What Makes a Family Holy?
There is a funny and somewhat surprising story tucked away in Mark’s Gospel. After publicly healing a man of his withered hand, Mark reports that an enormous crowd began following Jesus (Mk 3:8). Many brought their sick relatives to be cured (3:10). The crowds pressed thickly upon Jesus and he was unable to rest a moment that day. We read that it became “impossible for him even to eat” (Mk 3:20). But amidst all this fervor, we learn of an odd detail. Jesus’ own relatives had caught wind of the commotion and were ― of all things ― embarrassed of him. The text says that “when his family heard about this they set out to seize him, for they said, ‘he is out of his mind’” (Mk 3:21). The Son of God was apparently acting in a way unbecoming of the family name.
We should not be imagining that it was Mary or Joseph who were ashamed of their son. Indeed, most scholars suspect that Joseph ― not mentioned at all once Jesus begins his public ministry ― had by this time passed away. And it was Mary who once prompted Jesus to turn water into wine at a wedding in Cana (Jn 2). Mary was not ashamed of Jesus causing a commotion. Indeed, in the story from Mark’s Gospel, we learn just a few verses later that it was probably Jesus’ cousins who came to protect the family’s reputation from any further embarrassment (Mk 3:31).
When we celebrate today’s “Feast of the Holy Family,” we don’t usually think of Jesus’ broader family. We’re even less likely to imagine that Jesus might not have been well-liked by all the cousins. And, more than that, when we think of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph we often think of their family life as the kind of thing that should be depicted on an ornament, as something quite cozy. We imagine them gathered around a warm hearth untroubled by the sinful world around them.
On the contrary, part of what makes the Holy Family holy is that it wasn’t the kind of thing that could be depicted on an ornament. Indeed, no real family’s daily life is the kind of thing that should ever be depicted on an ornament. And the Holy Family was a real family. That means they had real relatives who really were whackos. Just like your family. Part of what makes the Holy Family holy is that they didn’t isolate themselves from that whackiness, but were in the fray.
An important detail: when Jesus’ relatives came to collect him, Mary was right in their midst. Someone from the crowd even told Jesus: “your mother and family are outside looking for you” (Mk 3:32). Whackos or not, these were Mary’s people. This was her family. She was in the fray with these cousins who were embarrassed of her son. Did she have to listen to them apologizing to those who’d gathered? “I’m so sorry for this. He’s out of his mind.” Was she admonished by her relatives? “Didn’t you teach him better than this?”
This was the Holy Family’s family, and ― odd as it may seem ― that family was embarrassed of Jesus. But Mary did not cut them out of her life, safely retreating to those people who accept her. The Holy Family would not have been very holy had it remained walled-off from the world’s unholiness, had it remained contentedly around the hearth at Nazareth. Holiness is not closed in on itself. It wants to go outside itself, even into very dark places. Indeed, the holiness of the Holy Family was not for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph alone. It was also for those cousins who were embarrassed of Jesus.
Yes, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph lived lives of extraordinary holiness. They were the “Holy Family.” But we should not imagine that the coming together of their lives formed some sort of impenetrable bubble around their home. The bitterness of the world broke into their lives. It crucified one of them. And he left his home knowing it would.
The world is as embarrassed of Jesus today as it was when he was causing a commotion in ancient Israel. This is no reason to cut those cousins out of your life. On the contrary, it is reason to model your family after the Holy Family, to remain close to those who are convinced you all ― like Jesus ― “are out of your minds.” Click here to subscribe to these reflections by email