The first thing we must get straight is that a holy family isn’t a perfect family. Today’s gospel corrects any delusions about Jesus’ family being the perfect model. If a sentimental writer were describing his childhood, the family would stay pleasantly secure in a thatched cottage with climbing roses and a picket fence. Jesus would chat amiably with the squirrels and perform a miracle whenever Mary or Joseph needed help. Presto, bongo! A clean kitchen or a full water jug.
Instead, they hear news that must terrify a new mother: “you yourself a sword will pierce.” Wasn’t the insecurity of the birth in Bethlehem, the usual sleep deprivation enough?
By being part of a real family, not an ersatz, phony, plastic one, Jesus blesses our own families, with all their messy grit. He shows us that the family—not the church, retreat house, university or seminary—is the primary school of love and forgiveness. In ways that are charming, stupid or violent, families make mistakes. Furthermore, they are innocent victims of oppression like Herod’s. None of that seems to bother Jesus. He could’ve become human and lived his earthly life in a palace, synagogue or military post. Instead, he comes to an ordinary family, with all the graces and scars that entails. Thank God for that!