Sir 3:2-6, 12-14 or Gn 15:1-6; 21:1-3
Ps 128:1-2, 3, 4-5 or Ps 105:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9
Col 3:12-21 or Col 3:12-17 or Heb 11:8, 11-12, 17-19
Lk 2:22-40 or Lk 2:22, 39-40

There is something about the family that is so difficult to deal with from a moral perspective. On the one hand, the family is hard to talk about because it is so universal (we all have one) and so personal. Who we marry, how many children we have, how we raise our children, what we do with our money, and other such questions are intensely private matters. But at the same time, the family is the foundation of society. It is one of the pillars, if not the pillar that the church’s social teaching is built on. So despite the radically subjective nature of the family, we are duty-bound to make certain objective claims.

And that’s where we run into problems because objective claims are often going to conflict with the nearly infinite vicissitudes of reality. Our first reading from Sirach, for example, tells us to take care of your father when he is old. This is a fine objective claim, to be sure, but it is one that many struggle with putting into action in light of their own lived experiences of living far from aging parents, or juggling the needs of aging parents with the demands of two full-time jobs, or simple the financial struggle of increased health needs. Our second reading, in one of the “difficult” passages, tells wives to be subordinate to husbands. Here, many would question whether this is objectively a good claim to make, but even if we take it at face value, surely we wouldn’t tell a wife to subject herself to an abusive husband? Not even the most fundamentalist of readers would say that.

The difficulty in putting these objective claims from Scripture, from the Word of God into action are a reminder to me of how important virtue is in this discipline we call moral theology. Virtue is a kind of “soul power” that is prerequisite to even knowing how to put a given rule into action. And when we struggle with the readings for this first Sunday after Christmas–and we will struggle with them–let us remember that these readings find their context in the feast of the Holy Family, a real-life family that teaches us above all the virtues that we need to make our own families work.

In the Holy Family, we see humility in the birth of Jesus and the quiet attendance of Joseph. We see justice in the presentation at the temple when Mary and Joseph offer to God the honor due to Him in response to the birth of their son. We see fortitude in the trek to Bethlehem despite the crowds. We see patience as Mary holds in her heart all of the mysterious encounters that will eventually lead her to the foot of the cross. We see mercy in Joseph’s decision to quietly divorce her, and then in his decision to stay by her side. We see, of course, obedience, faith, hope, and love.

This feast of the Holy Family calls us to live in relation and in imitation of a real-life family and all its joys and struggles. This feast calls us beyond a narrow understanding of family whereby we are just applying and obeying the rules. Instead, it is a feast that encourages imagination and creativity, since Scripture tells us so little about this family that is supposed to be our exemplar and since the lived reality of the Holy Family is so distant from our own. But we might find consolation in God’s decision to bring about salvation through a family that, in the end, is really not not so very unlike our own.