The Feast of the Holy Family

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.



2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Tim
    Dec 31, 2010 @ 19:29:59

    Oh, Sherry, I’m so late getting here. Yet, as always, I’m glad I came. The “parental edicts” are tough to deal with indeed. And I wholeheartedly agree with your thesis here. To a very large degree, we are all parents and children, surrounded by love and wisdom we can gain, and able to pass what we’ve gained to younger (i.e., less fortunate) souls around us.

    Parents–and parental figures–who abuse their power and privileges bear the responsibility for the breakdown in respect that Ecclesiasticus and other Scriptures expect. Many of them have taken these liberties by assuming respect is a given. It is not. Yet where it can be given, I believe it must. As I journey deeper into the back half of life, I’m continually reminded how age brings regrets. Where we can forgive and mend relationships, we should. Stubborn bitterness holds no healing, for elders who’ve wronged us or us.

    When this concept first emerged–in the Ten Commandments–it included an enlightening codicil: Honor your father and mother that your days may be long on the Earth. Forgiveness and order prolong life–I’m convinced of that, and numerous studies appear to back this up. While it’s true many of us have suffered unforgivable sins at our parents’ hands, many of us are committing slow suicide by harboring hatreds we could be healed of by bending our wills.

    It’s a tough–and tender–subject you’ve taken on here. And your insights are compelling in their urgency for us to take up the slack where the parent-child relationship has lapsed. If more of us took this duty seriously, our world would be a far healthier, happier place.

    Blessings–and Happy New Year!


    • Sherry
      Jan 02, 2011 @ 10:52:10

      Tim it’s a most busy time. And Tim, I agree wholeheartedly. While I think it may be impossible to “mend” some relationships and it is toxic to try, I do believe it essential to forgive in the sense of realizing that no human sets out with any deliberate desire to hurt others for the sake of doing so. Each operates in what is perceived (often erroneously) as one’s best interest at the time. You can forgive that, but what is best left alone is the continuing pattern that some cannot grow above. Bitterness however is a horrid evil that will destroy the victim. That is why I think victims can learn to find others to fill the wholes left by family that are no longer viable in the family sphere.

      Blessings and happy new year to you as well!


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