Sunday, December 30, 2012

Image and ideology

In the current (and recent) Roman liturgy, the Sunday after Christmas is Holy Family Sunday. Never one of my faves. Along with Good Shepherd Sunday. Luckily I escaped before JIIPII hijacked the Easter Octave Sunday with his Polish-nun devotion, Divine Mercy Sunday. I guess I am more partial to mythic themes and events than to PR.

Focusing on the triad of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (a familiar Catholic curse phrase, btw) as a model family began in 16th century France. Since the breakdown of the Middle Ages, "devotions" took over more and more of the religious landscape of Catholicism. The Holy Family, the Sacred Heart, the Rosary, etc. And not infrequently they contained a moral program. And at least in American Catholic churches, there was the high altar holding Christ's presence in the Tabernacle, and then two side altars, almost always to the Virgin and to St. Joseph. So the Holy Family was architecturally embedded.

The Holy Family was supposed to be a model family. Far from it. Two virginal parents and a Messiah? And there's that joke about how you can prove that Jesus was Jewish: he lived at home til he was thirty, he went into his father's business, his mother thought he was God and he thought his mother was a virgin.

I used to think...and probably said from the pulpit...that The Waltons would be an easier act to follow. Part of my own complex about perfectionism getting acted out. Family provokes the highest expectations and the deepest disappointments.

As the holy pictures shows, it is also not a particularly masculine image, even though it is deeply patriarchal. I suspect that devotion to the Holy Family was a passtime for women and for family-less clergy and monks. For workaday husbands-fathers, I wonder what kind of inspiration it could have been?

A far more interesting picture of family is actually what constitutes the first part of the Bible, the Primitive and the Patriarchal narratives: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and their descendants to Noah and his sons, then the essentially familial dramas of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (and Joseph)...and their women, without whom the story would ground to a halt.  To me, much more vivid and human. And hopeful, since the fulcrum families were anything but models*. Much more like our own. After all, what is more typically human than fractured relationships within families?

On the other hand, seeing the terrible damage done when families unravel, it's important to speak up for family life. In some ways, the only thing worse than having a family is not having one.

I could not let this post pass without a knock at The Nuns. The contemporary groovy ones. One of their big discoveries and values, along with The New Universe Story, is systems thinking. The LCRW, under fire from Rome for doctrinal failures --not, as the MSM and the nuns would have it, for their "social justice" work with kids and the poor and the sick-- publishes and promotes a Systems Thinking Handbook. It's really just watered down Marxism, the "systemic change" that crypto-Constantinian Christians use to "build a just social order."

But if one of the most devastating phenomena in our society is the unwed/divorced mother-led family, would it not be the best kind of systems thinking for these groovy nuns to focus their endless moralizing energies on recreating an ethic of marriage rather than grandstanding their care for "the poor and vulnerable" after the fact? How about systemically preventing tons of poorness and vulnerableness via marriage-before-children rather than having the treasury fund it after the fact?

Here endeth the lesson.

*It is a great virtue of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, that it portrays the patriarchs and prophets and kings and priests as flawed, but still beloved and chosen. Christianity, built around a single Perfect Man, lets almost everyone else have flaws, but with much less ease about it. And Islam carries this to an extreme, where Prophets must all be considered not only as extremely virtuous but extremely successful. The Koran denies that Jesus was crucified, since Allah would not allow such a shameful death for a prophet. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I can't say I've thought much of the image of The Holy Family -- because it always seemed to me that Joseph's role was like being a prop to maintain a veneer of (normal, earthly) respectability, which the child was to blow away soon enough, anyways.

At the church where I growed upwards, we didn't have a holy family image, we did have in stained glass (and maybe even the largest one, if I recall right) the scene where the child has slipped off from his parents and is found teaching the rabbis in the temple. I wonder but don't know what it means that the Methodists gave such a prominent place to this episode.

The story ends, as you gno, with Jesus answering them, "Why should I not be about My Father's business?"
I don't see how that can really be the end, though -- next Joseph should be removing his sandals to strike the Divine Glutei.

Really the whole thing might contain the seed of the modern idea of "Why do children need a father, anyway?'


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