The Holy Family
29 December 2013
Fr. Patrick S. Allen
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On Christmas Eve at the Midnight Mass we heard from St. Luke’s Gospel that when the shepherds heard the angel’s announcement they went to Bethlehem “with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.”
Last week the Catholic writer Elizabeth Scalia published a short, fictional description of what that encounter must have been like for the shepherds when they found the Holy Family (“A Shepherd I’ll Remain”). Here is here imagining of that moment of encounter:
All is as we have been told. As we approach I see tears coursing down my father’s weathered face, and he does nothing to stanch them. My uncle stands in muted awe, lamb still across his shoulders, and my cousin steps eagerly forward and is stayed by a man. He is older than our own fathers and his countenance is careworn, kindly—radiant, within that luminescence. We tell him what we have seen—that we have been invited—and he tells us his name, Joseph, and permits us to linger at the edge and peer within. We behold a young mother cuddling a newborn. Having fed him of herself, she is in the act of placing him on the freshly-lain, sweet-smelling straw with which the manger has been filled. After a glance at Joseph, she raises the babe, that we might better see him. She holds him high against her breast, showing off her son with obvious pride and love, and with her right hand she makes a gesture of presentment. We are confounded to adore him with an ardor strangely equal to her own. Finally, she lays the child down. In the food bin, he rests.
These first witnesses, these first worshipers, beheld Jesus in the context of a family – a mother, a father, and a newborn son. That is why in the Church’s yearly pattern of devotion on this, the first Sunday after Christmas, we keep this great feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. And of course in a week’s time we will keep the feast of the Epiphany when our Lord was manifested to the Gentiles in the mysterious persons of the Magi, who, again, discover “the King of the Jews” whose star they had seen in the East precisely in the context of a family. The family – the normal, human family – is the context in which Jesus is known and must be understood. And so on this day we are invited to contemplate this image, this icon, of the Holy Family in which the little little Lord Jesus “appears as the center of his parents’ affection and care” (http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/angelus/2010/documents/hf_ben-xvi_ang_20101226_santa-famiglia_en.html.
It’s in this context that we understand that Jesus shared our full humanity, that he really one of us, one with us – not only in the strictly biological sense (important as that is), but in the normal social, developmental, and experiential senses as well. He grew and matured in the virtues of faith and love just as any child, any many man, ordinarily does – if he does – that is, from his parents. From them Jesus came “to know the beauty of faith, of love for god and his law… the demands of justice, which are fulfilled in love.”
And it is in this context, the context of our own families, of course, that we come to know him. We have in our Old Testament and Epistle readings today meditation on and instruction in family life. Sirach speaks to us of the honor children ought to bear toward parents, especially in their old age. St. Paul speaks of the gentleness, respect, and loving obedience that ought to obtain within the family. But, as Pope Benedict once pointed out, the Gospels really contain no discourses, no significant instruction from our Lord, on family life. However, our Pope Emeritus pointed out, they contain “an event which is worth far more than any words: God wanted to be born and grow up in a human family. In this way he consecrated the family as the first and ordinary means of his encounter with humanity” (http://opeast.org/2013/12/24/preachers-sketchbook-feast-of-the-holy-family-of-jesus-mary-and-joseph/).
“The first and ordinary means of his encounter with humanity.” Children will see, or not see, something of God’s tender love in the way they are cared for by their parents. They will learn the laws and precepts of the Church not so much by, or not so deeply by, explicit lessons as by the example of their parents’ faithful and joyful observance.
I don’t think I need here to belabor the point of how important the family is – but precisely because the family is so important, so foundational for the raising of children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, it is therefore all the more important that we do not let it become an idol. The family is a beautiful means to an even more wonderful end – a saving encounter with the Lord Jesus – it is not an end in itself.
Because family is hard. It is difficult to maintain a marriage, to raise children as Christians in a culture that is seemingly everyday more hostile to and corrosive of the virtues and priorities of faith. And when we allow family to become an idol, well, it just can’t bear the weight. Children will disappoint, spouses will stumble, parents will fail. I won’t even mention the scourge of siblings! And if a shiny happy family is our ultimate end, our goal, our idol, then we won’t know what to do when the problems come, as they must.
So you see, the family is a school for the virtues of Christian faith because the family so desperately needs the virtues of Christian faith.
Blessed John Paul II put it this way: “The Church is deeply convinced that only by acceptance of the Gospel are the hopes that man legitimately places in marriage and in the family capable of being fulfilled” (http://opeast.org/2013/12/24/preachers-sketchbook-feast-of-the-holy-family-of-jesus-mary-and-joseph/). And to “accept the Gospel” is to accept, and to embrace, and to cling to the truth that God in Christ has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves; that Christ is our righteousness; that we are the objects of God’s love and mercy and patience and forgiveness. And having accepted the Gospel, the family is, again, “the first and ordinary” context in which we learn to extend that same love, mercy, patience, and forgiveness. Which is to say, that it is the first and ordinary means, the first and ordinary location, of our daily conversion to Christ, so that the image and likeness of God, our true humanity, is restored in us.
In the Holy Family, in the Babe at its heart, we see that perfect image and likeness. That family was not aloof from the trials of normal family life. Right from the beginning, like any parents, and each in her and his own way, Mary and Joseph had to make the decision to receive this child as a gift given and intended by God, with all the life-altering burdens that would normally entail, and the special burdens this particular child would entail. Joseph in the dead of night leading his wife and child away from home and kin to Egypt, as we have read in this morning’s Gospel. There was the sword that would pierce Mary’s own heart as she kept her station at her son and Lord’s cross. But by their faithfulness, by the burdens they would carry, by the love they gave one another, this babe would grow, as St. Luke tells us, “in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man,” so that, when his hour came, he would fully and perfectly offer himself up to his Father in heaven, and our salvation would be accomplished. That’s what a family can be and do.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, save souls! And renew the Christian family!
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