Today is the feast of the Holy Family; and we know that this not simply an occasion of showing our devotion to Joseph, Mary and Jesus as a family; but we realize that in them is the model of human family. So, this is a celebration of family and it comes at a time of year we strongly associate with family: Christmas.
Indeed, even within secularized western society, Christmas has strong association with family — and that was witnessed in the consternation at its being cancelled last year, and another cancellation threatened this year. That even as its explicit meaning has been forgotten, the tradition is kept because of how it renews our family life.
Why celebrate this as a Christian community? Are we surrendering to the secular mindset? Or, is it just because we’ve made mention of Mary and Joseph, so “let’s pause and give them a bit of time in the spotlight?”
In terms of the gospel texts as a whole, Jesus’ family life occupies very little of the gospel writers’ attention – there’s very little of it in Mark’s gospel; John’s gospel shows us something of Jesus’ relationship with his mother, but each only speak of how Jesus relates to his family as an adult.
One can imagine that the writers, having to create gospels that focussed on the essentials of Jesus’ life, considered his early life as too far removed from the key moments of the story that the Church commemorated from its very beginning, the events we celebrate in Holy Week and at Easter. But is what we find in Luke and Matthew then just some kind of afterthought?
Well, no. Each of the evangelists have their take on the gospel narrative, and each have their particular emphases. Clearly, what two of gospel writers didn’t pay much attention to, the other two regarded as worth some kind of comment. And if you’re attentive to the stories, I think one can’t help but be struck by how central family is to this story of our salvation. That salvation comes through families. Matthew and Luke both supply genealogies to establish Jesus’ familial lineage — this isn’t the story of individuals who simply appear, wander out of the desert, but are the fruit of generations of family. In Luke’s account we have two families intertwined by God’s providence: Zechariah and Elizabeth, resigned to childlessness, who give birth to John the Baptist; and of course, Joseph, Mary and Jesus.
The success of God’s plan depended on the faithfulness and confidence of men and women joined in marriage to bring to fruition God’s plan; that it relied upon the aged Zechariah and Elizabeth, described in the scriptures as “righteous”; that Joseph was a necessary player in this drama, and was also accounted righteous and good; and, of course, we know Mary, filled with grace.
The Church has, historically, been pretty passive in its attitude toward family, for centuries its keen interest in the stories of Jesus’ birth were out of its regard for Mary. Family being so organic, and its importance regarded as self-evident. I think some of you may know that Joseph was never mentioned in the Eucharistic prayers of the Church until the Missal we have today. So, Mary, the saints and the martyrs all got mentions, but Joseph was overlooked for the better part of two millenia with regard to the central prayer of the Church.
Modernity’s assault on the family as a central and integral human institution has been going on since the early days of industrialization that so disrupted traditional family life. The attacks have only accelerated in recent decades, with the sexual revolution of the last fifty years, the rise of radical feminism, and so on. So, the Church’s growing interest in the Holy family has been largely a reaction to this.
In turning to the gospels, we now find ourselves wishing we had more. But then, as inspired text, I think we need to have faith that what we have is enough. And when we look at today’s story of Jesus lost and found in the Temple, we have a principle of family life that has been given up by far too many today, as I’d say the former passivity of the institutional Church has migrated to our constituent families with disastrous results.
At the outset of the gospel passage today we hear something of the religious traditions kept by the household of Joseph of Nazareth. And what we hear is that every year, the family made the journey to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.
Now, you might assume that they would do this as it is a requirement of the law; but there were lots of Jews in the first century who did not go. For those living abroad, it was impractical, but also for those living in some proximity to the Temple, the realities of the fractured state of Israel — broken up into little statelets, and the greater poverty experienced in the 1st century in comparison to say, the glory days of Solomon, it was harder for a family to up and go for the Passover, let alone the other two festivals that Torah said required a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
So, some went. Many didn’t; and it’s interesting to note that Joseph did, and brought his family with him.
Now, you need to know that the Galilee is some distance away, and like the vast majority of the population, Joseph, Mary and Jesus would have to walk the distance to Jerusalem. That’s roughly a two-day walk (assuming a good pace) from Nazareth, the distance being around 190 kilometers one-way (and so, something shy of 400 km round trip). The family would incur the expense of accommodation and food while away; and while away the foregoing of income: Joseph didn’t get vacation pay.
What we’re seeing is a real commitment to rooting the family in the traditions of the faith; and doing so at a significant cost; that is, the holy family sacrificed to participate in the Passover.
The Church teaches that indeed, that is what we ought to be doing: as a family keeping the traditions, worshiping together, with parents taking charge of the religious formation of their children, and leading their little ones by example.
Our faith is not fed solely by the local parish church, the priest and the community’s worship. Indeed, one could almost say these are supplements but for the singular importance of regularly receiving the blessed sacrament; because it is in the home, what the Second Vatican Council called, “the domestic church” where faith is really nurtured or neglected, where it flowers, or withers. It is in the home, ideally with the graces of sacramental marriage flowing through husband and wife to each other, and then to those children they may have, where there is a real possibility of sanctification.
Family can make you holy!
That should be no surprise.
Our Catechism devotes a whole section of its text to the centrality of family both to Church and human society. We must understand our families as little churches, as St. John Paul II preached (in his Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris consortio), “The Christian family constitutes a specific revelation and realization of ecclesial communion, and for this reason too it can and should be called “the domestic Church. [FC58]
All members of the family, each according to his or her own gift, have the grace and responsibility of building, day by day, the communion of persons, making the family “a school of deeper humanity” [FC59]: this happens where there is care and love for the little ones, the sick, the aged; where there is mutual service every day; when there is a sharing of goods, of joys and of sorrows.”
I can’t say as I remember well what my expectations of my marriage and my family life were at the time of my overdue proposal to Biserka; or when we exchanged our vows, but I do know that I am surprised by how I have grown conscious of the fact that through our relationship within the sacrament of marriage, I experience holiness and find that my wife is a source of sanctifying grace – whether she knows it or not. I lean a lot on my patron saint Joseph who teaches men to own their vocation as father, husband, protector and provider and then trust that God will guide them in their duties; and I know that too often I have been negligent and too often assumed that someone else was going to look after this task of forming my household in holiness: the institution of the Church, the Catholic schools to which my daughter went. These only can work with what they are provided, we can’t arrive at mass, or in the catholic school classroom as blank slates and expect a whole lot to come of that.
It is amazing how few families make it to mass with it only being a few minutes drive to get here. And I have personally heard stories of Catholic families in places like the Congo, or rural regions of South America and Southeast Asia, who every Sunday walk 5, 6, even 10 kilometres to attend the eucharistic liturgy.
We are going to be facing many challenges as we emerge from our current situation. It was observed that the Christmas Eve 4 p.m. service, usually characterized as bedlam for all the children swarming in the aisles, was rather quiet; and even given the fact of capacity limits, we saw few families with children. Now, I know there were many considerations that have gone into decisions to come to church as of late, but I can’t help but note the composition of the congregation, those who trust in God’s providential care to make coming to church worth it.
And I think that’s what we need to share with people, that far from it being a matter of church buildings and clergy, it is a matter of the faith that lives with us, the sense that in our kitchens, living rooms and backyards, we truly host Emmanuel, “God with us”. And that in welcoming him there, we joyfully make the sacrifices to celebrate our faith with others, to make the pilgrimages great and small, the trek of two or three days, the drive of ten minutes; to go looking for Christ in his father’s house, and then be sure that he returns with you to your home.