Perhaps Linus van Pelt's best-known quote is, "I love mankind; its people I can't stand." By actually saying it out loud, the famous Peanuts cartoon character hit a resonant cord in all of us. It's easy for us to generically love the human race; but at times it's hard as blazes for us to love specific human beings. That's one of the reasons today's Feast of the Holy Family is so important.
Our sacred authors are always realistic. Though they often speak in lofty terms about loving God and our neighbor, they just as often get down to the nitty-gritty of that love. They expect us to be just as loving toward family members as we are toward total strangers.
Today's Sirach author, for instance, talks not only about generically honoring one's father, he also gives some down to earth advice about a specific situation in which such honor is to be shown: dementia. "My son," he writes, "take care of your father when he is old; grieve him not as long as he lives. Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him; revile him not all the days of his life; kindness to a father will not be forgotten ...." What you could demand of others, you don't demand from your parents. That means you answer your forgetful mother with the same loving gentleness after she asks for the fifteenth time, "Where are we going?" as you answered her the first time she asked.
The Pauline disciple responsible for the letter to the Colossians follows the same pattern. He initially talks in broad terms about developing "heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience," but then he quickly gets down to specifics such as, "Fathers, do not provoke your children, so that they may not become discouraged."
Of course when someone gets specific about loving others, one must deal with the limits our age and culture put on that love. I don't know that many loving wives in the world we inhabit today would respond favorably to the author's command, "Be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord." (It's good to note that in the verse immediately following our liturgical passage the same author tells slaves in the Colossian community to "obey" their masters in all things.)
There's obviously no one way to show love that applies to all people in all situations all the time. Being committed to others demands that we constantly "hang loose;" always open to doing things for them today that we hadn't even noticed yesterday. As we hear in today's gospel pericope, Joseph and Mary had to always be flexible in the way they loved their son.
Though scholars (and the editors of National Geographic) doubt the historicity of Herod's slaughter of the "innocents," the lesson Matthew is trying to convey in this passage can't be overlooked. Parenthood demands constant adaptation. People aren't raising children today the way my parents raised me.
The evangelist points out that Joseph immediately dropped everything, closed his carpentry shop, shuttered their Bethlehem home, and, with no GPS, set out for a foreign country. Can't image the adaptation which this drastic, life-changing move demanded. Things would never be the same again.
Yet all of us know parents who made parallel moves when one of their children contracted a life-threatening disease, or was seriously injured in an accident. None counted the costs or worried about the inconvenience. Love gives us responsibilities that we never had before we loved.
Thank goodness, the historical Jesus was loved by his family. Gives us a terrific example to follow.