What We Can Learn from the Holy Family
Today is the feast of the Holy Family – Fr Michael Seheri looks at how their problems hold lessons for us today
Why is the family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph presented as the model for all Christian families? This is a legitimate question. It arises from the fact that we actually know very little about the life of this family. The depictions that have been created about this family are idealised.
Jesus, like us, was born into a family: he worked, ate, drank, slept, played, cried — basically, he grew up in a family-like every other human being. He was born like all of us: unable to speak, blind, and in need of constant attention and care. He grew into a mature human being because his loving parents, Mary and Joseph, nourished him; they taught him to walk and to speak. From his father, he learnt his craft. Within his family environment, he learnt how to read and interpret the Scriptures. He “increased in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and with people” because he obeyed his parents.
In view of the aforementioned, we do not, then, have to present the coming of Christ-like a meteor that drops from heaven. Jesus comes from a normal family! He was born like a normal human being!
We know almost nothing about the infancy and the early years of Jesus. Unfortunately, his childhood has been presented as a romantic idyll, where all is pure and uncontaminated. But the members of Jesus’ family — inclusive of his kinship — were conformists: they deprecated his ministry, inter alia, because they misunderstood his missionary activities. Surely, Jesus must have suffered from this incomprehension.
In fact, on one occasion during Jesus’ public ministry, his mother and brothers (or cousins) considered him to be out of his mind (Mark 3:21). Furthermore, they did not see themselves as Jesus’ disciples but as his owners; they did not want to follow him — while Jesus was teaching, they stood outside and sent in a message asking for him (Mark 3:31).
Relating this to our family experiences, we recognise that therein not only lies our greatest joys but also our most painful and enduring sufferings.
If we would like to celebrate the feast of the Holy Family today authentically, then we must recognise and acknowledge the notion that even Jesus in his family encountered the same experiences that we are going through. For instance, at some juncture, he had to leave his father and mother, as per Genesis 2:24, to discover his identity and mission. This is manifest on the occasion where he refused to meet his mother and brothers, proclaiming that those sitting around him, following and listening to him, were his true family (Mark 3:34-35).
The family today
The past few decades have been characterised by a legitimate concern for the disintegration of the family fabric, and also by a rigid Christian ideological impetus on matters of sexuality, procreation, matrimonial crises, sexual orientation, and so forth.
There is a clear refusal to accept the reality of the widening gap between human beings and a Christian moral discourse — a discourse that is incapable of listening attentively to the concrete human life situations; a discourse that is unable to take into account the necessity to overcome patriarchal family models and to take seriously the emancipation of women.
Unfortunately, the reference to the Holy Family as the model for all Christian families has not helped in bridging this gap.
Let us turn our gaze to the relationship of another important biblical family: the family of Abraham and Sarah. If we passively read the events surrounding Abraham and Sarah, we would think that, for example, the birth of Isaac occurred peacefully and without drama. The contrary is the case. After Abraham’s maidservant bore him a son — since Sarah was unable to have children — Sarah treated the maidservant with contempt, thereby causing her to run away and desire death.
Another equally disturbing episode conveys Abraham presenting Sarah to Pharaoh not as his wife but as his sister in order to escape death. These are extreme episodes, but they eloquently symbolise the interweaving of love and jealousy, faithfulness and weakness — elements that characterise a fundamental aspect of our humanity.
We learn from the Holy Family, and from Abraham and Sarah, that the Lord always comes to our aid: to redeem us, bless us and fortify us with his love and fidelity — but on condition that we accept that this process is complex and lasts a lifetime.
Fr Michael Seheri is the administrator of Christ the King cathedral in Johannesburg.
This article was published in the December 2021 issue of the Southern Cross magazine