The Feast of the Holy Family is celebrated on the Sunday between Christmas (the First Day of the Christmas octave) and New Year’s (the last day of the Christmas octave, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God), and gives us a supernatural perspective on what it means to be a family. Each member of the Holy Family of Nazareth has their own feast days (Joseph has two, Mary has bunches, and of course the Lord Jesus is the main attraction!). but this feast day celebrates their unity and relationship as a family, and the holiness that should mark family life.
Our Gospel reading, as we just heard, gives us the well-known story of Joseph and Mary finding Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem, after discovering that he was not in the caravan traveling from Jerusalem back to Galilee, and searching for him. Historians tell us that the men and the women traveled in separate groups, and children could be with either group. So each mistakenly thought Jesus was with the other, until they met up after the first day, and discovered he wasn’t with either one of them. Remember that making a mistake is not necessarily a sin, and so Mary did not sin in making the mistake of thinking Jesus had been traveling with Joseph and the other men.
One of the things we might notice is that the context of this story is the Holy Family having traveled in caravan from Nazareth to Jerusalem, which means that they were faithful in following the Law that the great feasts of their faith should be celebrated in Jerusalem. So Joseph, earlier identified as a just and righteous man, as father of the family was leading his family in religious devotion. Not every family would make the journey to Jerusalem all the way from Galilee (walking from Holy Trinity in Columbia, PA to the National Basilica in Washington, DC!), but Joseph led his family in doing so, as our reading begins, “Each year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, and when he was twelve years old, they went up according to festival custom.”
Another thing we might notice as far as setting the scene is that we are told Jesus was 12 years old. Now in one respect, it might just be the historical reality. Jesus was 12 at the time. But more likely, there are layers of meaning to this verse. For one, 12 was the age of adolescence, when one transitions from being considered a child to entering the threshold of adulthood. And that ties to a second possible meaning, which is how several phrases in this scene echo the Old Testament story of the prophet Samuel. Samuel was the son of Hannah, a childless woman who had prayed in the Temple for a son, and had promised to give her son to the Lord should the Lord answer her prayer. The Lord did answer her prayer, she had Samuel, and when he was weaned, she brought Samuel back to the priest Eli at the Temple, offered an oblation, Samuel’s father offered a holocaust, and they left Samuel there with Eli. You might remember the story of Samuel as a young boy sleeping near the ark, and hearing the Lord’s voice call his name, and twice, he got up and went to Eli, saying, “Here I am. You called me.” And Eli realized it was the Lord, and told Samuel, if he hears the voice again, to respond, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” According to Jewish Tradition, Samuel was 12 when this happened. And you might also remember that it was Samuel, the priest and the last of the judges of Israel, who was the prophet who anointed Saul as king, and later, David as king. So in making this reference to Samuel, our gospel is saying that Jesus as a young boy, or young man, has likewise gone to the Temple to begin his service to the Lord God, to speak the word of the Lord in the house of the Lord, and whose life is going to be totally dedicated to God’s will, totally dedicated to the priestly sacrifice that he’s going to ultimately offer in himself. And to reinforce this connection, it says that he increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man, which is almost a direct quotation from the Book of Samuel.
Dr. John Bergsma brings up the thought that perhaps the boy Jesus may have understood himself as being brought up like Samuel, and that when his parents brought him up to the Temple on this occasion, he believed that the plan was that he would stay and begin his service in the Temple, as Samuel did. It would explain Jesus’ apparent confusion when his mother and father finally arrive: “Why were you looking? Did you not know I would be here?” In other words, Jesus might have thought his parent’s plan was that he would stay. It’s just speculative, but an interesting proposition.
So we get a window into the Holy Family’s interior life here when Mary finally finds Jesus in the Temple. She’s very blunt. and says “Son why have you treated us this way? Look how anxious your father and I were searching for you.” Although Mary was immaculately conceived, and although Joseph was righteous and devout, they were also fully human. They experienced real human fears and real anxiety at having lost their son.
And Jesus’ response here is striking, he says, Didn’t you know where I would be? “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
We see that Joseph and Mary didn’t fully understand what Jesus was telling them. That, too, is helpful for us. Several times we read in the scriptures where it tells us, Mary kept these things and pondered them in her heart. So often we hear the words of Jesus, and we just don’t get it. We know there’s more to be understood in his cryptic words, but we just can’t penetrate into the mystery. We can get some consolation from the fact that his own mother, the Immaculate Conception, had the same problem. But she didn’t say, “I just don’t get it, I give up.” These things that she couldn’t get with her mind, she pondered in her heart. She mulled over his words, echoing them, holding them, and allowing them to feed into her love for her son, Jesus, even if she didn’t understand. What great humility she shows, and what great love! Just one of the reasons that she is held up as the model of the Christian life!
Besides that little insight, there are two great lessons as far as family life we get from this gospel story, before we move on.
The first is that even in a family of a saintly husband and father, the Immaculate Conception as the wife and mother, and the incarnate God as the son, misunderstandings can still happen, stress and anxiety can be present. How much more so then in our families? Faithful living of the Christian virtues can help to avoid many of the more profound problems in family life, but they are not a guarantee of freedom from all stress and difficulty. So it can be some consolation to us, as we struggle to maintain healthy, loving relationships in our families. It can be hard, and everyone struggles with it.
The second is the last line of our gospel reading, that we can learn from the humility of Jesus. He was already great in his wisdom, of course already divine, but he submitted to his parents and was obedient to them. So submitting and being obedient are not saying anything about dignity, as Jesus’ divine dignity was infinitely greater than his parents’. In families, as in all human societies and groups, there has to be some organization and order of authority. Every person has gifts and weaknesses in different areas, and it often it happens that the one exercising authority is less gifted in various ways than those he or she is entrusted to lead and care for. Look at poor St. Joseph! (I always kind of felt for St. Joseph; if something went wrong in the household, who was the only one that wasn’t without sin!?) He was entrusted with leading the Holy Family, though he was neither immaculately conceived like his wife, nor divine like his son. Yet in his role as husband and father, he had the support of his obedient son and the trust of his wife, which certainly must have been a great encouragement.
And that then, brings us to the first reading. The book of Sirach is the summation of Jewish wisdom up until about 200 BC. It is part of the wisdom literature, and was written originally in Greek, which means it was excluded from the Jerusalem canon of the scriptures, hence also from Martin Luther’s bible, even though it was considered scriptural in Jesus’ time by most Jews, who lived outside of the Holy Land, and by all Christians, up until Luther. Because the book of Sirach provides such a thorough summary of the moral message of the Scriptures, the early Church used it heavily in catechesis, earning it the name “Ecclesiasticus,” that is, “the Church book.”
To quote from Dr. John Bergsma:
Early on, the Church realized that it was difficult to catechize pagan cultures that did not practice the natural virtues well. Theological virtues—faith, hope, and love—rest upon and elevate the natural virtues. The Book of Sirach was employed to form catechumens in basic Judeo-Christian morality and family life. Leading a moral and well-ordered natural life is, of course, not the ultimate goal of the Christian life—union with God is. However, it is very difficult to make progress in union with God in the midst of immorality and disorder. The teaching of the Book of Sirach frequently strikes us these days as quaint or dated. However, our modern alternatives to the moral vision of Sirach have not been empirically successful. By almost any psychological or sociological measure, our culture is growing more unhealthy and dysfunctional. Sirach has been treasured in Christianity (and even in Judaism) for centuries because its principles work.
On this Feast of the Holy Family as we’re celebrating the family of Jesus, the Church also puts before us an exhortation to honor our own fathers and mothers. The first paragraph of this reading from Sirach focuses on the responsibility of children to respect and revere their parents, even despite their weakness and sinfulness. One’s relationship with one’s parents affects one’s relationship to God. “For the Lord sets a father in honor over his children and confirms a mother’s authority over her sons. Those who honor their father atone for sins; they store up riches who respect their mother.”
Happy is the person who finds it easy to revere his father and mother, because they are virtuous and admirable people! But many of us meditating on these readings struggle with this command to revere parents, because we have been hurt by them: perhaps we are children of divorce, or were abandoned by our father or mother. Perhaps we suffered abuse of some kind. How then do we react to this reading? It is still applicable to us. Our identity is so strongly bound up with our parents that hatred of them becomes self-hatred, damaging us at the core of our being. So for the sake of our own health and our relationship to God, we need to pray for divine grace to forgive offenses that otherwise are beyond our ability to forgive, and ask God to show us whatever was good, true, and beautiful in our parents, in order that we may emphasize and dwell on that. Isn’t this part of “loving our neighbors as ourselves”? This reading is, in a way, an application to the child-parent relationship of the principle of the Lord’s prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we have forgiven those who trespass against us,” because “if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
The second paragraph of this First Reading especially commends honoring one’s father (and mother) in his old age. The Church has repeatedly taught that the moral measure of a society (and individuals, too) is how we treat the very old and the very young, those who don’t seem to “contribute” very much to society. Our society’s way of evaluating human worth based on usefulness is contrary to the wisdom of the Scriptures. The elderly deserve honor and care for their own sake, made in the image of God and infinitely loved by Him. Moreover, since there is an order to charity, those closest to us (like our parents) have the first claim on our love. Therefore, St. Paul will affirm: “If any one does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever”.
Now, we’ll finish out with the Second Reading, from St. Paul. This reading breaks down into two main sections.
The first part concerns how to behave individually as members of a family. It requires the virtues, it requires humility and forgiveness, it requires thankfulness. It requires individual holiness. This first part is the scriptural reading often used in the blessing of homes, because following its instruction leads to the holiness of the members of the family, and thus the family together.
The second part of the reading teaches the structure for peace within the family: our responsibilities of family members toward one another. St. Paul says, “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, so they may not become discouraged.” So we see that everyone has some homework to do. Women, wives, are to learn humility toward the authority of the husband, children are to learn humility toward the authority of their parents. And men as fathers are called to be the humble and holy steward of that authority and respect. It’s not a matter of pride or privilege, but the yoke of responsibility. None of these roles come easily. They all require grace, God’s holiness.
St. Paul gives this a bit more detail in the beautiful reflection of Ephesians Chapter 5, where he compares the love of husband and wife with Christ and his Bride, the Church. The husband is to follow the example of Christ: to offer up his life for the flourishing of his bride and her children, to lead them to holiness by example and word, with sacrificial love and devotion. The wife is to follow the example of the Church: to praise her husband, to follow him, to strengthen the bond between them. Again, neither of these roles come easily. It requires prayer, humility, and grace.
Now as we said a little earlier, it may be that the husband, as human person with imperfections and limitations, is not the best candidate to lead, perhaps not in the opinion of the wife. She may be more intelligent, more financially responsible, relate better with the children, and may even make more money. And all these are wonderful gifts from God for the good of the family and the greater family of society. Still, to be the virtuous wife she is to entrust herself to the leadership of her husband. Now, a smart husband knows how to delegate tasks to those in his authority according to their gifts. So if she’s better at the checkbook, he’d be humble and wise to have her manage the family finances. It might be better for the family if the husband stays home with the children. And if she’s smart, she also knows how to effectively influence her husband. As the matriarch says in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, “The husband might be the head, but the wife is the neck, and she can turn the head however she wants.” So there’s a playful tension there, if they can work well together, be patient and forgiving with each other, with love and trust, and humility, and a healthy sense of humor.
There are most definitely differences between male and female, masculine and feminine, as God has made us. But also most definitely sin has entered into these distinctions, and the chauvinistic, abusive, workaholic, alpha male, lording his authority (making his authority felt, as the pagans do…) over his family is a sinful distortion, as is the domineering bad-mouthing wife and the weak husband. This is not to say that a woman with a strong will or strong personality is a bad thing! Many women saints had strong personalities! But in the family, she puts her gifts at the service of the family, and thus at the direction of her husband, who is responsible for orchestrating the gifts of the family for the good of the family. They are a team, and they must be a holy team, pursuing virtue and holiness, and protecting their love and unity against threats and distortions. My mother once said to me (before I was considering the priesthood), that when you fight with your spouse, you don’t face against your spouse, so that one wins and one loses. You fight along with your spouse, side-by-side, against the problem. The problem is the enemy. And you win or lose together, but you’re together.
Throughout Scripture, beginning with Adam, the ideal held up for the father and husband is to serve as the priest or spiritual leader of the family, the domestic church. To do this, he needs the support of his wife. He needs her both to expect and to respect him as the “family priest,” so to speak. If the children see she does not respect her husband or look to him for spiritual leadership, the family becomes disordered. Even the Blessed Mother—though she was the sinless Mother of God—looked with respect on St. Joseph and honored him as her husband. A wife exercising humble submission is not slavery, it’s not of a lower dignity or worth, and it’s not antiquated misogyny. It is virtue, humility, and trust.
In wedding homilies, I often bring up the example of ballroom dancing. It’s the man who leads the couple, providing structure and direction. But it’s the woman that captivates everyone’s attention, with the beautiful flowing dress and graceful movement. The man’s protection, structure, and leadership allows the grace and beauty of the woman to unfold. When she feels secure, her gifts will flower and flourish, because she trusts in his protection (that’s why marriage is for life: for the provision and protection of the mother and her children!)
It’s too common today for fathers (provided they’re even in the daily life of the family) to abdicate their responsibility, and the mother acts as the spiritual head. But statistics reveal the truth of God’s plan. Children are far more likely to leave the church when raised in homes where the mother is the spiritual leader rather than the father. One wise pastor said to a father who drops their kid off at Church and Sunday School that they would be using their time better to go to Mass themselves, which will have a far more positive and lasting impact on their child’s spiritual life.
I do want to take a moment and address a difficult exception: that is, those families that have a single parent, who is doing the best he or she can to be both mother and father. It’s literally an impossible job, because he can only be father, and she can only be mother. But the single parent has to be the sole provider in many ways for the children, financially, emotionally, and spiritually, and it’s draining, stressing, and in many ways, selflessly heroic.
And lastly, another difficult exception: is that this well-ordering of authority within the family does not extend to doing something sinful. If the husband says, “We’re going to rob a bank,” the wife is not to be cooperative in that. That’s a silly example, of course, but it establishes the principle. Unfortunately, in the real world, the line of what is sinful is sometimes harder to distinguish. A husband is not to lead the family into sin. A wife is not to follow her husband into sin. Children are not to follow their parents into sin. We are obedient to the will of God as a higher priority to being obedient to the will of men.
This sometimes come into play, for example, when one spouse has a higher libido than the other. One spouse does not have a right to the gifts of the other, otherwise they are not gifts, they become property, and we do not reduce one another, especially spouses, to the status of property (again, submission in marriage is not servitude). Likewise, acts in the bedroom, so to speak, which violate the human dignity of the other (along the lines of “Fifty Shades of Grey”) are objectively sinful insofar as they do violate the human dignity of one or the other person, even with their consent.
Where does the family’s joy come from? For one, it comes from shared time together, shared memories and experiences, forming healthy, enjoyable relationships, being able to trust in mutual support and unconditional love; not from having almost completely separate lives, and not from secrets. It comes from the fear of (or reverence for) the Lord, it comes from obedience to God. And nobody exemplifies that better, of course, than the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus; all three of them who were obedient to the will of God the Father.
This Feast Day gives us the opportunity to meditate on the way in which the family structure, established by God and mirrored in the Holy Family, reflects His own familial nature (as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit), and shows us the truth about ourselves in his image of selfless and self-giving love in relationship.
Whatever our role in our respective families, this Feast Day presents an excellent opportunity for us to make an examination of conscience concerning how well we are living the virtues that make for “happy and cheerful Christian homes” (a phrase of St. Josemaría Escrivà). Many of these virtues are listed in our second reading.
This Feast also presents us an opportunity to ask for the intercession of the Holy Family to live our roles as a holy family in our homes, in the larger holy family of the Church (both of which are under the patronage of St. Joseph, patron saint of fathers, of the family, and of the Church), and in our community, with virtue, humility, and love.
POST SCRIPT (from Dr. Brant Pitre):
Our Gospel reading is the fifth of the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary. I want you to read the words of Pope Saint John Paul II in his 2002 apostolic letter “On the Most Holy Rosary,” regarding a kind of union with Mary in this scene:
Mary lived with her eyes fixed on Christ, treasuring his every word: “She kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19; cf. 2:51). The memories of Jesus, impressed upon her heart, were always with her, leading her to reflect on the various moments of her life at her Son’s side. In a way those memories were to be the “rosary” which she recited uninterruptedly throughout her earthly life. Even now, amid the joyful songs of the heavenly Jerusalem… Mary constantly sets before the faithful the “mysteries” of her Son, with the desire that the contemplation of those mysteries will release all their saving power. In the recitation of the Rosary, the Christian community enters into contact with the memories and the contemplative gaze of Mary.
At times praying the rosary can be difficult, repetitive, and dry. But a beautiful way to look at the rosary is that the words, the repeated prayers, are like the body of the rosary, but the soul of the rosary is the mystery that you’re contemplating in each decade. With the mystery of the finding of Jesus in the Temple, we’re entering into Mary’s own memory of that event, and her own act of contemplating the mystery in her heart, meditating on it, pondering what it means for who Jesus is, and how he’s come to save. I wonder if these three days when they lost Jesus came to her mind the third day after she lost her Son Jesus in the tomb, and people were claiming that they had seen him alive. Think about it: In his youth, she loses her child Jesus for three days and then on the third day they find him in the Temple. It’s a kind of foretaste of what will happen on Calvary where Christ will be taken from her once again and then three days later, she will encounter him again in the joy and the mystery of the Resurrection.
This particular homily was shared quite a few times beyond the normal little circle (for which I am grateful!). So just a disclaimer:
First, I rely heavily on the commentary by Dr. Brant Pitre and Dr. John Bergsma over at thesacredpage.com. I openly acknowledge that some text is copied from them, and I am thankful beyond words for their wisdom and knowledge.
Second, although the title of this post is that it is a homily, that’s not completely accurate. As with all my homilies on this blog, the text in default grey is the homily I gave at the weekend parish Masses. The italic text in blue is from the scriptural readings for the Mass. The dark red text is what I wish I could have also said in the homily, but that would have made it even more too-long than it already is. And if there is green text, that’s usually a quote from another source, such as the Catechism. So there is a system to it! Thank you to everyone who comments and shares. Creating homilies, for me, is a prayerful, sacrificial labor of love, and it makes me happy that others benefit from them, and come to a deeper appreciation of God’s loving wisdom, given to us for our salvation.