Dec 27, 2015: Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph (C)

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Introduction

On the Sunday within the Octave (eight days) of Christmas we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family. Some spiritual writers have called the 30 years that Jesus spent in Nazareth the ‘hidden years’, because there is so little written about them in the gospel narratives. However, they reveal the holiness of ordinary life and show us how it becomes extraordinary for those baptized into Christ.

On December 28, 2011, at his Wednesday audience, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the life of the Holy Family in Nazareth. A short excerpt:

“The house of Nazareth is a school of prayer where we learn to listen, to meditate, to penetrate the deepest meaning of the manifestation of the Son of God, drawing our example from Mary, Joseph and Jesus.

The Holy Family is an icon of the domestic Church, which is called to pray together. The family is the first school of prayer where, from their infancy, children learn to perceive God thanks to the teaching and example of their parents. An authentically Christian education cannot neglect the experience of prayer. If we do not learn to pray in the family, it will be difficult to fill this gap later. I would, then, like to invite people to rediscover the beauty of praying together as a family, following the school of the Holy Family of Nazareth.”

1st Reading – Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14

God sets a father in honor over his children;
a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons.
Whoever honors his father atones for sins,
and preserves himself from them.
When he prays, he is heard;
he stores up riches who reveres his mother.
Whoever honors his father is gladdened by children,
and, when he prays, is heard.
Whoever reveres his father will live a long life;
he who obeys his father brings comfort to his mother.

My son, take care of your father when he is old;
grieve him not as long as he lives.
Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him;
revile him not all the days of his life;
kindness to a father will not be forgotten,
firmly planted against the debt of your sins
—a house raised in justice to you.

The book of Sirach belongs to ancient Israel’s Wisdom tradition.  Until like the prophets who either called the people back to God when they strayed or encouraged them to be faithful in the face of overwhelming adversity, the wisdom tradition is a collection of insights gleaned from the successful living of life.  It draws attention to the importance of daily life of the ordinary person.

The reading for today is an instruction about family life, identifying the kind of living that results in family harmony.  Although the teaching originated from a society that was patriarchal and male-centered, it continues to have value for societies that do not share this bias.

God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons.

Given the patriarchal nature of Israel, the admonition to honor one’s mother is significant.  Respect and obedience are due both parents, not just the dominant father.

Whoever honors his father atones for sins, and preserves himself from them. When he prays, he is heard; he stores up riches who reveres his mother. Whoever honors his father is gladdened by children, and, when he prays, is heard. Whoever reveres his father will live a long life; he who obeys his father brings comfort to his mother.

As is characteristic of Wisdom instruction, the author lists the blessings that result from the prescribed way of living: long life, remission of sins, riches, children of his own, the answer to prayer.

My son, take care of your father when he is old; grieve him not as long as he lives. Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him; revile him not all the days of his life; kindness to a father will not be forgotten, firmly planted against the debt of your sins — a house raised in justice to you.

These final verses make clear that the intended audience of this instruction is adult children, not youth.  The responsibility of children with respect to their parents does not end when they reach maturity and independence.

The adult son is exhorted to care for his father in his declining years, regardless of whether his frailty is physical or mental in nature.

There is no mention of providing similar care for his mother, possibly because it was presumed that women would be cared for by their fathers or brothers, then by their husbands, and finally by their sons.  However, the head of the family was normally not vulnerable and in need of care — in this case, the son would be in a position to discreetly and respectfully sustain his father.

2nd Reading – Colossians 3:12-21

Brothers and sisters:
Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,
bearing with one another and forgiving one another,
if one has a grievance against another;
as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.
And over all these put on love,
that is, the bond of perfection.
And let the peace of Christ control your hearts,
the peace into which you were also called in one body.
And be thankful.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,
as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another,
singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs
with gratitude in your hearts to God.
And whatever you do, in word or in deed,
do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus,
giving thanks to God the Father through him.

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.

Today’s second reading is also an exhortation to virtuous living.  Because Christians are God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, we should conduct ourselves accordingly.

Brothers and sisters: Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another;

The idea of putting on (or clothing oneself with) virtue suggests that Christians should be recognized on sight by their manner of living.

Note that the virtues themselves are relational  all directed toward others, and all requiring unselfish sensitivity.

as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.

The motivation for such acts of self-sacrifice is the forgiveness they have received from God.

And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.

After clothing ourselves with self-sacrificial attributes of Christ, Paul instructs us to put on love (agápē), the highest of all virtues, as the final outer garment.  It covers, binds, and informs all the others.

And let the peace of Christ control your hearts,

The peace of Christ should not be confused with mere tolerance, or control imposed by some outside force.  It is an inner peace which originates with a relationship with God.

the peace into which you were also called in one body.  And be thankful.

The peace of Christ transforms us and enables harmonious living with others in the one body of Christ.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Paul seems to provide directives for a community practice.  It’s not clear whether these practices are liturgical in nature or part of everyday life; regardless, they are all communal in nature.

Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord.

The final directives concerning family life reflect the household codes prevalent in the Greco-Roman world of the time (see also Ephesians 5:22-29).

Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them.

The author does not remove the expectation that wives should be submissive to their husbands, but rather adds instruction that the husbands act with love and thoughtfulness toward their wives.

This was a patriarchal world where men exercised total control over their wives, children, and slaves — admonishing men to have mutual concern for their wives was revolutionary.

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.

Similarly, the traditional expectation of obedience from children is not removed, but fathers are given an additional directive to be moderate in the training of their children lest the discipline become oppressive.  This Christian code of household life retains the tradition of the society from which it sprang, but emphasizes male responsibility over patriarchal privilege.

The Christian virtues listed at the beginning of the reading, when applied within the context of the family unit, have transformed the patriarchal customs of the day and yield the same blessings of unity and harmony.

Gospel – Luke 2:41-52

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.
After they had completed its days, as they were returning,
the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem,
but his parents did not know it.
Thinking that he was in the caravan,
they journeyed for a day
and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances,
but not finding him,
they returned to Jerusalem to look for him.
After three days they found him in the temple,
sitting in the midst of the teachers,
listening to them and asking them questions,
and all who heard him were astounded
at his understanding and his answers.
When his parents saw him,
they were astonished,
and his mother said to him,
“Son, why have you done this to us?
Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”
And he said to them,
“Why were you looking for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
But they did not understand what he said to them.
He went down with them and came to Nazareth,
and was obedient to them;
and his mother kept all these things in her heart.
And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor
before God and man.

Today’s gospel reading is the only account set in the years between Jesus’ infancy and the time of his ministry. The finding of Jesus in the temple is reported only by St. Luke and is celebrated as the fifth joyful mystery of the rosary.

Each year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover,

The Law required adult Israelite men to observe in Jerusalem three major feasts: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles (Exodus 23:14; Deuteronomy 16:16).  Those who lived at a distance were excused from all but the Passover.

The distance the Holy Family would have traveled (from Nazareth to Jerusalem) is about 60 miles, 85 miles by road.

and when he was twelve years old,

Jesus is still a child.  At age 13 he will assume the religious responsibilities of an adult.

they went up according to festival custom.

They literally “went up,” as Jerusalem is located on a mountaintop.

After they had completed its days,

The celebration of the Passover meal began a week-long feast of the unleavened bread.

as they were returning, the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Thinking that he was in the caravan, they journeyed for a day and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances,

Entire villages joined in the pilgrimages, breaking up into two groups: one of men, the other of women. Children could go with either group. This explains how they could go a day’s journey before they discovered he was missing, which probably happened when the families regrouped to camp.

but not finding him, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple,

They had traveled a day before Jesus’ absence was discovered, and it would have taken them another day to return to the city.  They found him the next (third) day.

Imagine being told by an angel that the Son of God would be placed into your care, and then losing track of him for three whole days!

sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions,

On feast days and Sabbaths, the Sanhedrin conducted informal question-and-answer sessions at the Temple, rather than their normal judicial activities.

and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers.

The Greek word used for “astounded” (exitēmi) is frequently used to describe the human reaction to the manifestation of divine power.  (See also Luke 4:22.)

Although popular tradition (and some religious art) suggests that Jesus was teaching in the Temple, the text does not state this.  He was probably simply part of the exchange.

When his parents saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you done this to us?

Mary questions her son with a standard formula of accusation (see Genesis 12:18, Exodus 14:11, Numbers 23:11, and Judges 15:11).

Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”  And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Mary’s reference to Joseph as Jesus’ father is paralleled with Jesus’ reference to God as his father.  Herein lies the point of the narrative: Jesus is declaring himself as the Christ. Approaching adulthood, he is beginning to assume a public role.

Jesus’ reply comprises the first words of his recorded in the gospels.  In addition to providing an explanation to his parents, his words show his divine sonship and determination to fulfill the will of God.

But they did not understand what he said to them.

Mary and Joseph did not understand the full implication of what his role as the Christ would entail, and that his relationship to God took precedence over his relationship to them.

He went down with them and came to Nazareth,

Again, journeying to and from Jerusalem is described as going “up” and “down.”

and was obedient to them;

Jesus was faithful to both his earthy family and to God, his father.  Having made a striking appearance in the Temple, he returns to Nazareth and a life of obedience to his parents.

Although the key element in this passage is the christological self-declaration of young Jesus, the context of the account depicts a very religious family unit and an equally submissive son.

and his mother kept all these things in her heart.

The implications of these events and Jesus’ words are not lost on Mary.  She keeps them in her heart, expecting that she will later fully comprehend them.  She is obediently watching God’s will unfold before her very eyes.

And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.

This is the last reference to Saint Joseph in the gospels and is a beautiful tribute to him: obedient to his guidance, Jesus grew to perfect manhood.

Connections and Themes

Family living. The customs of family life may be bound by culture, but the values out of which they emerge are not.  In the first reading, Sirach sketches a picture of ancient family customs, but it’s easy to look beneath them and find enduring values that are relevant today: mutuality, respect, and service between wives and husbands, children and parents, young and old.

This does not mean that there are not roles of dominance, but with dominance comes responsibility.  Mutual respect and care for those in need remain constant within a righteous family.

Because of cultural differences, the details (e.g., which role is dominant) may differ, but the values espoused in today’s readings should still be the backbone for how we live.

The family of God.  While today celebrates the family unit, it also celebrates the Church as the family of God.  In the second reading, Paul outlines the virtues required to live out our role within the ecclesial family.  This may be more a more daunting challenge, as we must relate in a self-sacrificial way with people who may be strangers that differ from us in significant ways. It is neither blood nor marriage that binds us with other believers, but the word of Christ in our hearts.  The Church may be a different kind of family, but the values of mutuality, respect, and service still apply just as critically.

The Holy Family.  The model for both the natural family and the family of God is the Holy Family.  There we find mutuality in the relationships; we find compassion, kindness, and humility; gentleness and patience; we find obedience to parents long with the respect for the uniqueness of children.  Jesus, the Son of God, submitted to his human mother and father.  Mary and Joseph, who exercised authority over Jesus, also stood in wonder of him.

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