Holy Family, 27 December, 2020: Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:22-40
The English painter, John Everett Millais exhibited a painting entitled Christ in the House of His Parents in 1850, the heyday of romanticism and the family ideal. The costumes and setting suggest an exotic location and a past time, but the figures themselves are underfed English workers, rather than plump Italianate impersonators striking classical poses. The critics savaged the painting, the worst being Charles Dickens who described Millais’ work-worn Mary as so horrible in her ugliness as to stand out…in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin-shop in England.
Millais hadn’t set out to rattle bourgeois sensibilities and insecurities or smash propriety’s idols. Family is always a touchy subject and he had dared to portray the Holy Family as actual hard working people, straining to make ends meet. I wonder whether Dickens reacted so virulently because his own marriage was on the rocks, while he held it together for the rest of his life behind a brittle façade of Victorian respectability.
Family life is always a challenge and the Gospels frankly portray the tensions in Jesus’ own family. It is we who filter this portrait through rosy lenses of denial. Perhaps we prefer to dream that someone has an easy ride through life instead of offering mutual support and insight from our common experiences.
If Jesus’ family had had none of the usual tensions of family life, his Incarnation would have been a charade. Thank God he too knows what it is like to grow up in a real family. Despite all the tensions, his widowed mother is there at Calvary and, according to The Acts of the Apostles, in the midst of his Apostles praying behind locked doors on the day of Pentecost. Somehow they had grown through those tensions, without which real love can never mature.
The Prologue of John’s Gospel pictures the Son of God on the bosom of the Father (John 1:17); there too he brings the joys and frustrations, the tensions and tested love of family life to their intended fruition.