Of Babies & Bathwater

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Feast of the Holy Family

Mary looked at her 12-year old son and asked, “Why have you done this to us?” Speaking on behalf of all children and teenagers (and some grown-ups) whose parents have asked that question at some point in their lives, whether out loud or quietly in the depths of their hearts, I wish to attempt an answer. Mind you, it is just an attempt. “I didn’t know. I’m not sure. I wasn’t thinking. I’m sorry. Can we drop the subject?” Most of what adults would consider youthful indiscretions (read “their own” youthful indiscretions) are often committed in ignorance or on impulse or with indifference or a combination of all three. Many of these mistakes made early in life (and some later) do not have far-reaching consequences. Some of them do, of course. But as you listen to me say this today, you can breathe a sigh of relief that you have survived, with a few bumps and scratches, and hopefully all the wiser for them. And whenever my family gathers around the dining room table, and we get to telling stories of our childhood (often to mom and dad’s looks of horror), we can laugh at ourselves. How can we not? All we are doing is immunizing ourselves for the next generation’s adventures.

Whenever we think of family, and I mean whenever we think of our own families, after all the obligatory nice things we say because it wouldn’t be right if we couldn’t find anything nice to say, there are a couple of things (okay, a few things, … more like several, … well, definitely fewer than we have fingers to count with, … okay, fingers and toes … well, to be honest we stopped counting when the children turned two … but we have a few recurring highlights) … there are a couple of things that would have made life easier if they went a different way. So when it comes to our collective human experience, there is no such thing as a typical family. We have wonderful idyllic images in our minds: mom and dad, 2.5 well-adjusted children, comfortable home in the suburbs, nice job, white picket fence, a partridge in a pear tree. Then we look at what we have to deal with on a regular basis, and we roll our eyes. But it could have been worse. And if you’re looking at me wondering what I’m talking about, hold on tight. You’ll thank me someday that I warned you.

On this feast of the Holy Family of Nazareth, we imagine that household where everything went right. You know, Mary who wanted to dedicate her life in perpetual virginity to God. Then she was with child before she was officially married. Oh, and Joseph did seriously think of sending Mary away because of what he thought was a major breach of trust. Then by imperial decree they had to travel a long distance around the time the baby was due. Then the baby was born in a filthy stable far from home. Then they were refugees in a foreign country for a while because Herod wanted to kill the child. And when they finally came back home to Nazareth, they never imagined life could run so smoothly. And that was just them. Remember the genealogy of Jesus in either Matthew’s or Luke’s gospel? Everyone on that list was a solid upstanding citizen, of course: Abraham and Sarah who relocated to a land far from family because God told them they would have many descendants despite being childless and well past the age of bearing children; their grandson Jacob who bought his brother Esau’s birthright with a bowl of stew and spent seven years working for his father-in-law so he could marry Rachel, then waking up the morning after the wedding to discover he had married her sister Leah; Judah, one of Jacob’s seven sons who had children by his daughter-in-law Tamar; Ruth, a foreigner, who married into the family and chose to stay with her mother-in-law Naomi after the death of her husband; Ruth’s grandson David who became king, and whose son Solomon’s mother was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, whom he sent to be killed in battle; such a lovely family story. I wonder what’s taking them so long to turn it into a Hallmark Hall of Fame television special.

Essentially, what makes family is much deeper than the externals. We can all attest to that. We hold up the ideals we imagine are non-negotiable, like what we read defined in scripture as God had designed from the beginning, which was before he banished our first parents from the garden after that incident with the snake … and then we do some negotiating. But the scriptures we read for today’s feast make no mention of those things we were absolutely certain were non-negotiable. Instead, we read in the book of Sirach how children should respect their parents, how their prayers are heard who honor their parents, how we should be considerate of our elders and not grieve them when their minds fail them. Then St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians advises us when dealing with one another to put on “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.” If we were more intent on living by these instructions, we might be less judgmental, less controlling, more welcoming, more like Christ in our approach. We have all heard of good families disowning their children and other family members for one reason or another, often in the name of God and religion. They imagine that is what God would do. Yet the Holy Family of Nazareth wasn’t perfect either. And when we hold them up as models for our own families to imitate, it is their compassion, their devotion to one another, their willingness to work together, to forgive one another, and to put up with each other’s limitations that gives us some measure of comfort and hope.

And when we look at the state of the modern American family, we might just imagine the worst: divorce and problematic marriages, single parenthood, children out of wedlock, babies having babies, same-sex couples, same-sex couples raising children, grandparents raising grandchildren, children with behavioral problems, parents with behavioral problems, mental illness, catastrophic healthcare coverage, unemployment, overseas adoptions, a partridge in a pear tree. Did I leave anything out?

The last night at my parents’ the other day, my siblings and I were discussing my older brother’s family situation. It’s fairly tame compared to what some of you have to deal with. We all came to the conclusion, they with their children and me without any, that parents have roughly 18 years to show their children a solid Christian example of family life. But in the end, they will find their way in the world, and they will make their own mistakes. It is our job to be there when they wise up and tell us we were right all along. Come to think of it, my parents were not in the room when we were having that discussion. I guess we turned out all right in the end. Mom and dad don’t seem too worried. When the time comes, we will all know what to do with the bathwater.