Today's readings remind us just how unholy some families can be - even royal ones. We should not be surprised that King Herod massacred innocent children. He was so ruthless and domineering in his own family that he ended up killing three of his sons as well his wife Mariamne. And many of the kings whom St Matthew mentions when he describes Jesus's family tree at the beginning of his Gospel are poor adverts for good family life.
In fact Jesus himself is quick to warn us of the dangers of making the family into an idol. It is so easy to worship power, prestige and possessions when they are claimed by a closed family group. 'Who are my mother and my brothers?' he asks, and then he defines true family, not in terms of blood or kinship, but as those who hear the word of God and do it.
So families are part of God's plan. They are the essential cells of society in which parents and children are sustained and grow into maturity. But they can go horribly wrong and need be guided and transformed by the word of God. What does that word teach?
The words Ben Sirach from the Old Testament make good sense for fostering the relationships between the generations. Honouring father and mother means showing them respect, especially when they become vulnerable, and not deserting them when they get Alzheimer's.
But what makes for a holy family? St Paul would tell us that a family becomes holy in the same way as the community at Colossi becomes holy: through the working of the Holy Spirit. In fact today Paul calls his congregation holy; they are saints, because through their baptism the Holy Spirit has already begun to transform and shape their lives after the model of the crucified and risen Christ. They are now 'in Christ' and that determines all the different relationships that make up their family life. All the domineering, selfish forces which can tear it apart are restrained. It is as though they have been clothed after baptism with the transforming virtues like compassion, humility, patience, gentleness and then everything is held together in unity by a belt which is Christ's love.
One wonders whether Paul could have pointed to some perfect family in his congregation. Probably he would not have talked in those terms but rather emphasised how the whole community, the Church, was being gradually being built up until Christ was formed in them.
When we turn to the Gospel we find a holy family but not a very normal one. The mother is a virgin and the father is not the biological father of the child. And they are not living in some ideal family setting but rather being so hounded by the megalomaniac Herod that they must find safety in Egypt fleeing as refugees.
But this is the family God had chosen, the one in which his Son would mature. Mary had already heard the mind-blowing invitation to be the mother of God. She had listened to the Word of God, accepted it and now in a sense was doing it, living out the consequences. Today we focus on Joseph. He had already been surprised by the news of his wife's pregnancy and proved himself just in the way he had respected the law but shown kindness and compassion to his wife. Now he is faced by another upheaval. He must listen to God's word in a dream and take the responsibility of guiding his wife and child through the dangers of a journey through Gaza to Egypt and back.
So this family is holy because it is responsive to the demanding word of God spoken in the very trying circumstances of their daily lives. And that may speak to us today more than sentimental portrayals of the holy family. Certainly in a world where we are told there are 40 million refugees seeking to live decent family lives this Gospel may give hope and encouragement.
What we are celebrating today is that the God who created the institution of the family, despite its shortcomings, chose to transform it through the Incarnation and make it one of the ways by which he saved us. We can learn in the example of the Holy Family that, despite all our failures and difficulties, we too are called to become holy through living out God's word in the midst of our families.