Today, the sixth day of Christmas, the Church celebrates the feast of the Holy Family (only celebrated on this day when Christmas day falls on a Sunday). Relatively speaking this is a new feast, dating from the seventeenth century and being recognised formally only in 1893). In our own era in the West, it is one to which we might want to pay particular attention. St Pope John Paul II said that: ‘As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live’ – and he was right. In my lifetime we have seen a major change towards the idea of the family.
When I was a child most of the families I knew had three, four, or more children. The parents stayed together, often united not by conjugal love, but the recognition that it was better for the kids – as well as knowing that the financial consequences of a separation would be destructive for all concerned. Not, to be sure, the most romantic of reasons, but then the world I grew up in was not one saturated with Romance. It was a pragmatic world which recognised that romantic love, like its twin, lust, was a swift-burning meteor, and that whilst it was short, life was long, and children were a life-long responsibility. Life was not easy for most of the people I knew growing up, we all lived one week’s pay away from financial disaster, and when, for example, there was a strike, without help from the local churches, we’d have gone hungry; it was that sort of working-class community. No one asked the local churches for anything, and my father, who was by way of being a Union activist and ardent secularist, would have cut off his right hand before asking them for help, but when they offered, and when it as for his kids, he accepted it – though I recall he ate nothing from the food parcels for himself, but gave it all to us.
That experience was the first time I’d realised how wide a definition of ‘family’ could be. My mother was an occasional chapel-goer, but that did not matter to the chapel ‘family’ – she was in need, so was the community of which she was a part, so every Friday there was a delivery of food. It was something which, until a few years ago, I had almost forgotten, and then my own church began to collect for the local ‘foodbanks’. I always give – having received and been grateful, it is the least I can do. But it is a bad sign all the same. For the best part of half a century there were no foodbanks in this country, now, in the fifth or so richest country in the world, we need them.
Too many families grow up incomplete. As a divorced man myself, I hate to contemplate the effects of divorce on the children, and can quite understand why people prefer to concentrate on other aspects of the experience. But a society in which families are fractured, is, itself, fractured. Here in the UK we have grown used to thinking that the State can pick up the tab for our transgressions – it will take care of the wife and kids if we don’t want to, or can’t, and it will take care of the poor and those down on their luck, But as the number of these grows under the weight of our own irresponsibility, no State could take the burden, and so we are back to charity – with a much-diminished charitable sector to take the burden.
The Holy Family fled into exile in Egypt soon after the birth of Jesus. We do not know how they managed, but the likelihood is that the large Jewish community there sustained them until it was safe to go home. We need our families and we need our wider communities, and without them not only are we diminished, but so, too, is our whole society.