Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family:Ecclesiasticus 3:3-7, 14-17 Colossians 3:12-21 Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
Matthew tells the story of how Joseph in a dream is told to take the child Jesus and make haste for Egypt to protect him from Herod who has designs to kill the child. After Herod’s death, Joseph is informed again in a dream to return home. He does so but finds that Herod’s son, Archelaus, is now ruler so he journeys not home but to the neighboring region of Galilee, in Nazareth.
We learn that Joseph is the epitome of fatherhood, taking his son and wife to new lands to protect them and then being cautious upon return, keeping a “low profile” in a small backwater town, called Nazareth (can anything good come of Nazareth? indeed!).
Most of us can relate, knowing that our parents too would have done whatever was necessary to protect us and keep us safe.
The other readings are more problematical.
In Ecclesiasticus, we are told that the offspring should honor father and mother, indeed our sins are forgiven as we do so. We will have a long life if we respect and serve our parents. Even if they suffer from a failing mind, we are to be sympathetic and kind.
These are fine words of course. The readings leave out the end of this chapter which accords one who does not honor parents as no better than a blasphemer and one who will be accursed. These are harsh and punishing.
Yet what of those who have suffered at the hands of parents. Many people have not been given the benefit of parents. Many have been raised with only one, and that one hard pressed to do an adequate job when circumstances may require multiple jobs just to keep the family afloat. Many have never had contact with the absent parent, and may not even know who they are.
Of equal trauma, if not worse are those who have suffered at the hands of physically abusive parents. Whether sexual or not, deep scars psychological and otherwise take a lifetime to heal. And though not given as much press, those who have been psychologically abused by verbal and more insidious mind games, also suffer life-long wounds.
What of these? So many of us are the product of dysfunctional families. When you expand to grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, the opportunity for abusive treatment are magnified. Are those who are victims of such families to simply forgive, forget, and honor?
They would find it hard to do so, and plenty of experts say that asking is unfair. Victims need to confront the hard facts of their torturers and need to confront them and make them face themselves. So the experts say. Where do these victims find solace? How can they read these admonitions to “be respectful” and be anything more than even more hurt and discouraged?
I think the pathway can be found by enlarging the concept of “parent.” All of us parent when we interact with another human. We pattern behavior, we offer advice, we commiserate, we empathize. All these are human responses of the same nature as traditional parenting.
This idea becomes more apparent when we look at Paul’s (or pseudo Paul) advice to the Colossian community. Paul tells us to “clothe ourselves in compassion, kindness, humility and gentleness and patience.” We are to “forgive when a quarrel begins”. Over all this we are to drape a cloak of “love.” We are to be at peace. Teach each other, advise each other.
All this Paul exhorts us to do as a community of believers. As parents, if you will, to each other.
While we may not find purchase in our own immediate families with which to relate, we can look to our broader “family of humanity” and realize these same attributes. We can honor and respect our fellow humans. We can care for others in their infirmities and failing minds. We can be gentle and kind to their errors.
We can protect our greater family against the errors and dangers they are pursuing by speaking truth with compassion; we can admonish with love, knowing that we too are prone to err ourselves.
Paul in the end reminds parents, “never drive your children to resentment” for that will “frustrate” them, inhibiting their ability to honor and respect, as they are called to do.
Many in this world live alone. This was not the norm in the times when the writer of Ecclesiasticus, or Colossians wrote. In fact, it was highly abnormal. Large family units of parents, grandparents, sometimes children with spouses and young children inhabited the same household.
Yet, we can all respond to the words by seeing ourselves rightly in the family of humanity. No one is alone, we are all interconnected, and the Trinity, though deeply mysterious, at least seems to suggest that God expects for us to live in community, as God does. As Emmanuel (God with us) did and still does.