In the novus ordo, today marks the time of year when the Church reflects upon the Holy Family. As the opening hymn to the office of readings, affirms: "Dulce fit nobis memorare parvum Nazarae tectum tenuemque cultum..." (Sweet for us to remember the tiny home of Nazareth and its simple piety).
This is not a calling to mind of the scene of Bethlehem, but the lived experience of Nazareth. The hidden years of Christ's early life, the humility of Joseph and the Devotion of Our Blessed Mother. Nor does the Church's liturgy present to us a utopian image of the perfect family; immune to the toils, anxieties and labours of family life:"O neque expertes operae et laboris nec mali ignari, miseros iuvate..." (O tested by work and toil and not immune from misfortune...)
Far removed from the images replicated upon numerous greetings cards this time of year, this was a family which was all too aware that the path ahead of them was to be no easy walk. Had not Our Blessed Mother been exposed to the risk of shame and rejection? Had not Joseph been persuaded in a dream of the purity of his betrothed at a time when he was entertaining the notion of discreetly severing their engagement? Whilst we await the feast of the Epiphany for the liturgical commemoration of their arrival, we must not overlook the fact that the gifts of the Magi pointed not only to kingship and adoration, but also to the threat of political powers and, ultimately death. Any doubt was removed with Simeon's words at the presentation of the Temple.
From the vantage point of the world, these were hardly unqualified occasions of affirmation and unalloyed joy. Any suggestion that this trio of the Holy Family is the paradigm of "family" to which all families should aspire is certainly counter cultural. There is no self-made security, affluence, or comfort recognisable to the modern eye. Yet, it is this trio which is presented by the Church as the icon of the family. In consequence, we are obliged to ask: what eternal truth does this family communicate to us?
Perhaps it lies in the fact that for each member of this family, there was a singularity of purpose and dedication to God the father and His will in their lives. It is a statement of the obvious to observe that the Holy Family continues to represent a family whose orientation is fixed upon God as the source and summit of all it is called to be. This is not merely submission to Divine Will in the manner of resignation. It is a conscious recognition that with each day comes the fresh opportunity of aligning their lives to His will for each one of them. This orientation calls for not only recognition, but obedience. Within the Christian Family, obedience makes demands and calls for responsibility.
In our modern times, most are fortunate enough to be insulated from real poverty, or social exclusion. But poverty and exclusion take many forms. In an age in which parental responsibility seems to be increasingly shaped by misplaced notions of indulgence and the exclusion of responsibility takes more subtle and nuanced form, there is a very real risk of spiritual impoverishment. Through the pressures of modern "living" families are not infrequently detached from the moorings which the cultivation and practice of the faith would undoubtedly secure for them.
Perhaps, just as the feast of Christmas affirms the miraculous lengths to which God is prepared to go to redeem His People, the commemoration of the Holy Family provides us with the fixed co-ordinates we need to respond to His efforts and join in His labours. Without this commitment, we enjoy little prospect of experiencing the wholeness to which we are called. It is this same commitment which renders a family whole and able to withstand the challenges of our current times. In the words of the psalmist:
"Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the City, the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil;
for He gives to His beloved sleep..."