The Holy Family Sir 3:2-6, 12-14; Ps 128:1-2, 3, 4-5; Col 3:12-17; Lk 2:41-52 On this Sunday immediately following Christmas, the church focuses appropriately on the family. All during the lead-up to Christmas, television ads have bombarded us with joyous and idealistic family scenes — parents and children exchanging gifts under the tree, husbands surprising delighted wives with the gift of a new car in the driveway, beaming children on Santa’s lap. You get the picture. Like the rest of us, the Bible, too, has idealistic descriptions of family life. The family portraits reflect the patriarchal focus of ancient Israel but can be adapted to our own time and culture’s view of an egalitarian family life. In the first reading today from the book of Sirach, which dispenses popular wisdom, we hear such a description. God sets the father and the mother of the family with authority over their children. Whoever honors their father, God will forgive their sins; whoever honors their mother “will store up riches” and “live a long life.” Honoring one’s parents will lead to a house full of happy children and their prayers will be heard by God. In a telling bit of advice that adults with aging parents can appreciate, Sirach also urges “sons” (daughters must be included, too) “to take care of your father when he is old”; be considerate of a parent “even if his mind fails.” “Kindness to a parent,” the sage notes, “will not be forgotten. The response Psalm 128 acclaims the ideal home — “Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine … your children like olive plants around your table.” Norman Rockwell, the artist famous for scenes of ideal family life, would be pleased. There is a lot of fantasy here, especially in our times, which are quite different from the more stable and extended families portrayed in the Bible. Families come in all sorts of shapes and sizes —large and small, rich and poor, single parents and their children, family members scattered and alone. For months now, we have learned of desperate families at our border seeking asylum, with some parents forced to separate from their own children. Recently, I heard a mother who had lost her son to gun violence say that the worst time of the year for her was from Thanksgiving through Christmas because there was an empty chair at her family table. The Gospel passage from Luke introduces a realistic view. Having traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Jesus’ coming of age, Mary and Joseph start to return home when they realize that their beloved child is lost. How many parents have felt that terrified stab in the heart? Even when they find him in the temple and Jesus’ mother expresses her exasperation — “Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety” — there is the dawning of another separation to come, as Jesus speaks of his own call. He returns with his parents to Nazareth but, as with all children, Jesus will eventually go his separate way. The church holds up the ideal, and the realities, of family life because more than any other experience, it defines the deepest of human longings even though only partially realized. The family is to be a community bound together by flesh and blood, a life that is to be marked by generous love and acceptance. The family is considered a genuine home and place of safety to which we each belong forever, even when we have struck out on our own. No wonder the New Testament sees in the family an image of our life with God, as a glimpse of what the church itself should be. In this spirit the second reading from Colossians urges us to “put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another. … And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.” Though our experiences of family may fall short of such a beautiful ideal, the feast of the Holy Family reminds us of our deepest longings planted in our heart by God.