The Holy Family: It’s Complicated

Brian Flanagan

Today’s scriptural reflection is from Brian Flanagan, an Associate Professor of Theology at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. Brian’s research focuses on ecclesiology, liturgical theology, ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. His recent book is entitled Stumbling in Holiness: Sin and Sanctity in the Church. As an undergraduate student at Catholic University, Brian was an intern at New Ways Ministry from 1996-1999, and he now serves on New Ways Ministry’s Advisory Board.

Today’s liturgical readings can be found by clicking here.

For many Catholics, today’s Feast of the Holy Family, which is always celebrated on the Sunday in the Octave of Christmas, can be a joyous occasion, especially in non-COVID times. Children may be visiting or home from college while the first reading reminds them to  honor their father and revere their mother; everyone has a chuckle in the pew about Sirach’s advice to care for your father “even if his mind fail.” If the parish has a deacon, he might preach that day about his marriage and family, giving the priest a break after all the Christmas masses. And the image of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, a compact family unit that mirrors many Catholics’ ideal of a self-sufficient, nuclear family, provides a comforting, stabilizing image of domestic bliss.

For many other Catholics, however, and not only LGBTQ Catholics, the Feast of the Holy Family is one of the hardest Sundays of the year to endure. It ranks up there with the Feast of the Holy Trinity as a Sunday when I await what I’m going to hear in the homily with fear and trembling. If your parish uses  long form of today’s reading from Colossians, we hear wives being instructed to “be subordinate to your husbands.” It’s always difficult to respond “Thanks be to God” to that! And for Catholics whose families do not resemble the seemingly heteronormative ideal of husband, wife, and child – because of death, illness, divorce, absence, chosen or unchosen singlehood, lack of much-wanted children, the genders in one’s marriage, or any of the other possibilities that make our families complicated –the Feast of the Holy Family is often experienced not as a warm, fuzzy celebration but as a reminder of how we no longer or never have fit in with such a a vision of the family.

I say “seemingly” heteronormative because this vision is deeply, almost tragically, ironic, given how complicated the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph is. While Mary’s pregnancy was part of God’s plan from before time began, it must have felt deeply unplanned in the context of Mary and Joseph’s relationship. Matthew’s Gospel focuses on the trust Joseph had in God, trust which kept him committed to Mary even after discovering his betrothed pregnant. Luke focuses on Mary’s agency, welcoming the words of the angel Gabriel despite their troubling nature and weighty consequences. But their family remains complicated – queer, even, in both the older and newer senses of the term – as the events of their lives unfold.

And there’s more which makes this Holy Family queer. We tend not to notice that Catholic belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity entails that their marriage was never consummated. Joseph’s acceptance of Mary and her child as his own makes them a shining example of what in contemporary terms we call a “family of choice” rather than only “blood” relations. We also can easily forget that like so many other complicated families, the earliest days of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph involved uncertainty, migration, misunderstanding, and danger to them and their child.

The first people to greet the newborn Christ are not grandma and grandpa, but a motley crew of disheveled shepherds and a trio of strange visitors from far away, and their first family trip is an escape across the border in the middle of the night to escape mass infanticide. We also tend not to notice how embedded Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are within a wider, and yet just as complicated, network of kinfolk – with cousins Elizabeth, Zachariah, and John the Baptist in Luke; with other “brothers and sisters,” however we explain the Greek, in the synoptic Gospels; with grandparents Anne and Joachim in the non-canonical Infancy Gospel of James and in Catholic tradition; and with the ultimate honorary “auntie” and “uncle,” Anna and Simeon, in today’s Gospel story of the Presentation in the Temple.

Finally, we can speculate about how these experiences of complicated, extended, non-traditional family in his childhood helped Jesus, an oddly unmarried Jewish man, create his own “families of choice” – with Peter and James, with John the Beloved Disciple and Mary Magdalene, with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and with all of the other complicated women and men that ate and drank with him every night, around the family table, up until the night before he died.

So despite the depictions on countless greeting cards and stained glass windows, Mary, Joseph and Jesus did not truly resemble a stereotypical modern, white, suburban family.

All of this helps us to imagine and reimagine what family looks like, both in Jesus’ life and in our own, and that reimagining provides space to ask not just what makes a family, but what makes a family “holy.” If the composition, size, or genders of the members of our families are not what make them holy, then what does? If, as today’s Collect suggests, we are to “imitate them in practicing the virtues of family life,” how do our families become holy families?

The answer stares us in the face in today’s second reading from Colossians, before the whole “wives be subordinate to your husbands” section: what makes the family holy is choosing to make Christ present in our families through steadfast love. Paul writes:

Brothers and sisters:
Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,
bearing with one another and forgiving one another,
if one has a grievance against another;
as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.
And over all these put on love,
that is, the bond of perfection.
And let the peace of Christ control your hearts,
the peace into which you were also called in one body.
And be thankful. (Col 3:12-15)

Living with others as a holy family, as we all know, is never easy, and requires the active, self-giving practice of this love, day in and day out, through the grace of God and with God’s help. The “putting on” of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and love like a garment – “putting on Christ,” as Paul names it in Romans – requires renewal each day, particularly in families that are experience outside threats, ecclesial suspicion, or complicated relationships. In this sense, though, every holy family – straight or gay, small or large, traditional or blended – is a family of choice. It is a choice to welcome the peace of Christ into our midst like the Christ child, and more, to let that peace spill out beyond us to welcome in strange aunties and uncles, cousins we haven’t met yet and sisters we didn’t know existed, to our hearts and to our tables. And when we are able to do that, huddled around Zoom this year or gathered around tables next year, the sacrifice of lives spent in love leads us to giving thanks with bread and wine, just as it did for Jesus and his extended, complicated, holy family.

Brian Flanagan, Marymount University, December 27, 2020

5 replies
  1. Edward
    Edward says:

    Excellent theology and reflection.
    I ask myself today after COVID restrictions lifted why I would go back to Mass. I went Christmas Eve and the homily was about the significance of the cow and donkey. Please surely we deserve better.

  2. Richard Young
    Richard Young says:

    One of the best commentaries on Holy Family Sunday I have ever read. And I’ve read a lot of them, having preached on this Sunday many times over the years. “Complicated” says it all. Family is always complicated, and this piece so rightly points to the Colossians passage as a kind of blueprint for the holiness it takes to make a family work. Thanks for an excellent piece.

  3. Sarasi
    Sarasi says:

    A great reflection. One can find more threads by examining the treatment of the Holy Family in the East. To put it bluntly, the very concept is suspect, although some western influence has crept in.

    Lossky and Ouspensky, commenting on eastern nativity icons, for example, note that Joseph is never a central figure shown beside Mary admiring the new baby. Quite often he is depicted in the corner having a conversation with the devil–a sign of God’s challenge to Joseph to continue trusting Mary. The Russian theologians sum it up this way: “… in the nativity of Christ, the order of nature is vanquished.” It would be difficult to find stronger worlds to repudiate the notion of Christ, Mary, and Joseph as a heteronormative nuclear family! (By the way, if you have ever seen any eastern nativity icons, you may have also noted that Mary is not looking at Christ, and Christ’s manger looks like a tomb! No sentimental family images here.)

    Orthodoxy sometimes describes Joseph as Mary’s holy guardian since the birth of Christ is an event that involves Christ and his mother, Mary, Theotokos. (Preservation of Mary’s perpetual virginity is also essential to this view.) The feast of the Holy Family is consequently viewed by some as a suspect papal invention.

  4. Barbara Cotter
    Barbara Cotter says:

    Brian Flanagan this is the most beautiful writing, homily, missive however you want to use it of the Holy Family and the many views of them. It is all sacred to Jesus as we know from the Gospels we have and I bet the ones we don’t have make sacred all families just as Brian did today. Thank you, I want to send this to everyone I know who is struggling with any one of these concepts. Love one another as I have loved you. Amen


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