Apologies for the length (and yes I do have things to do apart from writing blogs) 😉
This one gets called the feast of the holy family. So I have been thinking a lot about families and wondering what is “holy” about one family or another and I will keep this in mind as I turn to the readings. Sad to find the libraries I had to scroll through a couple of websites where celibate, white, old, men tell us that a family is always grounded on a “marriage” and that marriage always intends children but isn’t about being carnal (I won’t link but feel free to google things like “catholic family”. These armchair experts on both the complex praxis that becomes “family” and seemingly at times on human relationships themselves can make all the distant, arrogant pronouncements they like but to some of us family is centred on loving bonds and commitments that defy exact classification and may “intend” a better society or a more love-filled life rather than merely procreation.
In the first reading then we have Hannah who in common with many of my friends is full of desolation because she does not have a child. Rather than accept her keen need to have children as an indication of “natural” femininity (as it often gets interpreted both in her life and in the lives of modern day women who struggle to conceive for whatever reason), I see this story as indicating how at war with their own bodies women can be when they are surrounded by patriarchal expectations narrowing the value of a woman (and a wife which in patriarchy is a synonym) to motherhood only. It may seem heartless of me on the feast of the Holy Family to question the very icon of woman/mother at the centre of all we cosily seem to believe about families- but I think of the other sisters and friends who want something other than motherhood from their lives and even in 2015 get everything from blame, snide remarks and unasked for advice about “hurry up and breed”.
In tandem with the women who don’t want to be mothers, I cannot forget those of us who ARE mothers but want to be measured by our words and deeds not just by the quality of the people who might have come out of our womb and learned much from us but like to keep within themselves a sense that they belong to themselves and not only to us. The double bind of motherhood, (if that is all we have) is that the healthy child grows up and becomes independent, wants to leave our influence and not be limited by our prejudices. So I look to the “holy virgin” the “mother of God” the blue clad female figure at the heart of the holy family and want to ask her “Who are you when you are not ‘mother’?”. The gospels give us crumbs of this in the Visitation (powerful prophet and counsellor) and at the Wedding at Cana (radically insightful disciple and theologian). But even these crumbs get reduced to “just a mother, just a woman, just the womb-source of something more important”. I don’t believe men have to face any such essential reduction of their complexity and their very existence as “person” that is so perpetually held before their eyes as a lynch pin of everything we say we value as “family”.
And what of fathers in this world view? Is their career and even their vocation more important than the children they have caused (or perhaps contributed to) a woman to bring into the world? But when we focus on Joseph I think he undermines much of what patriarchy tells us about fatherhood. For now we have Hannah’s desire to conceive.
And so the barren Hannah is nothing, not a mother, a failure and she pleads with God to give her the honour of a child which she will then radically gift back to God (or to the church). How is this less disturbing to us than Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac? How do we celebrate this story in the cosy little feast of the Holy Family? I can’t see this otherwise than as a text of terror. But unlike in Abraham’s story, no angel of the Lord intervenes. The death of the child may not ensue but Hannah leaves him there. The little boy left in the temple now that the parents’ pride has been satisfied. But even today, how many much wanted babies become nothing more than a background figure with its own computer and its expensive education and not always the time for anyone in the family to relate to each other in ways other than buying things? This is my sin too, I have to pay bills and I struggle to find meaningful time with my children and forget how to relate to them.
The psalm doesn’t solve this for me. It only talks to men who get enriched by God giving them a “wife like a fruitful vine” and “children like olive plants” (excessively multiplying and tenaciously tough? or just making mess all over the driveway?). Noone asks the wife or children what they think of this set up, since in this psalm they are prizes not people. I have vivid memories of this psalm in the daily psalter and my dad loved it and the rest of us made faces whenever it came up (which he couldn’t work out why). I guess the word “husband” suggests “husbandry”- cultivating land, plants and stock rather than relating to equal human beings. But the “blessed” who “fear the Lord” are husbands, are the owners and operators of the household. I still haven’t found a “holy” family in these readings….next…
The second reading begins well. Compassion, kindness, humility, love, wisdom, gratefulness. Maybe we have found that ideal here…the holy family. But it couldn’t stop there could it? Patriarchy once again comes into the church’s teaching on family. Uncritically, unreflectively, unwisely and as usual blinded by only having one type of person in the highest levels of authority (always male and overwhelmingly middleclass and white) the church on the day that focuses on families and the values that make them up lets in a reading that advises wives to be “subordinate” and children to “obey”. I’ve heard a lot of nonsense about how in fact it is equal and is not oppressive because husbands are also commanded to love their wives and fathers not to provoke their children! But the reality is that husbands and fathers are an imperfect and human as the rest of us and will at times (even the best of them) fail to love and will inadvertently provoke. And the only safety for the everyone else of the family is an equal status to the all too human father.
I cannot be subservient and obedient to a father or a husband. I do not see God’s word in this sort of bondage! If this is family as the church construes it then I am done with families! I don’t feel furious that readings about donating children to the church and being blessed by being given the ultimate prize of wife ‘n kids or the supremacy of the male/father in the household are in the canon of my faith. We know what sort of societies gave rise to the canon and we know that God calls us to read it carefully and critically, to see it as a photo album of our ancestors not an authoritative recipe book for life today. But I feel furious and frustrated at the stupidity of a church hierarchy that still thinks to celebrate the ideal of “family” by choosing those readings! It explains a lot about the abuses and wilful deafnesses that the church has long been implicated in, that are increasingly coming to light.
Wake up you fools! God comes to liberate us from the sins of our ancestors not to reify them as “The Christian way of life”. As a baptised Christian each of us is called out of the original sin of the societies and imperfect families we are born into to live transformative, grace-filled faith in radical and dynamic (and ready to challenge) love with them. In this spirit my son who has not spoken to me for a few months came to my house on Christmas day, to speak to me adult to adult about his hopes, dreams, inability (and lack of desire) to obey either parent, and dynamic life within the heritage we have given him. If a seventeen year old can see beyond the narrowness of the authority of his parents (and yet be wise enough to retain what he sees as good in the values he was taught) to me that was “holy family” as were my grey months of waiting and hoping he would talk to me one day. We were not enough for him (as a husband’s or a father’s authority would not be enough for me) but as an equal he brings love and courtesy back into the circle of our “family”.
Jesus in the gospel, like my son in the world, finds he has a mission bigger than the little family he is born into. He does not ask permission from his parents, perhaps even it is selfish of him not to communicate to them what he is doing. But he rebukes them that they ought to have trusted him and his vocation more, they ought to have let go knowing that he has his own business in the world and that this does not mean he does not love them. The story finishes with Jesus submitting back to their authority, which to me seems like an editor who did not want this story to have too much radical power to unsettle the status quo of a society largely based on obedience and varying status. To me the attempt to close Pandora’s box AFTER Jesus has escaped from parental authority and been wise on his own account is too late. The idea of the family hierarchy has already been irreparably damaged. Children have been shown to be more than the puppets of their parents.
And I reflect on radical examples of “holy” family I have seen this year. Of the father who argued powerfully for his son’s right to choose a traditionally “female” sport such as netball. Of the woman who is still a parent to her ex-girlfriend’s children while also nurturing another single friend’s children when possible. Of the foolish women who keep going back to abusive exploitative boyfriends. Of people with elderly parents who need nurture in various ways and get in the way of people’s plans for the year. Of babies yearned for or whoopsies. Of the liturgical “family” that I belong to that radically shares headship (there are leaders but they lead by enabling other people’s co-leadership) and the way they threw open their doors on Christmas Eve and welcomed in a diversity of families. Of the love my son has for his separated mother and father and four scattered siblings, and father’s girlfriend, and all friends and relatives of the family all of whom he accepts with a quiet security that family just means good people. Of the wild mothers who nurture us in our feminist journeys and the wise ancestors who wrote words we are enlightened by and the imperfect fathers who build churches and their miraculous moments of transformative humility.
The holy family is not one legalistic pattern of heteropatriarchy. It is not the dominance of man over women; adult over child nor the reification of breeding as the purpose of life. The holy family, every holy family is a complex network of love, challenge, individuality and collectivity. A holy family will always be recognised by serving the interests of God’s reign (justice, kindness, walk humbly with each other and the world). In every holy family, Wisdom is always born and reborn to every member, to the collective whole.
May your holy family be blessed with love and joy, as you recuperate over this hot and holy season of Christmas.