The feast of the Holy Family this year (12/28/14) is pregnant with promise, tension, and hope. The images of the small family of Joseph, Mary and Jesus will hopefully remind people that the worldwide Catholic community is in a year-long period of prayerful reflection and soul-searching concerning "The pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization." And the challenges are great: worldwide, that 2-parent, 1-child family is only one of many, many family forms.
Pope Francis has asked bishops everywhere to listen to the faithful and to bring their perspectives, concerns, observations and hopes to the Synod deliberations. And he has insisted that everyone, including the bishops and cardinals, should discuss openly, sharing honestly what they believe without caution about “what might be unacceptable to say.” He reminded everyone that God is a “God of Surprises” and that we all need to be ready to let those surprises emerge.
By most accounts, that has begun to happen, at least in the early stages of the opening session of the Synod October 5-19, 2014. The variety of forms of family around the world received compassionate attention and even “welcome.” But that set off a backlash of resistance that tempered the synod’s positive approach emphasizing the grace in all forms of loving relationships rather than criticizing their shortcomings. Fear of “confusing the faithful” or “risking a split in the Church” prompted frequent proclamations that the Church can’t and won’t change its teaching on marriage.
The claim that the Church can’t change its teaching on marriage has been a generally unquestioned staple of media reports on the synod, both during the first session and since. I’ve been waiting for Pope Francis or someone with a high profile to blow the whistle and point out that this is definitely not true. The Church has changed its teaching on other crucial issues after centuries of unwavering doctrinal assertion. The obvious examples are geo-centrism (even though it took centuries for the Church to apologize to Galileo), slavery (which, as we can see in current patterns of racism and trafficking, is not behind us yet), and usury, (the charging of interest and an exploitive economic system - which is still criminal in many ways).
Actually, if we want to be dramatic, we could point out that saying the Church can’t change its teaching on marriage stumbles into heresy! Surely if a teaching is wrong, the Church must change it once it realizes its mistake. The assumption that a lot of Church teaching is infallible and therefore unchangeable is simply a creeping monster that must be slain. Where is St. George when we need him?
So if fuller and more complex scientific understanding of nature reveals our traditional formulation of “natural law” on family issues as simplistic and inadequate, surely we must adjust the teaching we’ve based on those assumptions.
Gamaliel put it wisely when he warned the Sanhedrin to be careful in its approach to the Christians. He argued that if the Christians’ way of life came from God, the Jews would not be able to destroy it, and might even find themselves fighting against God. (Acts 5:33-39) That wisdom is prophetic for the Church today. This is what it means to be open to the God of surprises.
Realistically, though, how surprising is God liable to be? One of the most boring scripture passages to adorn the Advent-Christmas season hints that God’s surprises could take us far beyond what we imagine.
On December 17th each year as we begin the final liturgical countdown to Christmas, the Church has us read the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, the genealogy of Jesus. It begins with Abraham and lists the fathers and sons constituting 14 generations to King David. It then lists the fathers and sons of 14 generations to the Babylonian Exile. Finally it names 14 more father-son duos to “Jesus who is called the Christ.” (Matt. 1:1-17).
That is the schematic overview of the passage, and after Mass this year a 94 year-old no-nonsense friend said to tell the Church to stop reading all those names! But here is God’s surprise. Scattered among those dozens of generations of men, five women are named: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the wife of Uriah (Bathsheba), and Mary. Matthew doesn’t explain why he included these five (and I’m confident more than those five were essential to those generations, but that’s another discussion). But those five do shed important light on just how surprising we can expect God to be.
In the delicate words of theologian Elizabeth Johnson, these five women constitute a company “of the unconventional foremothers” of the Savior Christ. The ones that were chosen are not the revered foremothers of Israel like Sarah or Rebecca or Rachel. They each took “unconventional initiatives to improve their lot.” These initiatives put them “outside the patriarchal family structure, and consequently in danger.” In danger of death, to be more specific, for their “immorality.” And yet they are acknowledged to have advanced the divine plan of redemption through what they did.
Tamar was a childless widow, posed as a prostitute to seduce her father-in-law who wasn’t fulfilling his duty.
Rahab was a woman survivor in a men’s war, a prostitute who sheltered Israelite spies during their war against her own people in order to ensure the life of her loved ones.
Ruth, a widow, “secured” a wealthy husband by crawling under his blanket and spending the night – thereby securing her future and that of her mother-in-law Naomi.
Bathsheba took advantage of David as he lay dying to secure throne for her son Solomon despite the prior rights of an older brother.
Mary, of course, was with child before living with Joseph, a disgrace that could have resulted in her being stoned to death.
Elizabeth Johnson suggests that through their “extraordinary, irregular, even scandalous” sexual activity, “God works through, with, and in them in a providential way to bring forth the Messiah.” Scripture scholar Raymond Brown thinks these women and their actions are presented by Matthew as “examples of how God moves in and through the obstacle of human scandal to bring about the coming of the Messiah.” He speaks of these women as “partnering God’s redemptive work in history.”
How is this for a God of surprises: “Jesus is as much the son of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba as he is of Abraham and David.” God seems to have no qualms about siding with the outcast and “scandalous” in bringing about the redemption of the human community.
What surprises might God have for us if we turn with open minds to face the issues of family that have emerged gradually over centuries and now characterize our times? If Matthew (or maybe even an unbridled Pope Francis!) were to compile the genealogy of Jesus today, what kind of families would it include beyond the scandalous five?
Would there be a family where the parents were living together though not yet formally married? Would there be a family too poor to afford a wedding? Would there be a polygamous or polyandrous family from somewhere in the world? A family from an arranged marriage? Would there be divorced and remarried parents? Or a single parent family? A family with lesbian or gay parents? Or…?
God of Surprises,
Forgive us for the many ways we try to domesticate you,
Try to squeeze you into our too-simple categories.
Forgive us for the ways we dishonor your Holy Spirit
Whenever we fail to honor and revere the holiness of love
In all the forms in which we encounter it.
Open our eyes and our hearts to your presence wherever real love gathers two or more together.
Grace our families of all sizes and shapes, configurations and conglomerations
With the expansive love and wisdom
That can bring your healing and salvation to our torn, divided world.
And continue to invite us, stretch us, grow us, and en-courage us
Until all the wounded and diverse families of our planet embrace each other
And the fierce Fire of Your Love can forge us all into the one human family,
The one Earth family
The Wholly Family
That is our destiny, our hope, our prayer.
We make this prayer in the name of Jesus,
Your son who came to us through your surprising, graceful embrace
Of the seemingly unembraceable,
And in the power of the Holy Spirit
In whom we are one
– in spite of all the ways we still divide ourselves –
in the fullness of your divine Life
forever and ever.
James E. Hug, S.J.
December 28, 2014
 Johnson, Elizabeth A. Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints. Continuum 2003, pp. 221ff. All the quotations in the text to follow are from these pages.
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