Mercy Starts at Home – Feast of the Holy Family

The Holy Family Lk 2:41-52

Holy FamilyToday’s Feast of the Holy Family always challenges us to take a look at the messy reality that is family. It’s a hot topic in the culture wars, and probably always will be, since families are so doggone important. Contrary to what you might think, the purpose of today’s readings are not to make us feel guilty that our particular family doesn’t quite measure up to the Holy Family. The more accurate takeaway is that God is engaged and involved in the messy reality of it all. One of my favorite quotes from Fr. Jim Dunning is “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly!” In other words, don’t strive for perfection, just strive!

Regardless of whether we came from a happy family or not, there is little doubt that we are profoundly influenced by that experience. The psychology debate of the relative importance of nature vs. nurture has swung from one extreme to the other in the past 100 years. However, more recent studies have settled on the simple acknowledgement that neither our nature nor our environment predominate, but each plays out in a constant interdependent dance. The daily reality of family upbringing bombards us with positive and negative stimuli. But how we react, how we protect ourselves, how we learn is uniquely individual. I’m always amused when my family gets together and discusses a shared event from the past, especially when we were children. Some of us were clearly moved, some were not, and others have no memory of it at all!

Adding to the complexity is the reality that what we mean by “family” is a dynamic in and of itself. We typically define family as a combination of parents and children living together in one household. In 1970, about 51 percent of the households in the US featured parents and children, and of these households, 79 percent of the couples were married. Today, 37.4 percent of the households in the US feature parents and children, and of these households, the percent who are married has dropped to about 53 percent. But the key reality is that there are simply fewer families with kids today, and the number continues to drop. So one of the first challenges facing us with today’s readings is that we need to redefine who this reading applies to! If it’s only to parents with children at home, then we’ve just eliminated nearly two-thirds of us in attendance.

So, if there are two audiences, may I suggest that the readings affect each audience in a very different way? Let’s start with the more obvious audience – parents with kids at home. The gospel reading is particularly appropriate – we hear the familiar story of the nearly teenaged Jesus becoming separated from his parents. We are invited to consider that Jesus is quite the precocious youth – able to hold his own with the temple rabbis, quite oblivious to the worry and concern of his parents. All parents of 12 year-olds can relate to this episode. On the one hand we love the fact that our child is exhibiting some adult traits, but on the other, we are all too aware that 12 years is barely sufficient to understand the ways and dangers of the world.

What many of us don’t realize is that this story by Luke is very prophetic, and he invites us to tie it to a story that occurs much later in his Gospel, the story of the Road to Emmaus that takes place after the Resurrection. This story, too, only appears in Luke. Remember it? Let’s look at the parallels. Mary and Joseph, worried sick at the loss of Jesus; two disciples on a slow walk, likewise dismayed at the apparent loss of Jesus. It takes Mary and Joseph three days to find Jesus; likewise it takes the two disciples three days after Jesus’ death before Jesus finds them. Notice the question Jesus asks in both stories: to Mary and Joseph, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” To the two disciples, “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” There is a prophetic arc tying the two stories together. Luke invites us to see the ultimate end from the beginning. Parents, can you see the arc of your children’s lives once they reach the age of twelve? I’ll bet you have a pretty good idea of what the next 10 years are going to be like, if you care to look.

Now for the other two-thirds of us. Do you know what the biggest change in households has been in the past 40 years? Single men living alone, single women living alone, and unrelated multi-person households. In 1970, these different groups of singles made up 18.8 percent of households. Today they make up 33.6 percent. In demographic language, that’s a significant difference. Another way of putting it is to say that the largest growth sector in our society is the number of people who live alone or in a house with roommates. This group is almost the same size as families with children. Now obviously, some of these folks are young singles starting out in life – rooming together as they get through college and early work experiences. But the truth is that most of the people in this group, over 80%, simply live alone, and to my surprise, there are more women who live alone than men.

I draw your attention to an early part of the gospel today. After Jesus, Mary, and Joseph had completed their Passover visit to Jerusalem, they all head home in a caravan made up of relatives and acquaintances. We can imagine the somewhat chaotic scene, with donkeys, people with bundles, kids running around, everyone yacking and joking, a loosely organized hike on a dusty road. The fact that it takes Mary and Joseph a full day to realize that Jesus was not among the big group tells us something. Everyone was completely comfortable with the job of watching out for everyone else. There is an assumption of security born of many such journeys, and Mary and Joseph were completely comfortable with the idea that even if they did not see Jesus, someone was keeping an eye out for him. Can we make such an assumption today with all of these single people?

The reality is that we are wired for social interaction. When that interaction is blocked, or greeted rudely, or ridiculed, what happens? We get loners who snap, sometimes with deadly results. We get prisoners kept for indefinite terms in solitary confinement who slowly go insane. We get old people who lose their life savings to “that nice man on the telephone” who was willing to listen to them that morning. So here’s my challenge to you today. Who do you know that lives alone? I don’t necessarily mean your great-aunt or some other family member, although they may qualify. I particularly mean someone who is unrelated to you. Find out how they are, especially if it’s been awhile since you’ve asked. They may need some family today. And, if any of you fall into that category of a single living alone, please reach out if you’re unhappy or lonely. You’ve got a big family right here. We’re all on the caravan together. Right?

On a final note, as 2015 winds down and we start a new year this week, I invite you to ponder the Year of Mercy theme that Pope Francis has asked us to live out. If your family has been challenging, either in the past or now, if your family has been anything but holy, if there are lots of hurts and resentments that have built up over the years, stop and think. Mercy means forgiving someone even when you’re in the right. Mercy means swallowing your hurt feelings and making that phone call. Mercy means cultivating a short memory for hurts and a long memory for love. That’s exactly what God does! Thankfully! I would particularly encourage you to demonstrate mercy when there are children present. What better model can you show the world? Yes, maybe your family isn’t the most holiest around, but who’s comparing? God is in the mess – invite him to help you clean it up. It’s too important to let it fester. Widen your heart and let the grace flow. Mercy best starts with families! Why not yours?

© Deacon Peter Hodsdon St. James Parish, Solana Beach


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