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For Your Weekend: Grieving the Loss of Your Perfect Family

Laura Phelps
December 30, 2023

Dig Deeper into Sunday’s Gospel: Read Luke 2:22–40

A few years ago, I quit sending the Christmas card family photo. Why? Because trying to get my family to sit perfectly was torture. The whole endeavor, without fail, included tears, frustration, and the complete lack of ability to keep our eyes open. The dream of the perfect image of my family encouraged me year after year to persevere until it finally dawned on me: we are not perfect—hard news for a perfectionist to swallow.

Are there any fellow perfectionists out there? If so, Sunday’s gospel is for you.

On the Feast of the Holy Family, we read about the presentation of Jesus in the temple. Out of obedience to the Jewish law, Mary and Joseph make their way up to Jerusalem to consecrate their firstborn Son to the Lord. With a pair of pigeons in hand (a sacrificial offering), they are greeted by Simeon, a man full of reverence who, prompted by the Spirit, receives the blessed baby in his arms and proceeds to explain, in detail, all that their Son will suffer. He even warns Mary that a sword will pierce her own soul as well (Luke 2:35). How do the new parents accept this news about Jesus? They marveled at what was said about him (Luke 2:33).

Many of us carry an image of the Holy Family as being the perfect family. After all, Mary was a sinless virgin, Joseph a quiet protector who stayed by his wife’s side despite public scorn, and their Son saved the world from eternal damnation. As a wife and mother who longs for perfection, this family model can feel discouraging. I don’t know what’s happening in your family life, but I do know what is happening in mine, and trust me, no one is saving the world. (We’re still working on picking the towel up from the bathroom floor before the cat pees on it.) There is brokenness, sinfulness, and deep suffering. As my friend Mallory says, “We really are living in a valley of tears.” I could not agree more. It is often through tears that the reality of my family’s imperfection hits me smack between the eyes. 

But notice, we don’t call the Holy Family perfect. We call them holy. And they were no strangers to suffering. Most of us know the presentation of Jesus in the temple as the fourth joyful mystery of the Rosary, but if you’ve ever prayed the Seven Sorrows Rosary, you know that the prophecy of Simeon is the first sorrow. It’s the day that the holy virgin herself told St. Matilda that “all her joy was changed into sorrow.”[1] Could you imagine receiving such news? “How much greater would the misery of life be,” writes Saint Alphonsus Liguori, “did we also know the future evils which await us!”[2] Every day of this Holy Family’s life was one they would suffer by anticipation. This hardly sounds perfect.

In a season of intense family heartache, I learned to lean into the Holy Family. I wanted to know their secret. How can my family endure difficult situations? How can I get out of bed and face the latest crisis? How can I trust that God cares for us when there appears to be no change? While meditating on the presentation of Jesus in the temple, the answers came to me. For those of us grieving the loss of perfection, I propose we burn the perfect family blueprints and embrace the brokenness God has permitted and is working for our good (Romans 8:28) by meditating on Luke's gospel. 

Let us first consider the humility of this most Holy Family who chose to observe and subject themselves to a law in which our lady and the child Jesus were in no way obliged. Saint Francis de Sales writes, “What greater and more profound humility could be imagined that which Our Lord and Our Lady practice in coming to the Temple!”[3] After all, our sinless Lord did not need to be offered the same as other children of sinful men, nor did our perfect and sinless mother require purification. Do you think God should treat your family differently because you go to church and “follow the rules”? If so, linger here in the temple and hear what the Lord wants to teach through their divine example.

Second, let us learn from their obedience. If we were to examine the life of Saint Joseph, the child Jesus, and Mary, we would find nothing but perfect obedience to the will of the Father. Perfection was not their end goal but doing God’s will was. “The humility of our Divine Saviour and His most blessed Mother,” writes de Sales, “ was always accompanied by a perfect obedience.”[4] From the moment she said yes, Mary relinquished all control of her family, and not once did she reach for the reins. Are you afraid to surrender your family to God? If so, stand with your heavenly mother at the foot of the cross. Listen to what your Father wants to teach you through her holy obedience.

Finally, let us look at their poverty. “Mary offers two pigeons instead of the normal combination of a lamb and a pigeon,” writes Father Bartunek. “A stipulation of the Jewish law allowed this for those families too poor to afford a lamb.”[5] The Holy Family is royalty, yet lives an ordinary, simple, and poor life. Do you believe your family would be happier if you had more money? If so, think about the simplicity and deep poverty of the Holy Family. Happiness lies in the detachment from material things, not in accumulating more. Listen to what the Lord is inviting you to let go of and learn from their poverty.

If your perfect family image is without conflict or pain, you are chasing an illusion. Perfection is not the absence of suffering. It is through our suffering that we are made perfect (Hebrews 10:14). Let us remember this when tempted to think otherwise and return to the Holy Family, who never ceases to remind us that perfection is not our vocation; holiness is. 

Food for thought or journaling…

Do you grieve the loss of the perfect family image?
Do you feel disappointed by your family’s circumstances?
Do you wonder why your family has more than its share of suffering compared to others?

Thank You, Lord, for my imperfect family and the suffering that is helping us grow in holiness. Holy Family, help me desire to model your humility, obedience, and poverty. I give you permission to push me off the gerbil wheel of perfection and onto the path of holiness. And please, Lord, help my cat use the litter box. Amen.

[1] Saint Alphonsus Liguori, The Glories of Mary  (TAN Books, 2012), 411.
[2] Ibid, 410.
[3] St. Francis de Sales, The Sermons of St. Francis de Sales (TAN books, 2013), 86.
[4] Ibid, 91.
[5] Father John Bartunek, The Better Part (Avila Institute, 2007), 541.

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