The Need for the Holy Family

Theresa Marino 12/22/22

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For Catholics, Advent is the time to meditate on Jesus, Mary and Joseph as a family – The Holy Family – since they jointly are the ones who put Christmas on the map for the world. But what does it mean to be holy, and what does it mean to be a family? The first word is not in the lexicon of the ordinary 21st Century person. The second word would be defined differently by anyone you might ask. Simply put, to be holy means to be like God, which is also to say; set apart from the world. And family is the community God chooses for us in which to practice holiness. 

As an educator, I attend conferences and professional workshops often. Recently I participated in one which focused on Catholic Anthropology, with topics spanning from creation and human dignity, to relationships and families. Since it was a Catholic conference, the Holy Family was referenced many times. Towards the end of the event the floor was opened to participants for comments and questions. One school principal raised his hand to offer a comment that while he loved the Holy Family, perhaps it was not helpful or realistic any longer to hold them as the model for our students since the way they experience family is so very different from the father/mother/child model which existed in ancient times. His suggestion was to adjust the approach by which we deliver the message of holiness in families as Catholics, since modern students largely don’t have families which look like the Holy Family anymore.  

Any person with their eyes open to the state of modernity would grant this man his first point. The Holy Family model is certainly no longer the norm that our children are seeing lived out by adults in our culture. It is quite counter-cultural, in fact, to find a joyful union between one man and one woman whose first priority is serving God, who remain open to bringing children into the world even in unplanned circumstances, who humbly carry out their daily duties without complaint, and who remain faithful to their marital vows until death parts them. 

To his second point about modifying the model in order to meet the students where they are at, I remain unconvinced. The question is; can we make the case in truth that the “new norm” which we have provided our children in recent years better serves their personhood? More broadly, is the “new norm” serving humanity as a whole? If we are being intellectually honest, the answer would have to be a clear and resounding “No.” There has been an increase in suicide, depression, divorce, poverty, abortion, substance abuse, unemployment… since the de-emphasis on traditional nuclear homes came in vogue. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau conducts research to measure just such things and the 2022 reports back this up. 

By all measures, life is hard and uncertain. Family dynamics do not fit neatly into a sparkly box with a ribbon. Perhaps this fact is the biggest takeaway from that principal’s comment at my recent conference. And perhaps it is also the best reason to uphold the Holy Family in modernity as the model for how to come together in the face of life’s unavoidable plot-twists. The life of the Holy Family was anything but mundane, as they endured no less than the following tragedies in their short span together on earth…

Unplanned crisis pregnancy. Government tyranny and political oppression. Fleeing from homeland as refugees with a newborn in tow. Poverty and destitution Early death of a father. Single mothering. Multiple murder attempts on innocent man’s life during professional career. Political corruption and unjust arrest. Betrayal and abandonment by close friends. Unfair trial and gruesome torture despite innocence. Public murder of an innocent man before the eyes of his own mother (and the whole rest of the city).

This is all not to mention how hard life was in ancient times for ordinary people to simply survive before the advent of basic technologies. Many of us will not experience one of these trials in modern times, let alone all of them. How presumptuous of us to say that we cannot relate to the lives of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, because their lives were too clean cut! If we cannot relate to them for any reason, it is because they have endured more between the three of them than we could think, dream or imagine. This is not a metaphor or fable to teach us a lesson about families. This is a historical account of a real family, which happened in a real time and place. 

Emmanuel means “God with us.” This Advent season, the Holy Family reminds us that by all measures, life is perilous. It is complicated. It is met with unexpected challenges. It is met with every test to our will and values. It is met with suffering and unjust persecution. It is met with upsets to our personal desires and plans. But it is also met with God’s real and true presence. It is met with His own light in the darkest nights seasons of what we face. It is met with Hallelujahs from angels and priceless gifts from strangers. It is met with the gentle touch of mothers, the protection of fathers, the innocence of children. It is met with joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries. And our Emmanuel overwhelms all the other factors of our lives, when only we humble ourselves to see what He can offer us. It is precisely the Holy Family who show us how best this is done. 

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Pray for Us!  

Theresa Marino is a New York native who has served the Catholic Church throughout her twenties in various ministry capacities. Currently a middle school Religion Teacher, she has also worked in high school campus ministry, music ministry, mission work and parish settings.

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