Saturday, December 29, 2012

Role Models of Holiness

Solemnity of the Holy Family,  Year C

Any initial thoughts of the Holy Family hardly brings consolation, not because we do not possess a personal devotion to each of its members – to St Joseph Our Protector, to Mary our Mother and Jesus, our Saviour. The discomfort arises from the perceived disparity between the perfection epitomised by the Holy Family and our own socially dysfunctional family units. In the face of such heavenly perfection, trying to match up to their standards seems impossible. Fortunately, popular culture is less demanding. Media and other expressions of popular culture often mirror the realities of family life.

Today, TV executives are concerned with garnering ratings by shocking society with the newest, most scandalous shows advertisers are willing to promote, because there seems to be a ready market and demand for this. A simple look down memory lane can demonstrate that television used to be something quite different.  From the 1950s we get the idyllic American family sitcom "Leave it to Beaver." With the 1970s came “The Waltons" and "Little House on the Prairie." Both reflected traditional morals that transcended through history. Revisiting these shows today may be more than just a nostalgic experience. Their clean cut, Pollyannian plot provides a different kind of comical relief: we snicker cynically over their naivet√©, and not because of the squeaky clean humour in the script.

Today, many would lament that trying to find a good family programme to watch is hard. Even the lines between children’s programmes and adult television have been blurred. You just need to watch animated series like ‘The Simpsons’, ‘Sponge Bob’ and ‘The Family Guy’, to understand what I’m saying. Cynicism passes off as humour. Story lines are filled with promiscuity and lax parenting. They highlight the dysfunctional, almost chaotic side of family life. Children are defiant and rebellious. The parents can only watch as their world falls apart around them despite their best efforts. These parents are more spectators in their children's lives rather than actual parents – they have lost all control. This is the new norm. Reality TV has become so popular because it helps us to laugh at the tragedy of dysfunctional behavioural patterns within our own homes and thus depersonalise the experience.

Pandering to this demand for bad role models, the media happily proposes ‘new heroes’ of modern family life, the likes of Homer Simpson and Peter Griffins (from the Family Guy) who seem to make bad parenting an art. Despite their atrocious parenting styles, anti-heroes like Homer and the Griffins, prove to be quite endearing to their audience precisely because when compared to them, they make us look good. In a certain way, these anti-heroes provide the necessary justification for our bad behaviour. We live in a world where we try to come to terms with and even celebrate our limitations, our brokenness, our sinfulness, the painful realities that define both our individual and social lives. It is a world where the ‘good’, ‘the perfect,’ ‘the holy’, ‘the functional’, ‘the beautiful’ are just part of an Utopian dream.

In contrast to the dysfunctional heroes of popular culture, the Church provides us with Mary and Joseph. But the idea of Mary and Joseph as models of parenthood, however, frightens many of us. We are inclined to just dismiss the possibility that our families can be like the Holy Family. They are spiritual giants compared to us. They make us uncomfortable with our mediocrity. Their sanctity seems to highlight our deficiencies. It is no wonder that many try to demythologise the story of the Holy Family, with the hope that by exposing their flaws, we can pull them down to our miserable level. And so liberal exegetes will try to make Joseph appear like a cuckold selfish old man who is only concerned with his good reputation; Mary, a victim of societal pressure, perhaps even a rape victim who hides behind the lie of a heavenly visitation and miraculous conception. In spite of our cynical disparagement of the two, we secretly ask ourselves: How could we ever come close to the sanctity and special position of Mary, the Mother of God or to Joseph, the most self-less family guy?

So, what does Mary and Joseph offer us as a ‘realistic’ starting point for our family lives? The answer is simple – they offer us holiness; Mary and Joseph teach us that family life begins with God. The Holy Family was not a perfect family, a family free of crisis or conflict or tragedy. We often have a tranquil picture of the Holy Family: “Silent Night, Holy Night. All is calm,” and all that jazz. So it must have been most of the time. Still, the Gospels describe events that shattered their tranquility: The Flight into Egypt when they became refugees fleeing a murderous despot, the anguish of searching for a missing child, the death of Joseph leaving Mary a widow and Jesus an orphan and finally the cruel and shameful death of Jesus. Apart from these critical events, Jesus, Mary and Joseph would also have lived with the constant taunting and innuendos suggesting that Jesus was born out of wedlock. There is sufficient spice in the story to make it good material for a Reality TV show. The Holy Family, therefore, would have experienced disappointments and tension just like any other family. But what sets them apart from other families is their faith in God. They understood that a family is never truly a family unless God is at its centre. That is why we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family, and not the Feast of the Perfect one.

When we hear the story of the finding of Jesus in the Temple, there is much we can sympathise with Mary as a mother. We understand her anxiety and pain. Her child has run off, and she doesn’t know where he is, for three days! Can you imagine the worse case scenarios going through their heads? Mary is freaking out. She wants to know why Jesus has put her through this: “My child, why have you done this to us? See how worried your father and I have been, looking for you.” But the answer Jesus gives puts things in their proper perspective. This is not just a revelation of Jesus’ identity and his mission. It is also a reminder to all families on what really matters. God is the beginning and the end of all things. Parents often forget this as they constantly fret and worry about their children’s welfare – will they be able to acquire a good education which guarantees them a successful job; will they find a good wife; will they be secure and happy for the rest of their lives? Jesus’ words to his mother set out the main priority and concern for every person. Jesus’ answer raises the eyes of our souls to see beyond the horizon of human existence. It invites us to see God and make him our goal, our destination, and our fulfillment.

Today, many families are trying to address the dysfunctional patterns and dynamics that plague them: the verbal, physical and emotional abuse that members mete out to each other; the narcissistic personality disorders that result in self-centred behaviour; promiscuity, incest and adultery; the inability to set boundaries or respect them. They look for solutions in the form of family therapy, self-help books, and when all fails, divorce seems to be the only option. What many often fail to recognise is that dysfunctional behaviour is just another euphemism for sinfulness. If sin is the cause of jealousy, envy, strive, enmity, selfishness, unforgiveness in the family; then holiness must be its solution. Holiness, life in union with Christ and with God, is the source of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and forgiveness, everything we need to make our families work.

So, do we need role models? Yes, we do! But not the kind who flaunts their pride and selfishness, the ones who make us feel comfortable with our limitations and shortfalls. We need role models that do not bring out the worst in us, but always the best. We need the kind who can inspire us to move beyond ourselves, to strive for higher things; the kind that will reveal to us all that is good, all that is true and all that is beautiful. Our Holy Father, in his first encyclical reminds us: “We must learn to believe first of all in the family, in authentic love, the kind that comes from God and unites us to him, the kind that therefore “makes us a ‘we’ which transcends our divisions and makes us one, until in the end God is ‘all in all’” (1 Cor 15:28)” (Deus Caritas Est, 18).

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