The Danger of Family-olotry
I imagine that in many churches, as in the one I attend, the congregation was treated to a lament about the imperfections of the modern family. Our lame attempts are juxtaposed against the perfectly graced little family that brought Jesus to birth, entertained magi, listened attentively to dreams and successfully fled from Herod.
Perfect faith. Perfect love. Perfect obedience.
And there we sit, still a bit bloated and groggy from the unholy excesses of the season, and just coming down from the stress of negotiating the land mines and fractured relationships that mark the family obligations of the holidays.
This is a risky feast day. In my experience it is an occasion to get the story of family wrong on innumerable levels. Yet it also provides an invitation to do some deep theological reflection on the transformative power of harboring Christ in our familial relationships.
Often on this day the homilist is tempted to issue the “lament of the unholy family” which goes something like this – modern families need to return to the God-given values that we see in Jesus’ family – the hard work of a carpenter father, the meekness of the stay-at home mother, the respectful dedication and studiousness of the boy Jesus. (He does a have an impertinent slip at the age of 12, but then don’t all teenage boys?)
We must model ourselves after the Holy Family, the sermon continues. It had its priorities straight – no divorce, illegitimate children or apathetic religious practice here.
There is a great urgency in this sort of homily. If our families are a mess, then society will be a mess. If they are strong, productive, intact and financially stable, they will make society more holy.
Historians of the family such as Stephanie Coontz point out that this ideal is very recent, with origins in Victorian modernity rather than early Christianity. In fact to the discerning Christian it can look a bit more like the Gospel of Norman Rockwell than of Matthew. In her insightful book on the history of the American family, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, Coontz says it well: “the historical record is clear on one point: although there are many things to draw on in our past, there is no one family form that has ever protected people from poverty or social disruption, and no traditional arrangement that provides a workable model for how we might organize families in the modern world.” (p 5).
Emory University theologian Luke Timothy Johnson offers an important caution about using Scriptural images of family to create an ideal by which today’s families must be judged. In an interview on Krista Tippett’s American Public Radio Program Speaking of Faith, the New Testament Scholar says that much of the theology of marriage has tended to look only at the sacred texts and has ignored the experience of actual married people:
“A great deal of Christian theology was carried out by monks and celibates who, quite literally, didn’t know who they were talking about. So what Jesus doesn’t give us, what the New Testament doesn’t give us — where are we going to learn it? Well, one way, by default, is to simply take all of those things in the Bible that affirm marriage, sex and family in a sort of a straightforward way, losing that critical edge that Christianity brings to that.”
True to form, Sunday’s scriptures don’t give us much historical information on the family life of Jesus. The commentaries in Raymond E. Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah, remind us that Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23 is more story than history, a narrative purposefully patterned after the life of Moses, Isreal’s savior from its Egyptian captivity. (p. 48). Unfortunately, rather than embracing these images of a family that entertained angels, and magi and shepherds as symbolic of God’s larger enterprise of redemption, we can be tempted to use them to try to instruct modern family life.
Johnson goes on to tell Tippett that:
Clearly one problem within one version of Christianity is a kind of idolatrous posture with regard to family, so that a family is not only necessary, which all of us would acknowledge, but that it’s also sufficient. And losing that edge which is essential to the biblical tradition the prophetic edge of moving beyond family, moving behind kinship into a larger world which is God’s creation.”
For me, Johnson nails the danger of the Feast of the Holy Family right there — family-olotry: an idolatrous practice that does not emerge from the Scriptures into the life of the church, but arrives there via modern culture itself. Modern culture uses the family to justify many excesses. We are told go to war to protect our families; encouraged to disdain the poor while focusing on our own families; compelled to plunge into debt to provide our families with the best things in life; and blinded to future environmental disasters as we keep our family members comfortably cool or warm in any season.
Yet making an idol of the family doesn’t save us either. Fifty percent of marriages fail. People’s reported satisfaction with life is plummeting. And more and more Americans suffer from the health and economic woes of overconsumption – obese bodies and empty bank accounts.
Deep down – and sometimes you don’t have to look too deep – families long for something else, something that acknowledges how difficult the task of love really is and offers some hope that it is possible, something that is not threatened by unconventional family arrangements but blesses it with caring relationships, something that does not disdain our brokenness but seeks to touch it gently and heal it.
Something like a Feast of the Holy Family. Because this is its glory: it is a feast celebrating the entry of God into our broken and very real world. Jesus always seemed to make his entrance among the questionable people and places of his time – among the destitute, the sinful, the rejected, the oppressed. In that light, a family is a great place for God to begin to redeem us.
So what happens if we look at Jesus’ family with new eyes? What happens if we set aside the shepherds and the angels, the overcrowded Bethlehem inn and its waiting stable, the magi with their kingly gifts? What if we set aside the flight into Egypt and the angelic dreams? What remains?
We see a woman and a man with such extreme faith in God that they recognized the divine in the child born to them. They raised him to adulthood and one day released him to a hostile world, which he touched with extraordinary love, a love willing to suffer and die for its beloved.
Ultimately the Holy Family was holy because God made a home there. It was holy in so far as it helped to form and shared in the larger family that Jesus established, the Reign of God.
So the message of the Feast of the Holy Family should not be one of blame for failed relationships and guilt for falling short of a socially constructed ideal. The message must ultimately be one of hope and the countercultural belief that we can be healed, reconciled and redeemed by welcoming the Christ into our homes, and accepting the consequences that living with God – a life of Emmanuel – will demand.
There will be no room for false idols then – only broken ones.