Today, most of my parents' generation has gone to the eternal banquet, but my cousins continue the tradition of the Summer Family Picnic. Some relatives who live out of town plan their Summer visit time so that they're in Buffalo that weekend. It's a relaxing and enjoyable way to cement our kinship, introduce the younger first, second, and third cousins to each other, and recognize the power of Family in this increasingly bureaucratic and fragmented society.
Sometimes we forget that Jesus grew up in an ordinary family that incorporated parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in a tight-knit, loving structure. If you remember the story of Jesus' extended family making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and then Jesus' disappearance on the trip home, it's easy to picture Mary and Joseph not being worried at first because they thought their twelve year old was somewhere in the caravan, visiting with other relatives, sharing their stories, listening to their concerns. It took them days to discover that their son had stayed behind in Jerusalem talking to the priests in his Heavenly Father's home, the Temple.
Jesus' family did not appear unusual, or "super-holy" to others. They were humble, unassuming, in the ways that they interacted and reached out to others. What they excelled at was Love. Pope Francis comments
"No family can be fruitful if it sees itself as overly different or "set apart.' To avoid this risk, we should remember that Jesus' own family, so full of grace and wisdom, did not appear unusual or different from others. That is why people found it hard to acknowledge Jesus' wisdom: 'Where did this man get all this? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?' (Mk 6: 2-3). 'Is this not the carpenter's son?' (Mt 13:55). These questions make it clear that theirs was an ordinary family, close to others, a normal part of the community. Jesus did not grow up in a narrow and stifling relationship with Mary and Joseph, but readily interacted with the wider family, the relatives of his parents and their friends."
This ability for children to interact with their wider family deepens their roots and their identities because it increases the amount of love they receive from a variety of people. Today, when marriages break up, or a spouse dies, it is essential that children are able to continue those relationships with their wider families. It is a beautiful gift when grand-parents are not cut off from their grand-children because the parents have divorced or a parent has died. The more loving grand-parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins a child has, the happier, loved, and healthy they will be! We can never have "too much" family!
Also, the wider our families are, the more we can see that they are a microcosm of society and that the family is a safety net when people grow ill or fail or fall. Every wider family contains broken marriages, mental and physical illnesses, addictions, emotional and sexual abuse among various aunts, and uncles and cousins and family friends. Sometimes it is the wider family which has the "personnel" to give assistance. Is it any wonder that family members who move out of town develop their own extended families? Strangers become "adopted" moms, dads, sisters, brothers, aunts, and uncles, forging bonds of friendship and commitment and support - new chosen family members to protect and nourish each other.
A healthy, happy, loving and wise family becomes a beacon of hope and love for society. Families that have been torn apart by arguments, rivalries, greed, cold wars and hot wars can look at happy, healthy families and witness how love really works. When family members love each other with Gospel love, people fall and fail but they are, when it is possible, forgiven and welcomed back, because family members work on communication. A loving family is by no means a perfect family, but it is a group of people who stretch their understanding to accept all its members, to confront with love what others do to disrupt the family, and to work together to heal each member's wounds.
If we have happy families, it can be a temptation to only socialize with family members. But, the more we are loved, the more love we have to give to others and to widen our families to include others who are not related to us by blood. Healthy families are so full of love that that love just naturally overflows into the community. Pope Francis says
"A married couple who experience the power of love know that this love is called to bind the wounds of the outcast, to foster a culture of encounter and to fight for justice. God has given the family the job of 'domesticating' the world and helping each person to see fellow human beings as brothers and sisters....Families should not see themselves as a refuge from society, but instead go forth from their homes in a spirit of solidarity with others."
God encourages us to build families which witness to Gospel values and reach out with words and actions. Then those who are confused about God, who feel worthless and unloved, can experience what deep committed love really is. They can be accepted by ordinary families whose ordinary, every day love, wisdom, and prayers can heal their hearts and souls.
Healthy happy families follow Jesus' example by setting their special light on a hilltop for the world to see. Then society can say, as the early pagan Romans said, looking at Christians in amazement, "See how these Christians love one another!"