Ecclesiasticus 3.2-6, 12-14
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Son, why have you treated us so? is the New Testament’s equivalent of that more familiar parenting trope, “I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed”.
This is, so our cultural cynicism has led us to believe, just what families do: families disappoint. They fail to remember birthdays, or show up to piano recitals; they refuse to take over the family business, or settle down with a nice Chinese girl; what about that one you used to play together with when you were small? Families, they disappoint. They get pregnant, and claim that it was a miracle. They try to end the engagement in secret. They don’t think to tell their mom and dad where they’ve gone; don’t you know that we’ve been worrying sick? You could have been kidnapped, like that poor girl all over the Internet: the blonde one, with the eyes, her parents are still looking for her. Why have you treated us so?
The preacher’s temptation at this point is to pivot from the fraught fragility of the facts of human families to the simple serenity of our spiritual home, with that paradigm of loving relationship, the Father, Son, and Spirit. From there, the preacher can derive some moral ideal about how we should treat our fathers and mothers, our brothers and sisters, with self-giving love.
The problem with this otherwise apparently sensible and edifying approach is that there is precious little evidence for this kind of idyllic familial bliss in the Bible. It may be true that the perfectly mutual self-giving love that is Father, Son, and Spirit can—with some heavy qualification—provide a sort of template for our own earthly family lives, but the doctrine of the Trinity is not in the first place a doctrine about human social relations. To confuse it for one is to confuse God for creature.
What we get instead, even in the case of the Holy Family, is dysfunction and awkwardness, failures to communicate and to empathise. Long before we even get to the New Testament, the Bible is a saga of familial conflict and complication. We have Abram trying to pass off his wife as his sister. We have Laban tricking Isaac into marrying both daughters, rather than one. We have Jacob cheating Esau of his inheritance. We have Joseph, sold to slavers by his brothers. We have the soap opera of the lives and times of Saul and David and Jonathan and Michal and Merab and Bathsheba and Uriah and Absalom and Amnon and Tamar and Solomon.
By the time we get to Joseph and Mary, it seems only a minor scandal that she conceived out of wedlock and that he tried to get rid of her. He even comes off as a nice guy for trying to do it quietly, even if it is also his own face that he is trying to save. And then, of course, Joseph himself soon vanishes from the picture altogether, we can only speculate why.
And what of our Lord? At least in South East Asian terms, Jesus himself can hardly be said to be a paragon of filial piety. In our gospel reading today, we have Jesus, the insolent pre-teen, neglecting to inform his parents of his whereabouts in a magnificent failure of empathy. This would not have gone down well with my parents when I was a child, I assure you. And then, at the beginning of his adult ministry in John’s gospel, we have that famous and much debated scene of the Wedding at Cana, in which Jesus says to his mother, “Woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come”. And in Matthew’s gospel, his response to the bloke telling him that his mother is looking for him is more unambiguously dismissive, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”.
You know, I’m beginning to think that Jesus did not have very much time for the nuclear family. In any case, any attempt to establish the nuclear family as a biblical mandate is flagrantly unwarranted.
If there is a Christian doctrine of the family, it is a doctrine of adoption. Think of the election of Israel, think of the appointment of David; think of Jesus and Joseph and Mary. Think of us, the goyim of the eleventh hour, nevertheless called up to our place at Israel’s banquet. It is at least a picture of family that rejects pat certainties about who’s in and who’s out, that refuses to fetishise genetic relatedness or ethnic membership, and that instead takes risks in hope and perhaps even in absurdity, based solely on the faithfulness of the God who first adopted us.
There is, of course, an important sense in which we don’t, for the most part, choose our families. But of course we do, in much more important ways, daily, with every interaction.
Families, they disappoint. Sometimes, it’s their fault; sometimes it’s ours; sometimes it’s nobody’s fault, really. But—and maybe this is perverse to say in these most tender of times post-Christmas reunions—[but] the very fact that families can and do disappoint is, it seems to me, a good thing, a good sign, in that it reveals an openness, a vulnerability in us to be affected by those whom we love enough to hurt us.
Make no mistake: this is not to let ourselves off the hook, not to enable our neglectfulness and selfishness; nor is it to encourage us to allow ourselves to be abused or taken for granted or otherwise disappointed. To celebrate vulnerability is by no means to condone its exploitation.
Quite on the contrary, the reminder that we are called to be vulnerable to one another is precisely and for that reason a reminder of our obligations toward those who are vulnerable to us. Say what you like about the gender politics of the epistle to the Colossians, but it gets right at least the fact that all human relating is mutual, even if not always equal: wives and husbands are both addressed, ditto parents and children. The call to be vulnerable comes with obligations for those toward whom the vulnerability is directed.
Much has been made in recent weeks about the Holy Family as refugees, and this is no bad thing. It is no bad thing not just because that reading inspires compassion in us, but because it relocates our imaginations away from cookie cutter, colour-by-number dioramas and nativity plays, into the gritty particularities of actual human familial experience. The Feast of the Holy Family captures pregnancy scares and anxieties about infidelity as much as it does the triumph of innocence over the unreasonable expectations of imperial bureaucracy and the long arms of despotic persecution. In other words, it is about your family, and mine. And it is about our disappointments and regrets, as much as it is about the mundane miracles of being and having father and mother, brother and sister, husband and wife. Our prayer therefore, is that these families are made holy, in ways that only precious, fragile, vulnerable things can be. And, we pray also to recognise that they already are holy, in the ways they afford opportunities for love.
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.