Having a holy family does not mean a perfect family

As we gather this Christmas to celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation, God becoming man in the womb of the Virgin Mary, it is a clear reminder of how God deeply desires to be with us. In becoming a child born into a human family, the Incarnation speaks to us of how God chose to experience human life from the very beginning so that he could not only be close to us, but so that he could save us.

At Christmas, what speaks to my heart is that he came to us through a human family wanting his holiness, his love, his life to be a part of every human person and every human family. Yes, we call the family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the Holy Family, but are not all families called to be holy? Is not the Holy Family the model for all families in good times and in bad, when there are both harmony and problems?

Many have an image of the Holy Family as being this perfect little family. But Jesus’ family is not called perfect. It is called the Holy Family. Holy doesn’t mean perfect. That should give all families some hope. It gives me consolation, knowing that I didn’t have the perfect family, but that certain aspects of it were holy.

There is probably not a single family without its problems, though some families may deal with greater problems than others. When we look at family life today, society presents many challenges for raising a healthy, holy, well-integrated family.

The Holy Family was not exempt from their own challenges. Imagine being exiled, fleeing to Egypt because a little baby had become so great a threat to a powerful king that Herod wanted him dead. When seen beyond the pretty stable event depicted so serenely on Christmas cards, we are confronted with a vulnerable “holy family” fleeing for its life and safety. Imagine the anxiety and fear that this young couple and their infant are facing as they begin their new life together. This “Emmanuel,” “God is with us,” is forced from his own homeland because of the threat of violence.

Perhaps this image of the Holy Family in exile depicts a God who has joined the plight of the world’s refugees who have had to flee their own homes and countries because of civil conflict, violence, and terrorism in areas such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Palestine, the Sudan and many other places. We must pray for these many refugees and be the body of Christ with arms outstretched to welcome them.

In the birth of Jesus, God has chosen to enter into the world to show us how we are to live together, so that no one should ever have to experience being a refugee, an outcast or a threat to anyone. This little child we celebrate at Christmas will grow up to love in ways which many think are humanly impossible — a love so profound and deep that he is willing to be hung on a cross and killed. He gives us the model that will bring holiness to every family and community.

What are the features that can make a family holy in a world constantly changing and becoming more secular? Here are some suggestions.

  1. It begins with a grounding in a covenant relationship with God : “I will be your God, and you will be my people” (Lv 26:12). If the Lord is not at the center of our lives as individuals, God will not be at the center of our family life.
  2. A family must be connected to a life of prayer. This includes participation in the sacramental life of the church. Prayer is what puts us in relationship with God. It is to the spiritual life what water is to the physical life. Prayer must encompass family life. If meals and bedtime are the only times parents pray with their children, what message is being sent about a true relationship with God?
  3. Are children being taught about the Bible? It is the parents’ personal responsibility to attend to the spiritual and moral development of their children. Parents are the first (primary) teachers of their children in the faith. Jesus knew the Hebrew Scriptures very well, not because he was God, but because it was a part of his family life. Imagine what the world might be like if children grew up learning a variety of verses from the Bible along with the nursery rhymes.
  4. There must be honor, reverence and respect for all members of the family. Do we really see each other as very sacred? Do children see their parents as sacred and vice versa? Do we see our brothers or sisters as sacred, as gifts to one another? To show reverence and honor means to see each other as gifts even when we don’t agree with them. Many families fall apart today and marriages end because the sacredness of the other is not honored. One sign of respect and honor is how we listen to one another. Do we really listen to one another; children to their parents; parents to their children? Listening is not easy. We often listen with our own agenda, meaning that when someone is speaking to us we are thinking more about what our reply will be.
  1. At the core of any healthy, holy, family life is unconditional love — a love expressed through heart-felt compassion, kindness, humility, patience and forgiveness. The words, “I am sorry. Will you please forgive me?” are perhaps the most important words in all family relationships.
  2. The word family comes from a Latin root famulus, which means servant. Family is that place where each serves the other, placing the needs, interests, desires and delights of the other before their own.

Families are never perfect and don’t have to be. There will be joys and happiness, sorrow and suffering. What makes a family holy is each of us answering our own call to holiness and then striving within our own family to share love, honor and respect for one another, always seeking the good of another.

As we celebrate the Incarnation and move into the New Year, take time to reflect upon your own family, the many good aspects as well as the imperfections. Take time for family prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to bless what is good and to heal and restore what human nature cannot do on its own. Trust that Christ, who was born into this world to save us, will do his healing work. May God richly bless you and your family.