Let the Scriptures Speak
It Takes a Covenant to Raise a Family
He who reveres his father will live a long life;
he obeys the Lord who brings comfort to his mother. (Sir 3:6)
The Holy Family—so easy to marvel at and honor, so difficult to think of imitating. On the face of it, the family life of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph seems too utterly unique to take as a model for our flawed efforts at being parents and children. The virginal conception and divinity of the Child are enough to render the holy family apparently inimitable. And who among us can hope for guidance in major decisions by way of angelic messages in dreams? And yet, I submit, this Sunday’s Scriptures do offer ways for us to relate the life of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to our own.
When we think of Mary, Joseph, and the child Jesus in splendid, nuclear isolation, we forget two things. First, no family in first-century Palestine lived disconnected from their network of relatives. Second, and more important, their family life was lived as part of the larger family life of Israel's covenant life with God.
The passage from Sirach demonstrates the way Israelite family life was considered an expression of covenant life. Each statement Sirach makes about living the parent-child relationships refers to what those relationships mean about one’s relationship with God. Indeed, those relationships are described in liturgical terms. For example, “He who honors his father is gladdened by children, and when he prays he is heard.” Or again, “He obeys the Lord who brings comfort to his mother.”
However divine conception and direction by dreams highlights their uniqueness, Jesus, Mary and Joseph had in common with all the families in the land of Israel this sense that their relationships with one another were expressions of their relationship with Yahweh as creator and redeemer. With all of their neighbors, they knew that it takes a covenant community to be a family, and that their lives were the gift of God to be lived out in service of that God. Matthew can quote Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I called my son,” not only because the words take on powerful new meaning when applied to Jesus. Another powerful aspect of that quotation is what it carries forward from its original context in Hosea. The prophet is speaking of the Exodus redemption from bondage in Egypt and is calling the entire people of Israel (men and women both, of course) child and son of God. When these words are applied to Jesus, they refer not only to his unique sonship but also to the fact that he embodies the renewal of the whole people's covenant “sonship” with God. As Jesus renews that covenant, he renews the family life that is part of that covenant.
When Paul speaks of right relationships in Christian community and family life, he draws upon that same sense that these human relationships derive from that larger covenant relationship. “As the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.” “And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in our body.” That peace is the shalom of the covenant life lived faithfully and fully. It takes the whole covenant community to be a family. As we honor the Holy Family today, we can take their unique experience as a reminder of the covenant life with God in which all of our families can find encouragement. Just as Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were not a family on their own, neither are we.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
**From Saint Louis University