The Holy Family – December 30, 2011

Genesis 15:1-6;17:3b-5,15-16;21:1-7; Hebrews 11:8,11-12,17-19; Luke 2:22-40

On the last Sunday of the year, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family.  On this day we offer our own families and all the members of our community on the altar for God’s blessing from the Holy Family. The feast of the Holy Family reminds us that as the basic unit of the universal Church, each family is called to holiness. 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, the finding of Jesus in the temple and their life at Nazareth. By celebrating the Sunday following Christmas as the Feast of the Holy Family, the Church encourages us to look to the Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph for inspiration, example and encouragement.  They were a model family in which both parents worked hard, helped each other, understood and accepted each other, and took good care of their Child so that he might grow up not only in human knowledge but also as a Child of God. The Entrance Antiphon sums up the theme of today´s liturgy and its intimate connection with the Christmas mystery we continue to celebrate: “The shepherds hastened to Bethlehem, where they found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.” What they found, in essence, was the family in which Jesus came into this world and in which he would be cared for and grow.

Every human family is in God´s plan. From the time of creation God did not want man to be alone but he created the human race as a family.   He intended that the Son of God, who is like us “in all things but sin” was born into a human family. This  communion of persons on earth is a sign and image of the communion of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit, is the human institution that best reflects the life of the Holy Trinity.   The Son of God had emptied himself to assume the condition of a powerless and totally dependent infant to be like us in every way. He came into the world which is his own creation but his own people ignored him.   Even then God does not take recourse to any miraculous power to care for his son but makes use of the natural provision, family to look after him. The family constitutes in fact the privileged and protective environment into which God wills all of his children to be born and to grow. His plan for his only-begotten Son was no different. The Feast of the Holy Family is dedicated to the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, commemorating their life together in Nazareth and calling us to focus on Catholic family life.  Today, in celebrating the Holy Family, we ask God’s blessings on our own families. 

The Church places great importance on Christian Family and has the Holy Family as our model. But the devotion to the Holy Family is a recent development and one that naturally grew out of a love for Jesus and his family. The cult of the Holy Family grew in popularity in the 17th century, and several religious congregations have been founded under this title. The Holy Family also became portrayed in popular art of the period. Pope Leo XIII promoted the feast as a way to counter the breakdown of the family unit, mainly as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution. Towards the end of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of twentieth, the existing situation prompted the popes, especially the far-sighted Leo XIII, to promote the observance of this feast with the hope that it might instill into Christian families something of the faithful love and the devoted attachment that characterize the family of Nazareth. The primary purpose of the Church in instituting and promoting this feast is to present the Holy Family as the model and exemplar of all Christian families. In 1921 the Congregation of Rites under Pope Benedict XV inserted the Feast of the Holy Family into the Latin Rite general calendar.  The feast indicates that God desires all to flourish in families in which love of God and love of the other guides every action and thought.

The First Reading of today taken from the book of Genesis tells us that the Word of the Lord came to Abraham in a vision. We are told that Abraham and Sarah were childless and advanced in age. They were concerned that whatever they possessed, it would be handed down to a slave as their heirs. But, God told Abraham that this was not so. If he was to look up in the sky at all the stars, God promised that his descendants would be as many as those shining lights. Abraham believed the Word of God that was fulfilled and his faith made him righteous in the eyes of the Lord. Through the faith of Abraham began the progressive growth of God’s chosen people and God’s choice was limited to the Jewish Nation. By obeying God in our living faith, Abraham was assured of God’s ongoing blessings. Abraham and Sarah had their child because they believed and obeyed. As Abraham believed in faith and set out for a place where he was to receive his inheritance, not knowing where he was going.  Like him we are also called to walk in blind faith, not knowing where God’s Divine Providence will lead us.

In the second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, we hear of the example of Abraham and the importance and the power of faith in a family.  Here we are reminded of the call of God in the forming of the family. The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us throughout this chapter how God called many Old Testament figures to put their trust in him and his promises. Here Abraham is singled out as the most obedient of all God’s servants.  The passage tells us of Sarah who by faith, though barren, received power to conceive, even when she was too old, because she considered God, who had made the promise, to be faithful. It tells us that Abraham had his faith tested when God asked him to sacrifice his only son Isaac, on the mountain chosen by God. Abraham obeys without any hesitation and is ready to offer his only son.  He is rewarded plentifully for his trust in God. The key to his inner sacrificing life was faith. Because he believed in the Word of God, he went to a foreign land and there a son was born to him.  Now God promises him a larger family as numerous as the stars in the sky.

In the Gospel of today we have Joseph, Mary and Jesus going to Jerusalem where they will ritually redeem Mary’s firstborn son and where she will be ritually purified. We hear the prophesy and blessing of Simeon the Prophet on the Holy Family. Today the Holy family is given to us an example for all Christian families to look towards this earthly trinity as an example, inspiration and encouragement. We find all the three aspects in today’s Gospel. Whenever a Jewish couple became parents of a firstborn son, two ritual acts were required. First, they had to redeem the firstborn son or buy him back from the Lord because it was rightly to the Lord he belonged.  The second ritual was the purification of the mother, which  was aimed at making her ritually clean. Luke does not give us how these rituals were performed in the Temple. He shows their humble unquestionable obedience to the Mosaic Law, a law to which they were not really bound, is an example and encouragement to all. Mary because of the virginal conception and the birth of Jesus the Son of God, did not need the legal purification.  Jesus himself being the divine person did not have to be redeemed or purchased from God.  His whole life on earth was going to be uninterrupted service of God. Joseph as Father and Head of the Family silently accompanies Mary and the child to Jerusalem.

Luke in the gospel intends to show us that Mary and Joseph were a typical pious Jewish couple, who went about their business doing all that was required and expected of good observant Jews.  The fact that they were poor can be deduced from the detail that their sacrificial offering was the lowest required: a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons.  The ordinary offering would be a lamb but exceptions were made for those who could not afford it.  The Gospel tells us of the silent offering of the three persons of themselves to God, as a family.  After this they returned to Nazareth to live a life of obscurity and poverty for the next thirty years. They were probably often short of necessities of life, the earnings of Joseph as a village carpenter may not have been high.  They willingly accepted the simple ordinary life in a remote village, living in harmony, observing the laws prescribed, visiting the Temple and Synagogue and living an exemplary life. They indeed accepted God’s will and having understood partially at least the salvific role of Jesus, they were ready to accept the suffering and pain that came along the way. They are for us a true example of what a family life should be here on earth.

Today’s gospel speaks of two other persons Simeon and Anna, who are characterized as being lifelong righteous and devout Jews, who encounter Jesus, Mary and Joseph during their ritual visit in the Temple.  Their purpose is simply to point out who Jesus really is and his destiny is going to be the salvation of Israel.  There is dark and painful side of the Prophesy in that Simeon indicates that Jesus will run into many obstacles and Mary herself will have to suffer on his account. Simeon spoke guided by the Holy Spirit and this in reality was God’s greater plan.  The old woman Anna, too, on seeing the child, breaks into praising God. And she spoke of him to all who looked forward to the liberation of Jerusalem. She gives her silent witness to the world’s longing for salvation through him. We look at the response of the Holy Family here towards this sudden encounter. They are totally amazed by what these two prophets had to say.  They are portrayed as being unaware that their son was anything other than ordinary first born son. Perhaps this was the time for Mary to ponder once more the Annunciation scene where the angel had told her that he would be king. Certainly it was time for Joseph and Mary to understand more fully their responsibility before God to protect the child and they return to Nazareth unfazed by all this.  The Gospel tells us that in Nazareth Jesus grew into adulthood and grew in wisdom, while God’s favor was with him.

Mary, Joseph and Jesus model for us the life of the Holy Family. Joseph exhibited great trust in God and demonstrated intense devotion and love in caring for Mary and Jesus. Scripture does not quote a single word of Joseph, and yet his actions speak volumes of a strong man devoted to God and family. Mary, too, showed tremendous faith in God and trusted in God’s love for her. As wife, she helped Joseph in his quest for holiness. As mother, she cared for Jesus with great love and tenderness. Both Mary and Joseph created the environment which allowed Jesus to grow in wisdom and age and favour before God and man. Jesus, for his part, was obedient to Mary and Joseph and obviously loved them both very much.  Out of great love for his Father and for us, he was obedient to all that God asked of him, including death on a cross. This type of sacrificial love for the other defines a significant attribute of a holy family– a love that allows all in the family to flourish in their quest for holiness.

The Feast of the Holy Family is not just about the Holy Family, but about our own families too. This Feast aims 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. We do this by making Christ the center of family and individual life. This is possible by living together in harmony, supporting each other and living our faith to the full through spiritual and religious practices. The Holy Family feast is a good time to remember the family unit and pray for our human and spiritual families. We also may take this feast to reflect on the value and sanctity of the family unit, and to evaluate our own family life.  We also consider our role to promote the value of the family in the world and to imitate the Holy Family that is Jesus, Mary, and Joseph particularly in our own cultures, neighborhoods, and communities.

Pope Benedict XVI during his pilgrimage to the Holy land invited all to contemplate always the silence and love of the Holy Family, the model of all Christian family life. 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.  We see around us today the breakdown of families and the uncertainty and the anxiety of many. We pray to the Holy Family to inspire into our hearts the mutual love necessary to build a harmonious family.

A little kid narrates the story of burnt biscuits: When I was a kid, my mom liked to make breakfast food for dinner every now and then. And I remember one night in particular when she had made breakfast after a long, hard day at work. On that evening so long ago, my mom placed a plate of eggs, sausage and extremely burned biscuits in front of my dad. I remember waiting to see if anyone noticed. Yet all my dad did was reach for his biscuit, smile at my mom and ask me how my day was at school. I don’t remember what I told him that night, but I do remember watching him smear butter and jelly on that biscuit and eat every bite. When I got up from the table that evening, I remember hearing my mom apologize to my dad for burning the biscuits. And I’ll never forget what he said: “Honey, I love burned biscuits.” Later that night, I went to kiss Daddy good night and I asked him if he really liked his biscuits burned. He wrapped me in his arms and said, “Your Momma put in a hard day at work today and she’s real tired. And besides – a little burnt biscuit never hurt anyone.”  Life is full of imperfect things…..and imperfect people. I’m not the best at hardly anything, and I forget birthdays and anniversaries just like everyone else. But what I’ve learned over the years is that learning to accept each other’s faults – and choosing to celebrate each other’s differences – is one of the most important keys to creating a healthy, growing, and lasting relationship. And that’s my prayer for you today. That you will learn to take the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of your life and lay them at the feet of God.

Fr. Eugene Lobo S.J. Rome

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