The Sunday after Christmas is traditionally celebrated as the Feast of the Holy Family – an occasion which all too often is used in homilies as an excuse to commend the modern nuclear family – thereby leaving the substantial proportion of Catholics who are single, divorced, married but childless, gay, lesbian, trans or otherwise queer distinctly excluded. This year, with the escalated campaign by Pope Benedict and so many bishops against equal marriage, we may expect the theme to be used even more forcefully than usual. We need to remind ourselves, then, that this heteronormative representation of the Holy Family is a gross distortion of the family as represented in the Gospels – and of the lectionary readings for this day.
At the Holy Irritant, Tony Robertson writes “As a single gay man with no children of my own I belong to those who are usually overlooked in the preaching of today’s celebration“. This feeling of being overlooked will be shared by many – but there are many other ways of viewing this important feast – ways that should make it especially relevant to all those in less than conventional family situations. Robertson provides one such perspective, with this quotation:
“The story of this new family forced to leave their home reminds us in the Christmas season to bring comfort and joy to those who are marginalized by our society— the poor, the elderly, the immigrant, and the refugee,” said the Very Rev. Gary R. Hall, dean of Washington National Cathedral. “This beautiful depiction of the Holy Family embarking for an unknown land also reminds us that we are in God’s hands and we trust in God to guide our journey.”
Let’s begin with a look at the actual structure of this Holy Family, which rather than fitting into the nuclear model, was in fact, distinctly queer:
There is a phrase that has been doing the rounds in gay Christian circles for a while now: “Jesus had two dads, and he turned out just fine.” Is there any scriptural basis for this? Yes, of course there is. It is right there in Matthew chapter 1. Joseph’s role in Jesus life was so important that his lineage was traced through Joseph, not Mary. Joseph wasn’t merely some human caretaker, he was Jesus’ human father. At the same time, God was Jesus’ father in a much more literal sense than he is our father, so there is no doubt that, for mainstream Christians at least, Jesus did have two dads.
I’ve written on this them before (at Christ’s Queer Family), so now I want to take a different approach – one based directly on the lectionary readings (of which there is a choice offered for today). The second reading in my own parish was that from 1 Jn 3:1-2, 21-24
See what love the Father has bestowed on us
that we may be called the children of God.
And so we are.
The reason the world does not know us
is that it did not know him.
Beloved, we are God’s children now;
what we shall be has not yet been revealed.
We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him,
for we shall see him as he is.
Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us,
we have confidence in God and receive from him whatever we ask,
because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.
And his commandment is this:
we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ,
and love one another just as he commanded us.
Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them,
and the way we know that he remains in us
is from the Spirit he gave us.
For queer Christians and Catholics in particular, it is essential to remember these words. Our first obligation is to conscience, and obedience to God – and only then to human dictated norms and expectations for family life, “If our hearts do not condemn us” - then neither will God.
This point is reinforced in the Gospel reading (Lk 2:41-52), which tells the familiar story of how when Mary and Joseph departed from Jerusalem after the Passover, Jesus was left behind in Jerusalem. After three days, they returned and found him in the temple:
When his parents saw him,
they were astonished,
and his mother said to him,
“Son, why have you done this to us?
Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”
And he said to them,
“Why were you looking for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
Again, we see that the primary allegiance is to his heavenly father – a father whom we all share – and not to Joseph, his earthly father.
But there’s more, hidden in this story by its familiarity – a detail that I had routinely missed, until it was discussed in a meeting of my parish small group, last month.
Thinking that he was in the caravan,
they journeyed for a day
and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances,
but not finding him,
they returned to Jerusalem to look for him.
It took them, loving parents, a day, to realize their only son was missing? How is this possible? We can only conjecture, but as an African, I know that in traditional African societies, “family” goes way beyond just the nuclear mom, pop and kids. The entire community shares in the responsibility of caring for children. Perhaps much the same thing applied – perhaps, Mary and Joseph could reasonably assume that if Jesus were not with them, he would have been with the others of the community, cared for by the wider “family”. We have numerous, overlapping families, of which our biological family is not necessarily the most important.
There is an echo of this story later in the Gospels, when Jesus’ mother and brothers (his biological family) came looking for him, and were again rebuffed:
31 Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him.32 A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”
33 “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.
34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
-Mark 3:31-35 (New International Version)
Whoever we are, we are all part of a family, and no-one need to feel excluded in remembering today the Holy Family. We have the biological family into which we were born, and in which many (but not all) were raised. We have the nuclear families in which some (but not all) of us now live. We have the queer families, headed by same – sex couples, in which rather fewer of us may live, with or without children. Even if single, we have the affectionate families with which we surround ourselves. And we are all part of the great human family, and of more restricted geographic, professional, and denominational families. (Some queer theologians have even argued that these affectionate families of networks of single gay men, may more closely represent the Gospel ideal than the nuclear family).
I close then, with the words from the first of the bidding prayers at my local parish this morning:
“We pray for the family of the Church around the world: may we be busy about our Father’s affairs, putting into practice our prayer. Thy will be done”
and add – that the Catholic Church may recognize at last, the value of all families
- Jesus Had Two Dads (Faith and Pride)
- Mephibosheth had Two Dads (Faith and Pride)
- The Danger of Family-olitory (A Little Bit of Change)