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The Holy Family

Holy Family: 29 December, 2013
Fr Philip Gill
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill and Lazarus Centre Chaplain

This grouping called family, as fragile as it can be in the face of what life can launch against it, is asked to bear so much of the nurture of human beings, perhaps too much in modern times. A prison chaplain colleague of mine recently lamented that just about every person he spoke to in the course of his pastoral work grew up in a family that was broken or dysfunctional. It was a risky thing that God should entrust the message of salvation to the members of a human family — a humble and poor one at that.

However, when we consider the other possibilities, the principles of God become clearer. Why not entrust Jesus into the care of a more powerful family, that of Herod the Great, for example? While Herod was not the worst of rulers his motives were always political rather than theological. He had his reign to protect and his dynasty to ensure.

Herod the Great was a prolific builder and skilful politician who would not put up with a hint of disloyalty. He had three of his sons executed for treason. Not the sort of family with which to trust the Son of God. It is a bit easier to understand why simple people like Joseph and Mary were chosen to nurture the young Jesus rather than the family of Herod, but why not go right to the top? Would it not be more expedient to make use of Roman ingenuity and power and use the court of the Roman Emperor, Augustus at the time, as an incubator for the infant Jesus, much as the court of Pharaoh had been for Moses?[1]

Even a man of such stature could not ensure a secure, let alone a holy, family life. Augustus had only one biological child, Julia. In an attempt to bolster family values, Augustus outlawed adultery. Julia, by all accounts a good natured and kind hearted person fell into the trappings of wealth and influence and was accused of adultery herself. Augustus sentenced her to banishment to a small island. Augustus, who apparently had a way with words as well as a concern for family life is reputed to have said: "There are two wayward daughters that I have to put up with: the Roman commonwealth and Julia." [2] Wealth and power are no guarantee that the plan of God will be obeyed, in fact it seems the opposite: it is the poor and ordinary, the dispossessed and lowly who are most attuned to the word of God and who are best suited to nurture God dwelling among us.

There are times when the lowly status of Jesus' family is used against him. In Mark 6 there is the story of Jesus return to his hometown. Matthew follows the narrative pretty closely, though Luke omits most of the detail until he joins them again to include the memorable saying, "A prophet is not without honour except in his own country and in his own house." Jesus faces the scrutiny of those who have known him since infancy. The vehemence of the town's folk suggests that Jesus' youth may not have been that different from anyone else. There is no doting, "Oh we knew you would be the one." Rather he is put firmly into his familial place: we know your trade, your mother, and your siblings. The family that nurtured him is also the family that is meant to identify and therefore constrain him socially and politically, and to some extent it does just that. At one point in the gospels Jesus' mother, brothers and sisters come to "take him away", believing that he is off his head. When told his mother and brothers are outside he replies, "Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." [Mk 3.35]

Families, whether imperial, royal, extended, blended, nuclear or even holy are not sufficient to nurture and challenge people to reach full humanity. I like that old adage: "It takes a village to raise a child." And yet, modern society places so much pressure on the family — meaning essentially the biological, nuclear family. These days people are much more accepting of relationships that differ from this narrow understanding of family, but so much expected of these nuclear groupings supported, where thought necessary, by charity and government organisations.

What's missing in this modern mix to a great extent is the influence of community organisations that used to form the crucibles for social development beyond the family. Some have access to School facilities and groups that offer after school care and activities. The church's influence on human nurture beyond the family has certainly waned. I remember conducting a funeral in a parish church some years ago. After the service there was a cup of tea in the church hall. One of the guests, a man about 50, pointed to a brick wall and said, "See those screw holes in walls?" I did and I hadn't noticed them before. "That's where the backboard for the basketball hoop was screwed in. We used to play basketball here every week." He had very fond memories of those times and the fun he had but he only went to church for weddings and funerals these days. Over the years I've heard stories of the days when church was the centre of community life. There were dances, youth groups, cricket teams and so on. There are very good things happening in our parish, like the play group and children's church, but some say our glory days are behind us.

The days of the church being at the centre of community life are no longer, but we still have a valuable contribution to make. Take for example my colleague mentioned at the beginning of the sermon. His care and the ministry of other chaplains and volunteers are among the few positive influences men and women in prison encounter.

The American Theologian Stanley Hauerwas, in his evocatively entitled book, A Community of Character, expresses succinctly something of what Christianity offers the world today. He writes:[3]

Without denying that there may be non-religious accounts of hope and patience, Jews and Christians have been the people that have stressed the particular importance of these virtues. For they are the people formed by the conviction that our existence is bounded by a power that is good and faithful. Moreover they are peoples with a deep stake in history; they believe God has charged them with the task of witnessing to his providential care of our existence. They believe their history is nothing less than the salvation of them and all people. Such a history does not promise to make the life of virtue easier or our existence safer. Rather such a story and corresponding society, offers training in the hope and patience necessary to live amid the diversity of the world while trusting that its plurality reflects the richness of God's creating and redeeming purposes.

There is much to chew over in this passage. There is a lot to give us heart as we seek to communicate with those who see the church as simply irrelevant, wretchedly abusive or totally deluded. We have the "conviction that our existence is bounded by a power that is good and faithful." This we proclaim with hope and patience in the midst of Herods, Caesars, and Hitlers; and in spite of poverty, disease, and disaster. Hope and patience are certainly virtues many in our society need to be challenged to cultivate. It is easy to see the things that are wrong with the world that we would want a God to fix. It takes great faith and courage to trust, as Hauerwas suggests, that the richness we see in creation is in fact a reflection of God at work. We are reminded of this each time we meet for worship and fellowship and share the stories of our faith.

Families have their faults, and so do churches. But by comparison with royal dynasties and political organisations, family and Church have stood the test of time. The Holy family was entrusted with the nurture of the Christ Child. It was from that humble hearth that Jesus emerged to live to die to rise again and to call together his brothers and sisters into the family God and to offer hope and patience to the world.


  1. See for example the discussion in E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, The Penguin Press: Harmondsworth, 1993, pp 15-32.
  2. Inter amicos [Augustus] dixit duas habere se filias delicatas, quas necesse haberet ferre, rem publicam et Iuliam. Macrobius, Saturnalia 2.5
  3. Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character, University of Notre Dame Press: Notre Dame, 1981. p128.


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