1 Samuel 1:11, 20-22, 24-28; 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24; Luke 2:41-52
The Feast of the Holy Family is a liturgical celebration in honour of Jesus, his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and his foster father, St Joseph. This feast was instituted by Pope Leo XIII in 1893, on the Sunday within the Octave of the Epiphany. In the calendar promulgated in 1969, the feast was moved to the Sunday within the Octave of Christmas. The feast was kept as special day to consider the dignity of the family and to show our respect to the persons of the earthly trinity. From its early days, the church placed special emphasis on the importance of Family as a key unit in the structure of the Church.
The Holy Family is the name given to the family unit of Jesus: The Divine Son of God Jesus, his mother Mary, and his foster-father Joseph. We know very little about the life of the Holy Family through the Canonical Scriptures. They speak of the early years of the Holy Family, including the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the flight into Egypt, and the finding of Jesus in the temple. Various non-canonical works, including the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, try to fill in the blanks. However, even though these apocryphal works may contain some truth from oral tradition, they have been deemed unworthy of canonical status because of the way they present Jesus. The readings of today speak of the family as a gift of God. Hannah reminds us in the first reading that every child is a gift of God. As parents consider every child a divine gift and this gift has to be offered to God which Hannah does. Mary and Joseph experience the awakening in their child Jesus his life’s direction. Already now Jesus assumes the responsibility God has placed onto him. Even though they do not fully grasp its implication they go back with him to Nazareth and we have the example of the Holy Family. St John reminds us that we are all children of God and a gift from God begotten in love and called to give back that love only to God.
In our First Reading from the First Book of Samuel we have the story of Hannah praying for a child. We see the earnestness in her prayers and the promises she makes to God in order to receive this gift. The Lord listened to her fervent prayer and blesses her with a son whom she calls Samuel which literally means “Name of God.” For three years she cares and nurtures her son and then she brings him to the Temple and offers him to God as a special gift. Here Hannah reminds us that every child is special gift from God and we receive the child as a special blessing. A gift when reciprocated it becomes complete and that is what Hannah and her husband did with the child. The child now grows full in the spirit in the Lord and is getting ready for the mission.
The Second Reading of today reminds us of the centrality of love. Because God loves us, we are the children of God. In addition to our own family, we also belong to God’s family: we are all brothers and sisters to each other because of our common Father and we share his life. There is then an obligation for all of us to care for each other. Married couples and parents should not be left on their own. St John tells us of our relationship with God which is a total commitment to Jesus Christ and his Way, and at the same time a call to love one another. These things are precious and irreplaceable. We are called the children of God and hence members of one family. We were reminded of the great love that the Father has given us. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believers in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.” In the truest and most absolute sense, there can be no greater love than this unique love of God. It is this free gift, undeserved by us sinners, that has made it possible “that we be called children of God.” With the help of Jesus and his spirit we grow in love for one another and bring great gift to the church family. This calls us to live in fidelity to God which is confirmed by obeying His commandments and doing what pleases Him.
The Nativity story of Jesus tells us that God chose to come into our world by being born as an infant and live as a human person. God, who created us in love, is showing us that God wants our love by coming to us in the neediest form of human life: a newborn child. That meant that God wanted to be born and to grow up in a human family, just as each of us does. The very first way that God encountered humanity in our flesh was in the family. The family is the place where Jesus grew and became strong and filled with wisdom, taught by Mary and Joseph. The family is the place where we grow and learn all the important lessons of life. When we read the Gospel that speaks of Jesus’ early years, we see that it was not all wonderful, not all peace and light, not all ideal for the Holy Family. The gospel tells of the family travelling to Jerusalem to fulfil their religious obligations on the birth of their first son. We are told that they offered the required sacrifice, which for them was a pair of small birds. The normal sacrifice would have been a sheep. But they were too poor to afford that offering and had to give something less.
In today’s Gospel, we heard how Jesus is lost in the Temple during their obligatory visit. Only parents who have had a child go missing in a big and strange city can really appreciate the agony the parents of this only child must have experienced. And it was three whole days before they eventually found him again. For parents in such a situation that must have seemed like eternity. Jerusalem was full of strangers and there were undoubtedly people around who could be dangerous. This narrative tells us of the close bond of the family and at the same time the underlying mission of Jesus. What was important for Mary and Joseph was to find the child that was lost. For Mary the words of Simeon were still fresh in her heart reminding her of the sword. The child Jesus had enemies trying to kill him and she had the task of protecting him. This pictures the very human side of the Holy Family. They found him discussing with Rabbis would have surprised them and yet they express their anxiety as to why he did this act. Regardless of his explanations it was difficult for them to understand and Mary ponders these things in her heart.
The Feast of the Holy Family is not just about the Holy Family, but about our own families too. The main purpose of the Feast is to present the Holy Family as the model for all Christian families, and for domestic life in general. Our family life becomes sanctified when we live the life of the Church within our homes. This is called the “domestic church” or the “church in miniature.” St. John Chrysostom urged all Christians to make each home a “family church,” and in doing so, we sanctify the family unit. The best way is by making Christ and his Church the centre of family and individual life. St. Paul gives us some advice on family life in Colossians, Chapter 3: Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.
The feast of the Holy Family is a good time to remember the family unit and pray for our human and spiritual families. We also take this feast to reflect on the value and sanctity of the family unit, and to evaluate our own family life. Finally, we can use this feast to ask ourselves what we are doing to promote the family within our own cultures, neighbourhoods, and communities. Pope Benedict XVI said during his pilgrimage to the Holy land that we must contemplate ever anew the silence and love of the Holy Family, the model of all Christian family life. Here, in the example of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, we come to appreciate even more fully the sacredness of the family, which in God’s plan is based on the lifelong fidelity of a man and a woman consecrated by the marriage covenant and accepting of God’s gift of new life. Here too, we think of Saint Joseph, the just man whom God wished to place over his household. From Joseph’s strong and fatherly example Jesus learned the virtues of a manly piety, fidelity to one’s word, integrity and hard work. In the carpenter of Nazareth he saw how authority placed at the service of love is infinitely more fruitful than the power which seeks to dominate. Finally, we turn to the child Jesus, who in the home of Mary and Joseph grew in wisdom and understanding, until the day he began his public ministry. We pray for our families that we may be filled with love of the Holy Family.
Fr Eugene Lobo SJ, Rome