In the Catholic liturgical calendar, today is the Feast of the Holy Family. It seems an appropriate time of year, what with the many close holidays celebrated by feasting and gathering. It also comes at a historical time when the definition of family has been much discussed and so encourages me to reflect on the meaning of family to me.
Of the history of the Feast Day, we can read that it was initiated by Pope Leo XIII in 1893 in response to the industrial revolution and what he viewed as a “the break-down of the nuclear family. Thus, Leo held up the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to serve as a model for family life and unity.”
So, if the Pope is to be believed, a grouping consisting of a relatively innocent man, a seemingly adulterous, unwed pregnant teen and, later, her illegitimate child presents the model family. (And ignore the fact that this is a couple who never tried to have children of their own, in spite of the Church’s teaching that, “By its very nature the institution of marriage and married love is ordered to the procreation and education of the offspring and it is in them that it finds its crowning glory.”)
And I am not in disagreement. This seems congruous with my own belief that families can be composed of many different pieces and it is the demonstration of respect, unity and mutual care that makes them a family.
Given what few stories we know of Jesus’s early years, his family certainly appears to have possessed these traits.
From the beginning, Joseph was a kind and compassionate man who sought to protect Mary from legitimized shaming even when he thought to divorce her. Upon their marrying we must believe that he respected her wishes concerning sex and other children (or the lack thereof). He was willing to uproot this family and move to foreign, unknown lands to protect them. He helped his family to follow their religious mandates…
Mary, for her part, willingly consents to being a mother to the child, even though she did not plan it and did not even have the fun of making it. (Did anyone mention that artificial insemination and in-vitro fertilization are not Church approved methods of conception?) And still, she clothed and fed and cared for him. She worried for him when he went missing, had faith in his abilities as he grew into adulthood, and stood by him when he was unjustly accused.
And Jesus, at least on the one occasion where he was chastised by his parents, but gently answers and then obeys.
Kindness, compassion, trust, concern, respect, protection, nurturing, dedication, faith, participation, gentleness, loyalty, love… Check, check and check. All important characteristics for a family member to have.
Completely missing are the identifiers usually given by the Church such as biological parents of a biological child, conceived and born within wedlock, with ongoing, unprotected intimate relations offering the possibility of further children.
I like this. I like the thought that had the world known, they would have been shocked by this family composition. I like that both of these parents were brave enough to choose this unconventional family and then were consistent in their commitment to it. I like that Jesus’ family continued to evolve into an even more different “chosen family”, as when he affirms that the crowds who gather to learn with him are his true family.
I like this because this is more representative of the families that I know and love.
My own immediate biological family is small and suffered under the expectations of the norm. My extended biological family is enormous and comprised of most any kind of character. They are, without exception, welcome and wonderful. And yet it is my chosen family, both immediate and extended, who know me the best and who provide the most joy, the most growth and the most support.
A legitimately wonderful child from an abusive unmarried union. The most generous twins abandoned in youth and adopted after adoption was no longer possible. A loving sister of my soul who knew me before we were seen. The ever-surprising mother who is included now by my own decision, in spite of the blood between us…
I am ever graced by them and overwhelmed with gratitude that they have elected also, to make me a part of their chosen family. Strong, dynamic and valid. A sacred grouping. A holy family, worthy of any feast.
~May you each celebrate the dignity of your own family today, in all its varieties!