That Poor Holy Family

I’m tired of people (Christians and not) hijacking Christmas for their politcal ends. The “poverty” of the Holy Family was not a thing at all until Francis of Assisi got obsessed with proving Jesus owned nothing. This was a serious theological debate in the 12th and 13th centuries and it has come down to us in the Christmas Story: Francis was the first person, we think, to set up a “living manger scene” and that’s flavoured our western read of the Christmas Story ever since, especially among Protestants who divested themselves of Tradition and bought into as much sentimentality as possible.

In honour of the Protestant appeal to Sola Scriptura, let us look at the Gospel first: there is no way at all you can read the story of the Holy Family in Luke 1 and 2 and get the idea of poverty or indigency. Mary’s family is wealthy enough to send her – on her own – off to stay with her cousin for six months. In a culture where families depended on the labour of children to maintain the household, this is important. They were able to send her to her cousin’s house to work for that household instead.

When the holy family got to Bethleham, there is no evidence in the text of “evil landlords keeping a poor family out in the cold.” Rather the inns are full. There’s a difference of import there: at best there are too many Shriners in town for a convention. That happened a couple of years ago in San Francisco: the America’s Cup was here and there wasn’t a room to be had for love or money anywhere within 50 miles. My parents tried.

On this topic Church Tradition in Orthodoxy and in Roman Catholicism (although often ignored in both) teaches a very different story:

When the time came for Mary to be betrothed, all the traditions are in agreement: Joseph was chosen because he was old enough and wealthy enough to care for the girl. Some accounts have him as old as 80! An image search on “Espousal of the Blessed Virgin Mary” will reveal no shortage of images of Joseph with grey hair and beard – as heads up this post.  I’m nearly willing to bet that the less grey his hair is, the more modern the image is. For as many men as might want a younger wife, we’re very uncomfortable in our modern world with the idea of an arranged marriage to someone so old: but that is entierly in keeping with the Jewish Tradition.  Romance, however, and letting your daughter marry someone poor, is not, at all.

What we have – from Francis of Assisi to Francis of Rome today and every ECUSA sermon I’ve ever heard – is a reading into the text of modern political sensibilities. Many folks simply want Jesus to be poor and homeless for our own political ends.

One political thing I will take from the story of the Holy Familly: they followed without protest the orders of a foreign, colonizing power. Jesus and his parents never challenged the political authorities of his day – only the religious ones.
Try protesting in his name now.

I know, of course, that from the outside lookin in, both the traditional stories and the modern innovations are equally “reading in” to the text.  I’d rather side with Churh Tradition on this point, however.

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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