What makes a family holy?
In today's readings, we have two "holy" families: Hannah's son, Samuel, is a blessing that ends her infertility, whom she returns to God by dedicating him to the priesthood. Our second holy family is the holy family of Mary and Joseph. What can these families possibly teach us about the nature of what makes a family holy?
Hannah's dedication of Samuel to God seems odd and completely counter-intuitive. Just when her prayers had been answered, and she had given birth, she gives the child to Eli, the local priest, to raise him dedicated to the priesthood. Hannah's prayer was answered not in her having a life with Samuel, but in simply being able to bear Samuel. Her gratitude to God was in letting go of her most precious gift to become a gift to her people. Samuel goes on to become chosen of God to be both a priest and prophet of his people.
A woman's sterility in those times was a serious problem that many regarded as a sign of God's disfavor. Even today, among couples trying to conceive a child, being childless is disheartening. Mary and Joseph's experience of Jesus, who "increased in wisdom and stature and favor with God and men” might seem ideal, but consider the growing awareness of the burden of letting such a child face the eventual scorn, rejection, and crucifixion as Messiah. Mary "keeping all these things in her heart", patiently enduring the death of John, and likely foreseeing the road to the crucifixion her son was traveling must have been a test of faith few would readily embrace.
Even without the heroic sacrifice of Hannah and Mary, facing the initial distancing of adolescence, and later the "empty nest", couples can find family life too stressful to be considered “holy”.
The quality of holiness is built around a life dedicated to serving God through the family. A holy family, then, is a family whose dedication moves beyond the typical familial ties to a sense of serving as a family the God whom they worship. In such a family, children are regarded as a gift whose ultimate purpose is not service to the family itself, but to God. Likewise, a couple's love, when animated by holiness, is ordered not only to mutual fulfillment but is itself a gift from God that reaches beyond family, tribe or national boundaries.