When we consider our spiritual lives—the plusses and minuses, the successes and failures—we naturally tend to think about them one-dimensionally. We take stock of what we have done well, our faults and failings, or the good we neglected to do. Most of us consider only our good deeds or sins, virtues or vices. When we think of our relationship with God, don’t we look at it from the perspective of prayer and meditation and fulfilling our religious obligations? The problem I see with this approach is that real spirituality is never that one-dimensional. It’s always multi-dimensional.
Think of your own spiritual history. You did not just wake up one day and decide to live a spiritual life. You weren’t born into a vacuum. For good or ill, from the time you took your first breath, you were infused with some sort of spiritual perspective, whether rich or impoverished, rudimentary or fully formed. Your spiritual growth began and developed within a context or environment. That context itself existed in a much broader realm—perhaps even a spiritual community like a church, synagogue, or mosque—and that existed within an even broader socio-political environment. Society itself didn’t adopt whatever spiritual values it had wholesale out of thin air. It, too, exists within a rich history of traditions that gave it form and direction. Therefore, “we live and move and have our being” [Acts 17:28] within a multitude of spiritual connections, past and present, in which our spirituality germinated.
Our Western culture, particularly in this country, values rugged individualism to a fault. Other cultures understand much better than we do our connectedness. They are, in fact, no more connected to their environments than we are. They simply understand and appreciate their connectedness better than we do—to our detriment. Think about it. Spirituality consists of a complex of attitudes and behaviors that are open to Transcendent values derived from a Power greater than ourselves. These attitudes and behaviors, in turn, derive from our nature and our nurture. There is but one source of nature and nurture—our DNA and our upbringing—and that’s our families, however we choose to define them.
Believe it or not, it’s only since World War II—in my lifetime—that we’ve begun to understand the communal elements of our human development and the psycho-social diseases that affect it. On one hand, we have learned that dysfunction is a family disease. It’s spawned and nurtured from the unresolved personal and interpersonal issues that affect every family to some extent and cannot be treated or controlled without involving whatever support system identifies itself as “family.” On the other hand, we’ve developed an understanding of human interaction based on systems theory. This posits that the purpose of any system is to remain in existence, and it does so by maintaining equilibrium among its various parts by whatever means at its disposal. Therefore, whenever any one element of a system attempts to change, that affects the entire system and the system itself reacts to restore equilibrium. Systems resist any change in their elements, even when that change benefits the system. That’s also how a family system operates. The only conclusion we can come to is: we can’t change our families, we can only change ourselves, but, when we try to, our families will do their best to stop us.
This is all very interesting, I’m sure…but what does it have to do with today’s liturgy and today’s gospel? Quite a lot, as it turns out. The Messiah, the Son of God, didn’t just appear. The Incarnation occurred in a context: a genetic context, a familial context, an ethnic context, and a faith context. Jesus, son of Mary, was also born in the hereditary line of King David through Saint Joseph. He was born of the Hebrew people as one of them and into the Jewish world represented by the Temple in Jerusalem where he was presented to God and to his own people. There, Simeon and Anna—prophets of God and representatives of the nation—welcomed him in the name of the Children of Israel, his extended family.
Here’s the thing: if dysfunctional and destructive forces such as addiction and codependency—what we might identify as “original sin”—are passed on from generation to generation through our extended families, then our healing and salvation must also come through our families. Since there is a soul-sickness that arises as a family disease, spiritual healing and redemption must also come through our spiritual families, be they our biological families, our social families, or our religious families. We may define “family” however we choose, so long as it provides for us the spiritual context and environment in which we can encounter the Living God, grow, and mature. The one thing we may take away from this is that salvation and healing are not individual occurrences. They can only occur in the context of a family. First Mary and Joseph, and then the disciples provided family for Jesus. He invited us, as well, to become part of it when he said, “Whoever shall do the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” [Matthew 12:50]
How should we then define “Holy Family”? What does it mean? It certainly goes far beyond Mary, Joseph, and their child, Jesus. The Holy Family is different for each of us since that’s the family in which we gain our spiritual nourishment and perspectives. Who are the members of your Holy Family? How do they love and support you? But that’s not all. For whom do you provide a Holy Family in which they can grow spiritually? You did not come to the Christ alone, nor did the Christ come to you alone. It all took place in and through what we now recognize as our spiritual family. Today, we acknowledge and celebrate that family that has nurtured and sustained each of us in our faith until now—that is, our Holy Family.