Misunderstanding and the (Ordinary) Holy Family of Jesus
Today is the Feast of the Holy Family, the first Sunday after Christmas that marks the celebration of Jesus’s nuclear family — Mary, Joseph, and the child Jesus. The Gospel for today is the famous passage from Luke that features the pre-teen Jesus getting away from his parents in order to talk with and, subsequently, shock the teachers in the Temple. One of the things that struck me in hearing the Gospel this year was the brief line toward the end that describes the miscommunication and misunderstanding between the twelve-year-old Jesus and his worried parents: “But they did not understand what he said to them” (Luke 2:51).
I think it can be easy at times to, given that we “know the story” of the Gospel, take the side of Jesus in this pericope. We can look at the young Jesus as Emmanuel and think, “geez, what’s up with Mary and Joseph, don’t they get it?” But there is something else going on here. It is, I believe, a clear instance of the Gospel author reminding us of Jesus’s full humanity too! Not to mention the full humanity of his parents!
This is likely not the first time that Jesus was misunderstood by his family and it will certainly not be the last time he is understood by those who care for him and are drawn to him. We know that Jesus is time and again mistaken for someone or something else, misunderstood even by his closest friends and followers, betrayed, denied, and abandoned.
The Feast of the Holy Family is often depicted in the popular Christian imagination as this ethereal and perfect nuclear family that is serene in disposition, calm in motion, and beautiful in appearance — not unlike the creche statuary we place in our homes and churches. But the truth behind this Gospel, that which comes to the surface in lines like Jesus’s parents not “getting” him, is that they were as ordinary and human as you and I. As evident just in this one Gospel passage alone, Mary and Joseph got impatient, worried, concerned and, perhaps, angry with their son. Jesus’s divinity does not erase the difficulties that all human persons experience as teenagers. God knows what that’s like — literally!
I think there are two particular insights that are worth considering on today’s feast.
The first is that God really does know what it is like to be different and misunderstood. So many young adults and teenagers feel misunderstood, experience confusion about their identities and goals, fear not fulfilling the expectations — reasonable or otherwise — from their parents and others. Although we don’t usually think of it, this is something that God knows first hand and something that should bring us a little solace. Our prayer, our communication with God, might take a different direction if, in those times of misunderstanding and loneliness, we come to recognize that we are understood and loved and appreciated for who we are and by the Creator that has likewise experienced what it means to be different and misunderstood.
The second is that what makes the Holy Family holy isn’t just that Jesus, true God and true human, was the son born to them. True, that is certainly an important factor, but the Holy Family was a human family and in the difficulties, trials, joys, and sorrows of ordinary human like, this family rose to the occasion of living in an authentically human way. Yes, parents get impatient and children cause trouble now and then, but the love, concern, and priority of the familial relationship raises the nuclear family here from a collection of three people brought together by life’s circumstances to a sanctity and holiness exhibited by being human in the most authentic way. Love, forgiveness, and trying to understand, even when we fail, is what makes a family holy.