Is the Holy Family an impossible ideal? Does the family life of Jesus, Mary and Joseph even seem real? Sweet and overcoloured, the pictures of the Holy Family that many of us grew up with are no longer convincing. Ideals give us hope for the future as long as they are really part of our world, of the kind of life we can recognise to be our own. Christian faith does not leave us as it finds us, but it does first have to find us where we are. God's new move towards us, the taking human flesh and blood of his Son that we celebrate at Christmas, gave God a new home among us and a human family.
If it is realism that we want before we can trust ideals, then the life of the Holy Family was as real as it gets. A modern photographer asked to compile a family album of Jesus, Mary and Joseph might well choose to use only black and white photos to emphasize the gritty realism and lack of glamour.
The life of the Holy Family as a unit begins unsteadily. At its beginning there is the discovery by Joseph of his wife's pregnancy, knowing he was not the father of her child. His thinks about putting her away without public fuss. He is frightened. For her part, Mary has to bear an encounter with the divine, with the Holy Spirit, that baffled her with its uniqueness and strangeness. The birth of Jesus happened while his parents were away from the familiar security of their own home, and the birth drew attention and improbable visitors. Worse was to follow. The authorities felt threatened and ordered a purge and a series of murders to guarantee their own stability. Now unexpectedly in the limelight, the family fled to a nearby country in search of protection and temporary asylum.
From early on, Jesus had to relate to a Father who was not Joseph and follow his will and its demands. Mary and Joseph could not make complete sense of this deep bond between son and Father, even when Jesus was quite young. In his maturity as a grown man, wanting to do the will of the Father at all times and at all cost meant that Jesus left home for an uncertain and exposed life with a group of his closest disciples. Dangers multiplied, the number of enemies grew. The gospel accounts we have soon lose track of Joseph. Mary surfaces from time to time in these same gospels, and they describe a relationship with her son that takes little for granted. She who from the start had been given so much to ponder, in the end watched and stood by until the tortured body of her son was paraded on a cross till he died.
This was a holy family, this was the Holy Family. None of its gritty realism should be coloured over to make it sentimental or glamorous. Yet this family story cannot be told only as the story of one more persecuted Jewish family. The wrong kind of so-called realism avoids and leaves out much of importance that really was going on in this family story. The events, the relationships, the free responses were upheld by a divine grace that, while it did not spare Jesus, Mary and Joseph the mess of life, was not limited by it. Here was love and here was holiness, neither on the cheap. Here was God at work. Jesus Christ intertwined himself through his family into our families and made us branches of a tree that plunges its roots into God's own life as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.