This Sunday, as we honor the Holy Family, it is tempting for us to think of them as we see them here in the crèche: perfectly sculpted figures, frozen in time and place. There’s the prayerful mother, the strong and attentive father, both adoring the innocent, beaming baby in the manger.
As beautiful as that is, it doesn’t begin to tell the whole story.
To appreciate the Holy Family in all its beauty and fullness, we should see them not as figures carved from wood or molded from plaster. We should see them, instead, as flesh and blood—people who struggled, who worked, who suffered.
St. Paul famously wrote of Christ, “He was a man like us in all things but sin.” I think the same could be said of the Holy Family. They were like us. They knew the kinds of setbacks, disappointments, challenges that every family faces.
They are patrons of every family, in every circumstance—even those like so many of us who are far from perfect.
First, they are patrons of those who are outcast. They are a family nobody had room for. And they are a family that was forced to run for their lives. This has a special urgency and relevance today.
Nearly a century ago, Pope Pius XII wrote:
“The émigré Holy Family of Nazareth, fleeing into Egypt, is the archetype of every refugee family. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, living in exile in Egypt to escape the fury of an evil king, are, for all times and all places, the models and protectors of every migrant, alien and refugee of whatever kind who, whether compelled by fear of persecution or by want, is forced to leave his native land, his beloved parents and relatives, his close friends, and to seek a foreign soil.”
Jesus, Mary and Joseph are the family in Iraq, displaced to Kurdistan, fleeing the terror of ISIS.
They are migrants from Central America, seeking a better life in the fields of Texas.
They are the family you see huddled under a bridge, with no place else to go, worrying about where the journey of life will take them and who will give them shelter.
They are the people so many in our society overlook or look past.
The Holy Family intercedes on behalf of those who are desperate and alone.
Secondly, they are the patrons of parents who live with fear and anxiety.
The first words of the Gabriel to a startled young Mary were words to guide her through life: “Do not be afraid.”
She probably recalled those words again and again throughout the next three decades. She would have much to fear. An unexpected pregnancy. An arduous journey to give birth in a faraway city. Death threats. Living in a strange place far from family and friends. Making ends meet in a hostile and uncertain world. Searching for a missing child. Watching that child grow into manhood—and watching, too, as he stood trial and suffered and died.
These are people who day by day lived with mystery and uncertainty.
But they also lived with trust in God and obedience to his will. This is what held them together.
They are the advocates for every parent whose child has gone missing, or whose bank account is dwindling, or whose son is on death row.
They stand beside every mother and father who wonders what God has planned, how they will get through the next day, next week, next month—and to them the Holy Family whispers to them, “Do not be afraid.” Know hope. Know trust. Know that you are not alone.
Finally, they are the patrons of the unexpected. It’s safe to say that Mary and Joseph had very different plans for their lives—plans that didn’t include visits from angels; a birth in a stable; a flight into Egypt; and a son standing trial and undergoing a brutal and humiliating public execution.
When they became betrothed, they didn’t foresee their story unfolding this way.
But God had a different story to tell.
It is a story of “Do not be afraid” and “Let it be done to me according to your word.” Significantly, it is a story that ends in resurrection.
The Holy Family can serve today as advocates of every family who sees life taking unexpected and sometimes alarming turns. They stand before us as models of faith, hope and trust—people who embraced all that in spite of everything they encountered.
Their journey was never easy. But that is true for all of us.
And what is also true is that God is never outdone in mercy. His grace can help all of us bear the unbearable and endure the unendurable. That may be the greatest lesson we can learn from this family we call “holy.” To all of us who wonder or worry, every parent who questions or doubts, this simple little family offers reassurance: Here is hope.
This Sunday, stop by the crèche. Think of what it contains—and what it portends. It represents a future they couldn’t have predicted, hardships they never could have imagined, and miracles they never could have dreamed. Their lives tell a story that plaster and wood cannot.
It is a story of resilience and prayer and faith. In fact, it is the very beginning of the greatest story ever told.
May we work every day in the new year to make that story a part of our own.