Words on the Word

The Holy Family

Genesis 15.1-6, 21.1-3: Fear not, Abram!
Hebrew 11.8-19: By faith Abraham offered up Isaac.
Luke 2.22-40: Every first-born male must be consecrated to the Lord.

Our first reading tells us how Abram got a son. Abram, called out of Chaldean Ur to found a nation, is perplexed that he has not yet an heir. The Lord states that he has not forgotten his promise; Abram believes him; the Lord reckons Abram as righteous; Sarah conceives; Isaac is born. The elements of the story are perfectly linear. The message is clear: if we trust God, things will slot into place and all will work out well.

Far be it from me to quarrel with such a devout and ultimately true narrative. I owe it to you, though, to point out that the story is told in very simplified form.

The compilers of our lectionary have either had great faith in our Biblical culture, expecting our memory to fill in the blanks; or they’ve cheated a little. For the reading we have heard is composed of passages from two different chapters of Genesis. What we hear is the beginning and end of a long account (the period covers at least fifteen years) — as if the knight rode out of his castle one fine morning and fell straight into the princess’s arms, with no labyrinthine diversions and no fights with dragons. A story told like this, in synthesis, is less credible than one that includes the details of the drama. And the point about credibility is important this day. We celebrate the holy Family. We reflect on what Scripture has to say about family life. Few families are uncomplicated. Few families follow a linear progression. Let’s not, then, pretend that the Bible presents family life as simple.

Much happens between Abram’s vision of the stars and Sarah’s conception. For one thing, Abram’s faith wobbles. However promisingly God has spoken, he remains childless. He worries about his inheritance: unless he gets a son, his accumulated wealth will be passed on outside the family. Abram then takes an initiative of his own. In collusion with Sarah, he chooses the Egyptian Hagar as a second wife. Of this relationship Ishmael is born, and a destiny is introduced that forms a tragic backdrop to the Biblical story — and even to the story of our own times. A long tradition has regarded Ishmael as the father of the Arab tribes. Symbolically, we can understand the terrible war raging in the Holy Land as a feud between Ishamel’s and Isaac’s children. And we know that no rage is more intense than that which can arise between brothers, or half-brothers. Be that as it may: Unpeace results when Abram attempts to replace God’s providence by his own light.

A more interior happening takes place a few years later, when Ishmael is 13 years old, Abram 99. The Lord appears to the old man and says: ‘Walk before me and be whole!’ (17.1). God has not forgotten his promise. But in order for Abram to pass life on, he must first become united in himself. That has been his true vocation in life, but he has sometimes forgotten all about it on account of his concern about the inheritance. He has envisaged the family as a means to transmit treasures that are his. The Lord indicates other terms. In order to become a father, he must relinquish the thought that the child to be born is his own. No child belongs to its father or mother; it is entrusted to them; but has its own integrity from conception. It is God’s gift.

That Abram may know in his bones what this means, God introduces, during this vision, what will become Israel’s chief distinguishing feature: circumcision. The sexual act itself is to be marked by a vulnerability or woundedness that recalls God’s commandment and vocation. In this area of existence, the integrity to which Abram is called only emerges when sexuality and procreation are opened up towards God and acquire, thus, an ecstatic dimension.

From the day Abram receives the promise of a son until the day the son is born, he must attend a rigorous school. He learns to await God’s time by walking in darkness; he is strengthened in faith by experiencing doubt; he understands that children, the family, cannot be used as a means to a self-centred end; he realises that no son is his father’s property; that the task of parents is to free and enable their children to respond to the call which is theirs. When this insight has reached wholeness in Abram’s mind, the time is ripe: the child can be born. The boy is named Isaac, which means ‘he will laugh’ or ‘he will rejoice’.

I have spent time on this exposition for two reasons. First, Abraham is our model of faith, therefore it matters for us to know his story well. Secondly, the process he goes through is reflected in the experience of the holy Family, of Mary and Joseph. At Christmas we envisage them cozily huddled together. This image is true, but insufficient. Mary and Joseph have learnt that the Child given them is an ineffable blessing, the accomplishment of the joy Isaac prefigured. At the same time both have learnt that they, by saying ‘yes’ to the Child, have lost their security, their vision of a predictable future. For Mary and Joseph, becoming parents means setting out on a journey, first the short one to Bethlehem, then the long one to Egypt; between then two, the expedition to the temple in Jerusalem, where they give their Son back to God. The ‘sign’ of which Simeon speaks is cross-shaped; it already pierces Mary’s infinitely loving heart, and she says ‘yes’ to that, too.

It is this sovereign liberty in supernatural trust and concrete faith that makes the Family ‘holy’. Seen in this light, the aspect of hygge may be somewhat reduced. On the other hand, the Holy Family comes to stand for an ideal we can actually imitate, even when our family lives take a course very different from the one we had imagined. God’s call works in all of us, if we hear it wholly and wholly allow it unfold. Amen.


Sarah Leading Hagar to Abraham‘ by Caspar Netscher (1673), an account that leaves no doubt about the complicated dynamics that can creep into a family trying to operate on its own terms, abstracting from God’s call. The painting is now in the Leiden Collection.