If we were to reflect back on our experience of family life there would be times when we would have experienced moments of change. Whilst these might differ in their severity and impact, they still form part of our journey, shaping and influencing the road ahead. It is said that moving home is akin to the stresses experienced following a bereavement, as each in their different ways affects all that we hold dear, or draw strength from. Each of these situations in their own ways could be described as ‘an experience of exile’. What we held important suddenly is taken away and that from which we grew strength loses its substance.
We may not immediately think of ‘exile’ as a theme for reflection in our Advent journey as we hurry along to spend time in quiet reflection before the manger, and yet it is a theme that runs throughout all of scripture. In our earthly life we are actually living in a form of exile, each us travelling along the road that will eventually, God-willing, bring us back home to the Father when we will be complete. This sense of our being in a state of exile is beautifully captured by CS Lewis: ““If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” This is a good reminder that, in the joys and sorrows of family life, if we keep our eye fixed on God then all will be well, even if at times we do not feel that to be the case.
Reflecting on ‘exile’ makes us think about being separated from what is familiar, leaving where we feel most comfortable and losing what we draw most strength from. It may not be enjoyable and yet from it can spring new growth. Our move from being single to married, married to having children and then from family to empty-nester involves different aspects of being exiled from what was once familiar to enter something new. Whilst exile is not always something to be feared, it is an experience that increasingly impacts of the health of the family of today. Perhaps we have experienced something of this ourselves, or those who are close to us.
The radio, television and newspapers carry plenty of stories of the dislocation of families through war and civil unrest, on-going persecution of faith communities and the undermining of the centrality of the family to the sustaining of a healthy society. In our communities we may know of families being separated by breakdown, increased instances of poverty and anxiety, and the real loss of the extended family due to the need to find work. Instances of ‘exile’ are all around us and provide opportunities to put our faith into action, or to draw on it to travel onwards.
Exile lies at the heart of the early and on-going experiences of the Holy Family, who underwent different aspects of exile from the outset. Mary and Joseph, in their different ways, were exiled from their past life and invited into something new. When we say ‘I do’ at the wedding this invites us into something new. Again, the Holy Family were exiled from their home to travel on the road to Bethlehem, experiencing an initial lack of hospitality and care. Perhaps as a married couple we have felt the struggle of finding a place to live and the uncertainty this brings.
Christ would be born in the simplicity of a stable and his first visitors would be those whom we might least expect. Where as a family have we felt a sense of being alone, or worried for the future, and support has come as a surprise? Again, not long after the birth the Holy Family had to flee into exile to escape persecution and so find a new way of living. In our family life, we too may have had moments when what we knew had to be let go of, or the dislocation of moving home, or country.
So, as we journey through Advent, why not spend a little time reflecting on the blessings of marriage and family in the past year? Consider those moments of challenge and the ways in which unexpected solutions, or help have come our way. From this we can begin to think about where we have either helped, or are being invited to help others, and so ponder on the sense of gratitude the Holy Family had for the acts of strangers. In moments of exile, gratitude can change the narrative. As such it would be fitting to end with the words of an honorary Jesuit “Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”
 Mere Christianity
 Milne A A ‘Winne the Pooh’