Family in Flight

Family life in antiquity was a life of insecurity, though families in many parts of the world still know this insecurity well even today. The warm pictures we might concoct of ancient families—though certainly the ancients loved their children, and spouses loved each other just as families do today—was leavened with something modern Westerners do not know as intimately as our ancestors did even two generations ago. Death was always lurking, threatening the fabric and integrity of the family.

Infant mortality in the Mediterra-nean world was high; perhaps as many as 50 percent of children in the ancient world did not live to see their fifth birthday. We should not forget that maternal mortality was almost as high at childbirth, due to complications in pregnancy, poor medical standards and hygiene, subsequent infections and the young age, from our perspective, at which so many mothers, girls or teenagers gave birth.

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But this was not the only threat to the family. In addition to the constant possibility of death were the realities of food insecurity, often due to lack of sufficient work, especially for day laborers in Jesus’ day. Unless one was among the wealthy few who could purchase whatever they needed when they needed it—which in the first century was a distinct minority of people—or store up food to compensate for poor harvests or famine, food was something that people needed to purchase daily or lacked daily. The stress this put on parents and children was immense.

Families in antiquity were also strictly hierarchical. The father in the Roman family, the paterfamilias, wielded almost unlimited power over the life and death of his children. The patria potestas, the authority of the father, was not just theoretical power. While Jewish and Greek fathers had less power than a Roman father, the authority of the father was unquestioned. There is, finally, the fact that slaves, who might have amounted to 30 percent to 40 percent of people in the ancient Mediterranean world, could not form legal families. Slave families that had been formed on a de facto basis could be destroyed by the selling of a child or parent whenever a slave owner chose.

These issues are important if we want to see the family into which Jesus was born in its context. For one thing, the fact that Jesus was born and survived and that his mother gave birth and survived would have been cause for celebration in the broader family and kinship network. Surviving birth was not to be taken for granted. The fact that Joseph took Mary as his wife, though he was not the father of the child, was an act of compassion that would not have been expected of any man in antiquity. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Joseph received revelatory guidance, but it was guidance to care for the most vulnerable of people: a young, unmarried pregnant woman.

And still, the story of the holy family brings into play yet another, broader level of insecurity: political insecurity at the hands of an ancient ruler. The conception of human rights as we envisage them did not exist, and the judicial system would have had little impact if the king decided to kill you. The Holy Family had to make a decision to flee to save itself. Conceptions of justice did exist in the ancient world, but depending upon your status and position, access to such power was absent or extremely minimal. If the king wanted you dead, your death was imminent.

The family life of the Holy Family resonates today, not because of ancient hierarchical conceptions of family, in which strict subordination of the lesser to the greater within the family mimicked the social structure of the day, but because whatever threats challenged the family and whatever the construction of the ancient family, people did love one another and cared for one another no matter the circumstances. The Holy Family is a model of a family sticking together as refugees, with internal tension and external threats and insecurity challenging them at every step of the way. In the same way God protected and sustained them, we need to reach out to vulnerable families today, who model how God chose to send his son to us: in the midst of the human family.

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Bruce Snowden
4 years 10 months ago
Joseph, Mary and their Infant Son, weren’t exactly undocumented aliens, fleeing from Palestine to the foreign country of Egypt. Their Green Card was the Father’s “green light” to pick up and go, depending on human ingenuity and Divine help always available to everyone, to make things work. I don’t think Joseph had much trouble finding a place to live with his family, nor adequate food, as he was an ingenious craftsman, skilled not only in carpentry, but also in stone work and masonry. Joseph in fact was a skilled construction worker, based on what I was told by a trusted researcher of NT studies many years ago. Perhaps the Father had arranged a contact person in Egypt with whom to negotiate settling in. This makes sense as certainly Divine Wisdom would not have entrusted to the care of an incompetent provider, the fatherly and spousal care of Jesus and Mary. I believe Joseph was skilled in parenting and in providing, having fathered a family from a previous marriage, according to a thread of ancient information, discussed by a late priest-columnist in a widely syndicated Catholic newspaper article. When Joseph and Mary married the children of Joseph and his deceased first wife became the legal brothers and sisters of Jesus, explaining perhaps NT assertion that Jesus had brothers. This is, of course speculation rooted in existing evidence. However, as special as they were, as indeed we are all “special” in God’s sight, the Holy Family had to prudently watch their backs, so to speak, at least for awhile, just as it is today, when “foreigners” move into the neighborhood! Joseph had to prudently win friends and maybe “buy his way” to domestic and employment security with help from the above-mentioned contact person, by first proving that he had something useful to offer. But through all the normal and extraordinary hardships that come with parenting, Joseph and Mary loved each other deeply and successfully passed on to their Infant Son the psychologically important sense of parental love and protection. Maybe the expensive gifts from the Magi, who were many in the caravan, not just three, did a lot to help the Holy Family get settled in a foreign country, Divine Providence at work. Just as an aside, how wonderful is Divine Providence.! We were poor and eventually a family of six children and I remember as a little boy hearing the midwife say as Mom was delivering a set of twins, “O God! She can’t afford one more and now she has two!” It turned out that those two babies became our Mother’s main support and through them she had a comfortable life. What seemed like a catastrophe when it happened, was in fact a Providential consideration by our ever attentive God. I’m sure Divine Providence took good care of the Holy Family and they in turn reached out to the vulnerable around them as we all should – really must!

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