The story of the Holy Family is not a cosy comfortable one. Born in an outhouse and fleeing for their lives as refugees, and then settling in that rather rough town called Nazareth, they were constantly surrounded by the kind of very worldly things that any town with soldiers had to put up with. Even when they go to Jerusalem, they do not meet the Temple officials but two unofficial holy people who make disturbing predictions.
All this reminds me of Tolkien’s great stories of Middle Earth where he shows that the cosiness of the Hobbit’s homeland is equally uncertain. As a good Catholic he puts his whole grand story within the context of a journey – a flight from danger into danger. The hobbits are portrayed in their safe little country called The Shire enjoying life and partying away. But, faced with danger four special hobbits have to get up and go. They are not aware then that this decision has such significance. Just like the disciples when they followed Jesus. And like the disciples (and like us) they have moments on the journey, safe houses on the way, places where they might long to stay for ever, where they are shown a bit more of what their journey is really about.
It’s exactly the same with us. Students often used to ask me why the prayer-life and the faith they knew back home has now been utterly shaken. Some thought they had lost their faith, entirely ignoring the fact that in a new situation at University, God wants them to move on, and that may well mean praying in a different way and finding Mass very different from the experience back home. We all need to realise this truth. Life, especially our spiritual life, is a journey, a pilgrimage. The changes faced on becoming a student are obvious, but actually all of us face the same kinds of challenges, for even when outwardly everything appears the same, life is always an inner journey towards God. Moments, even periods of our life, when we feel God is close, are actually only there to prepare us for the next stage on the journey. And sometimes, when we get closer to God, we may feel that he is further away. Before long, each one of us will be challenged to respond to him in new, different and sometimes frightening ways. However old or young we are, there is always a new journey to do, a new enemy to ask God to help us overcome. And remember, St Paul says that, “The last enemy is death.”
Tolkien uses two Transfiguration moments in his story – with Elrond at Rivendell and then with Galadriel at Lothlorien – to make the same point. But he makes further allusions to his faith at the second of these places, because here the hobbit travellers are given two special gifts. First, Lembas, is a special bread that will not go stale, to sustain them on the journey. This is just like the unleavened bread the Israelites took with them into the wilderness – the same bread that Jesus gave to the disciples at the Last Supper – the same bread that we receive at Mass transformed into his presence to sustain us through life. The second gift is Light – the Light that Galadriel tells them will be a light for them when all other lights go out, even at the darkest moments of their lives – just like the light we are given at Baptism and given again at every Easter Vigil. Signs of God’s presence for us whatever darkness we have to face.
Our Gospel also reminds us of one other thing we need to do, to listen. “This is my Son.. Listen to him.” Tolkien makes this point too although he does it in a more comical way by showing the two younger hobbits constantly failing to listen. Merry and Pippin are great characters because they are so much like us, whilst Frodo and Sam have the darker more obviously Christian road. They are the ones who have listened and now discover that certain of these the words come to them to save them in moments of great peril. Like them, we too must listen, because we never know when what we have experienced in the good times will not sustain us when times are tough. I once cared for a young man in his 20’s who suddenly discovered he was dying. He had given up the faith, as many young people do. But now, “I’m scared“, he said. For a moment I was stuck for what to say, but then suddenly it came to me. “Do you know the story of the Prodigal Son?” The story he had listened to in his childhood suddenly came back to him as a voice from a loving God, and with that voice for support his fear left him, the last enemy was defeated, and he died in peace.
So with Mary and Joseph, right from the beginning of their life together, they too have to listen to God again and again, and often what they hear is deeply disturbing. No wonder Jesus, growing up in this family, understands what it means to really listen to God. Family life for him is a preparation for the difficult road he has to take, and that difficult road is the one he offers to us too. A great adventure not a cosy retreat.