, and goes on living under their authority, where he increased in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and people. It’s perhaps easy to imagine that they were an ideal or perfect family, but I’m sure the reality of their family life was similar to some of ours.
As Chaplain to ex- service families I am very aware that most families today struggle with some form of brokenness – from separation of parents to estrangement of children. Children can feel particularly uncomfortable that their family experience is impoverished due to the inability of their parents to love each other or provide them good role models.
During the week I was involved in a pastoral situation in the ex-service community where a father had left the family home, and in a subsequent access meeting had perpetrated physical and emotional abuse on his 3 children. The mother is battling on as a single parent and embarrassed by their family situation. They used to be part of our parish here, but stopped participating once the marriage broke up. I tried to encourage them into realising that they were still a Holy family loved by God and that they could find new life with God’s help.
In the lead up to visiting this local family, one of my Veterans Care pastoral team members,who is assisting in this case, asked me: “ in the life of Jesus whatever happened to Joseph?”. It’s a really good question, because we don’t hear much at all about Joseph in the Scriptures. In some church traditions it’sconsideredthat Joseph was very much older than Mary, and his first wife had died leaving him with a number of children to look after.In the local tradition, he married again to give those children a mothers loving attention. Of course that was to lead to Jesus and his half-brothersbeing a blended family, as is the case for so many families today.
In a human sense the family of Mary and Joseph would have had to deal with many of the struggles that families have today. Jesus and his half-brothers would no doubt have had all the normal ups and downs of family life, and if the tradition is true that Joseph himself had died before Jesus launched into his divine ministry, we would have to accept that Mary took on a role as a single parent like an increasing number of men and women today. So the family of Jesus were also very much like many of us.There is no reason why we cant be Holy Families as well today, no matter what our circumstances. Indeed, that was the blessing I left those children with. I prayed over them and declared that they were a Holy Family loved by God and us, and together with their love for each other, a good outcome would prevail. The children smiled and after we left the mother subsequently texted me saying “ We really appreciated you coming to see us today and introducing Caitlin to us. Knowing we have your pastoral support and guidance is comforting.”
The Universal Church is involved in an ongoing dialogue or Synod about family life today,and our Archbishop Mark recently spent three weeks in Rome sharing and listening to perspectives on the church’s support for families around the world. One of the significant outcomes is that the church is now more aware and accepting of the many challenges that people are experiencing today. Certainly Pope Francis is calling upon all of us to be more patient and understanding and merciful in relation to people in challenged family situations, particularly where parents have separated and children suffer.
The Pope had some very strong words indeed for anyone who would judge or “hurl dead stones” at people in irregular family situations. Of course this Synod is linked into a new spring time in Mercy for all- indeed a year of merciful mindfulness. The Pope encourages us to journey together in a spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness, living in the spirit of the gospel, and not “binding people in chains” by judgement.
Some of the best words and advice for family life come to us from Saint Paul and in his letter to the Colossians where he encourages us to be clothed insincere compassion, and kindness, and humility, and gentleness. We should bear patiently with one another and forgive each other. Of course we know this, but we have to, day by day, put this into practice. All of us are going to make mistakes along the way, but the Christian way to deal with difficulties is to be prepared to always show a loving response to our family members. We should be prepared to be the first one to say sorry. A loving response is the solution to most of life’s challenges.
My hope and prayer for all of us here is that we can enter into this new year of mercy with a renewed attention to nurturing our own family life, as well as showing love and acceptance to those families that may be struggling with embarrassment about the situations they find themselves in.
I conclude with some words of Pope Francis for us today:
May we find in this Jubileeyear , the joy of rediscovering and rendering fruitful, Gods mercy- for God forgives all and God forgives always. May all that the church says and does reflect the love and mercy of God. May we rediscover the vocation and mission of the family, and step out and embrace those with impoverished family situations, offering them the strength of solidarity, in the name of the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit.