Scripture and the Liturgy

Feast of the Holy Family

The Readings for the Feast of the Holy Family

The Sunday within the octave of Christmas is always dedicated to contemplation of the Holy Family, giving us the opportunity to meditate on the way in which the family structure, established by God and perfectly mirrored in the Holy Family, reflects His own familial nature (as Father, Son, and Spirit) and shows us the truth about ourselves and our deepest longings for love, acceptance, and communion with other persons.

The Readings for this beautiful feast provide the celebrant with two options for a set of Readings: the standard Readings for the feast (ABC): Sirach 3:2-14; Psalm 128; Col 2:12-21; and Matt 2:13-23.  Then, there are the optional alternative readings for Year C: 1 Sam 1:20-28; Ps 84 (selections); 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24; and Luke 2:41-52.  The Readings are chosen as a thematic whole, so it is best not to “mix and match” between the two sets of Readings.  In what follows, I will provide comments on all the Reading options, both ABC and C.  (See here for the full readings options:

1.  The First Reading (ABC) is 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.

Sirach is the last of the wisdom books in the Catholic order of the canon, and may be regarded as a massive summation of the Israelite wisdom tradition composed c. 200 BC.  In fact, Sirach is truly a meditation on the entire body of Israel’s Scriptures from the perspective of wisdom, that is, the practical knowledge of successful living.  Because Sirach provides such a useful digest of the moral message of the Old Testament Scriptures, the early Church used it heavily in catechesis, earning it the name “Ecclesiasticus,” that is, “the Church book.”

Sirach excels in giving practical advice—teaching people the application of natural virtues in daily life.  Early on, the Church realized that it was difficult to catechize pagan cultures that did not practice the natural virtues well.  Theological virtues—faith, hope, and love—rest upon and perfect the natural virtues—prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.  The Book of Sirach was employed to form people in basic Judaeo-Christian morality and family life.  Leading a moral and well-ordered natural life is, of course, not ultimate goal of the Christian life—union with God is.  However, it is very difficult to make progress in union with God in the midst of immorality and disorder.

The teaching of the Book of Sirach frequently strikes us these days as quaint or dated.  However, our modern alternatives to the moral vision laid out in this book have not been empirically successful—by almost any psychological or sociological measure, our culture is growing more unhealthy and dysfunctional.  Sirach has been treasured in Christianity (and even in Judaism) for centuries because its principles work.

The first paragraph of this Reading from Sirach focuses on the responsibility of children to revere their parents.  One’s relationship with one’s parents affects one’s relationship to God: it preserves one from sin, merits forgiveness of sin, and makes one’s prayers efficacious. 

Happy is the person who finds it easy to revere his father and mother, because they are virtuous and admirable people!  You are truly blessed in body and soul.  But many of us meditating on these Readings struggle with this command to revere parents, because we have been hurt by them: perhaps we are children of divorce, or were abandoned my father or mother.  Perhaps we suffered abuse of some kind.  How then do we react to this Reading?

It is still applicable to us.  Our identity is so strongly bound up with our parents that hatred of them becomes self-hatred, damaging us at the core of our being.  So for the sake of our own health and the health of our relationship to God, we need to pray for divine strength—what we call “Grace”—to forgive hurts that otherwise are beyond our ability to forgive, and ask God to show us whatever was good, true, and beautiful in our parents, in order that we may emphasize and dwell on that.

Isn’t this part of “loving our neighbors as ourselves”?  Aren’t we conscious of ways we sinned against our own children, and don’t we hope they will come one day to forgive our vices and emphasize our virtues?  This Reading from Sirach is, in a way, an application to the child-parent relationship of the principle of the Lord’s prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we have forgiven those who trespass against us,” because “if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.  (Matt 6:14-15).”

The second paragraph of this First Reading especially commends honoring one’s father in his old age.  These verses remind us of the times that Pope Francis, like his predecessors, has emphasized that the moral measure of a society—and we may add, of individuals, too—is how we treat the very old and the very young, those who don’t seem to “contribute” very much to the economy.  This de-supernaturalized way of evaluating human worth is contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The elderly deserve honor and care for their own sake, as image-bearers of God.  Moreover, since there is an order to charity, those closest to us (like our parents) have the first claim on our love.  Therefore, much later in salvation history, St. Paul will affirm: “If any one does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim 5:8).  Why “worse than an unbeliever?”  Because he brings discredit to the Christian faith.

1c.  The First Reading option for Year C is 1 Sam 1:20-22, 24-28, the preferred choice to complement the Gospel Reading of the Finding of the Boy Jesus in the Temple:

In those days Hannah conceived, and at the end of her term bore a son
whom she called Samuel, since she had asked the LORD for him.
The next time her husband Elkanah was going up
with the rest of his household
to offer the customary sacrifice to the LORD and to fulfill his vows,
Hannah did not go, explaining to her husband,
“Once the child is weaned,
I will take him to appear before the LORD
and to remain there forever;
I will offer him as a perpetual nazirite.”

Once Samuel was weaned, Hannah brought him up with her,
along with a three-year-old bull,
an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine,
and presented him at the temple of the LORD in Shiloh.
After the boy’s father had sacrificed the young bull,
Hannah, his mother, approached Eli and said:
“Pardon, my lord!
As you live, my lord,
I am the woman who stood near you here, praying to the LORD.
I prayed for this child, and the LORD granted my request.
Now I, in turn, give him to the LORD;
as long as he lives, he shall be dedicated to the LORD.”
Hannah left Samuel there.

Hannah is one of the more important types of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Old Testament.  Hannah’s name is a feminine form of the Hebrew word for “grace” or “favor,” (Heb. hēn), so her name is quite literally “Grace,” a foreshadowing of a woman who would be “full of grace” (Luke 1:28).  Both women, Hannah and Mary, had natural impediments to childbirth: Hannah was barren, Mary was virginal.  Both bore sons who were answers to prayer, boys who became priest-prophets and saviors for their people.  Thus it has long been recognized that the narratives about Samuel’s childhood in the early chapters of 1 Samuel have influenced Luke’s telling (or else his source materials) for the infancy narratives in Luke 1-2.  For example, it is useful to compare Hannah’s song of thanksgiving in 1 Sam 2:1-10 with the Blessed Mother’s “Magnificat” in Luke 1:46-55 and note the many similarities.  Again, we may note that Luke twice refers to Jesus “growing in wisdom and favor with God and men” (Luke 2:40,52), which is modeled on the summary of Samuel’s childhood in 1 Sam 2:26.

The point of the similarities is that the life and ministry of Jesus is not unexpected and unanticipated.  Though he is the unique God-Man, yet the people of God have been prepared for his coming over centuries by a chain of great prophetic saviors who foreshadowed him.

This First Reading has a particular parallel to the Gospel of Luke 2:41-52: in both narratives, the young boy-prophet is brought up to Israel’s central sanctuary and left there. 

Before moving on to the other Readings, let us remark briefly on the moral or practical sense of this First Reading, that is, how it may instruct us in a lifestyle that pleases God.  In this passage we see that the conception of Samuel is the answer to his mother’s prayer, demonstrating God’s ultimate power to open and shut the womb.  The Catholic Church always shows reverence for God’s sovereignty over matters of life and death, in part by refraining from the illegitimate manipulation over both processes, whether through contraception, in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, euthanasia, or unwarranted application of the death penalty.  It is strange that in an era in which there is such respect for the natural order, such efforts not to disturb the environment through “excess carbon emissions,” destruction of the rainforest, or the introduction of genetically modified organisms, there yet remains such contempt and disdain for Catholic reverence for the natural order of conception and childbirth, and for the natural process of death.  Again, this Catholic reverence is an expression of deference to the sovereignty of God in matters of human destiny, a deference supported in today’s First Reading.  Hannah also respects the natural order by breast-feeding her child until he is three, the traditional time of weening in the ancient world.  Physiologically this is ideal for childhood development and the bonding between mother and child.  But it is often not possible in modern society which prioritizes employment outside the home and pressures mothers to “work” in addition to raising their children, as if the raising of children were not the most important “work” a human being could be engaged in, short of the explicit worship of God.

Again, in this Reading we note the generosity of Hannah, that she corresponds to God’s generosity toward herself (God gave her a son) by returning God’s love (giving her son to God).  This correspondence of generosity is a virtue we also see in Our Blessed Mother, who, having received Jesus from God, in turn gives him back to God at the foot of the cross (John 19:25).  This example is instructive for those of us who are parents. We need to be reminded that our children are ultimately gifts from God, given to us not to simply please us and perpetuate a family legacy, but given to us to be cared for on God’s behalf, and ultimately offered for his service.  And although our children can serve God in many ways, this text reminds us that many are needed for the service of “the sanctuary,” which is now the Church.  Vocations are desperately needed for the religious life and the priesthood, and these vocations are fostered at home, by parents with generous hearts, gladly willing to offer their children for a life of service to God and his people.

P.  Responsorial Psalm (ABC) is Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5:

R. (cf. 1) Blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways.
Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD,
who walks in his ways!
For you shall eat the fruit of your handiwork;
blessed shall you be, and favored.
R. Blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways.
Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine
in the recesses of your home;
your children like olive plants
around your table.
R. Blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways.
Behold, thus is the man blessed
who fears the LORD.
The LORD bless you from Zion:
may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life.
R. Blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways.

This psalm emphasizes the natural blessing that family life is.  One of the blessings God grants to the one who fears him is the joy of married love and fruitfulness:

Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine
in the recesses of your home;
your children like olive plants
around your table.

This does not rule out the possibility that person may sacrifice the great good of family life in order more radically to be devoted to God through a life of celibacy (Matt 19:10-12). But the person who gives up family life because he or she has contempt for them, misunderstands the call to religious life.   Marriage and family life are a great good.  They mirror the life of the Trinity, since God Himself—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is familial in his nature.  “Father” and “Son,” after all, are family terms.  Apostolic celibacy gains its value because it is the sacrifice of a great good (a spotless lamb) in order more fully to dedicate this temporal life to God and to His sacramental family, the Church.

Sadly, marriage and family life are not even perceived as desirable goods by many in our culture.  Marriage rates are dropping and too often children are perceived as a burden and distraction from our career or hobbies.  Is that well-ordered?  Is one’s job at some corporation really a greater eternal good than one’s own child?  We are very far from seeing reality through the eyes of God.  

P. The optional Psalm for Year C is Ps 84:2-3, 5-6, 9-10:

R. (cf. 5a) Blessed are they who dwell in your house, O Lord.
How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!
My soul yearns and pines for the courts of the LORD.
My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.
R. Blessed are they who dwell in your house, O Lord.
Happy they who dwell in your house!
Continually they praise you.
Happy the men whose strength you are!
Their hearts are set upon the pilgrimage.
R. Blessed are they who dwell in your house, O Lord.
O LORD of hosts, hear our prayer;
hearken, O God of Jacob!
O God, behold our shield,
and look upon the face of your anointed.
R. Blessed are they who dwell in your house, O Lord.

In its canonical context, Psalm 84 is embedded among psalms that reflect the oppression and decline of the Davidic monarchy (kingdom of Judah) culminating in the exile reflected at the end of Psalm 89.  In the midst of this difficult time, the Temple is a place of consolation for the faithful of Israel, who come to learn that true peace is not found in the houses of men, but only the house of God. 

This Psalm fits with the First Reading and Gospel for Year C.  In both these Readings (1 Samuel 1 and Luke 2) we see faithful families making pilgrimage to the House of the Lord, either the Tabernacle or the Temple.  The lifestyle of a believing family should reflect respect and devotion for the place of worship—getting to Sunday Mass is the weekly “pilgrimage” of the modern Catholic family. 

There is also an interesting dynamic going on between the faithful family and the place of worship: both are icons or quasi-sacraments of God’s heavenly Temple.  The Catholic family and the Catholic church building are both images of this reality.  The family is the domestic church, and the church building is an external image of the true Church, which is built of “living stones” and consist of the mystical body of Christ, Christ alive in all his members.  In the end, Church, family, and Temple are all the same thing.  God’s “Temple” is the Church, which is composed of persons, all of whom have been united by the Holy Spirit into the Family of God.

It is natural, then, that individual nuclear families of believers would want to make pilgrimage to places of worship that image God’s true Temple.  The Catholic family finds itself at home in a Church, because the Church building is an external representation of the family’s true nature. 

On a practical note, the Church building can become a place of solace and refuge in the confusion of this present life.  When the news both outside and within the Church seems continually filled with confusion and strife between competing parties, the Catholic family needs to tune out the noise and rediscover God’s presence in such devotions as Eucharistic adoration.

2abc.  The Second Reading (ABC) is Col 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.

This Reading breaks down into two main sections: the first concerns how to behave with the spiritual family which is the Church, the second how to behave within the natural family, the ecclesia domestica, the domestic Church.

The second section lays out responsibilities of family members toward one another.  “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord.”  This is because, throughout Scripture, beginning with Adam in the Garden-sanctuary of Eden, the ideal held up for the father and husband is to serve as the priest or spiritual leader of the family, the domestic church.  To do this, he needs the support of his wife.  He needs her both to expect and to respect him as the “family priest,” as it were.  The children will take their cue from their mother.  If they see she does not respect her husband or look to him for spiritual leadership, the family becomes disordered.  Let’s remember the Blessed Mother, who—though she was the sinless Mother of God—looked with respect on St. Joseph and honored him as her husband. 

To lead the family toward God is the responsibility of a husband and father, but one that is frequently shirked.  When I worked in urban ministry, I encountered fathers who were willing to send their kids to Church or youth programs, as long as they weren’t involved.  I told them they’d do more for their children by leaving the kids and home and coming to worship themselves.

St. Paul moves on to speak of the husband’s responsibility: “love your wives and avoid any bitterness toward them.”  A longer treatment of the husband’s responsibility is found in the famous passage of Ephesians 5, that likens the husband’s love of his wife to that of Christ for the Church.  Thus, the model of Christ’s love even to a sacrificial death is held out as normative for husbands.  This is a high calling.  It also rules out any abuse, any selfishness, any chauvinism, any “machismo” on the part of the husband.  Any such thing is a disorder incompatible with the command to love one’s wife as Christ loved the Church.  Though the husband many be the priest of the domestic church, this is for him a role of service, not one of “lording it over others” (see Luke 22:25-26). 

St. Paul moves on to speak of children and fathers.  “Children, obey your parents in everything.”  Of course, this does not mean to obey parents in anything that is sinful.  Obedience is always guided by the moral law of God.  In moral issues, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).  This holds true also for sins against our person.  We are not called to submit to offenses against our person perpetrated by one in authority.

But St. Paul presumes the good will of parents in this passage, and so says, “obey your parents in everything,” knowing that parents typically have the best interest of their children at heart, and that, moreover, willful disobedience just introduces chaos into the home. 

Then he says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.”  Notice that he addresses fathers!  He assumes that fathers take an active role in the raising of their children, and of setting family policy!  He assumes they do more than come home from work and sit on the couch drinking beer and watching football!  The role of the father is so important in children’s development.  Let’s not listen to the lies of those who say the father can be replaced without harm: that is bad science and bad theology.  The father who is a strong, loving, and directing presence in his children’s lives contributes greatly to their spiritual and psychological health, and makes it easier for them to find faith in a God who calls Himself “Father.”

2c. The optional Second Reading for Year C is 1 Jn 3:1-2, 21-24:

See what love the Father has bestowed on us
that we may be called the children of God.
And so we are!
The reason the world does not know us
is that it did not know him.
Beloved, we are God’s children now;
what we shall be has not yet been revealed.
We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him,
for we shall see him as he is.

Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us,
we have confidence in God and receive from him whatever we ask,
because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.
And his commandment is this:
we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ,
and love one another just as he commanded us.
Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them,
and the way we know that he remains in us
is from the Spirit he gave us.

The liturgical season of Christmas is marked by the reading of 1 John.  The Church turns to this epistle from the Beloved Disciple in order to “go back to basics” at the start of the liturgical year.  St. John reminds us of the fundamental truths of our faith.

One such truth in this reading is the fact that we have become “children of God.”  This is not simply a metaphor for the creator-creature relationship.  This is a literal statement.  Through Baptism, we have received the Holy Spirit, which works an essential or ontological change—a change of our nature—conferring on us a likeness to God which makes us his children. 

True childhood is to share in nature of the Father.  It is not that spiritual childhood through the Holy Spirit is similar to real childhood which is biological.  Rather, biological childhood is similar to real childhood which consists in partaking of the Father’s nature through his Spirit. 

This is a unique truth of the Catholic faith—other religions do not teach that we are the children of God, or else they mean it only in a metaphorical way. The truth of divine childhood is even obscured in some non-Catholic forms of Christianity: many Protestant theologians deny divine filiation or reduce it to a metaphor. 

But the Apostle John was enthralled with the truth of divine filiation, and to the end of his life, his joy over being a son of God was not diminished.  Even as a very old man—for such he was when he authored this epistle—the excitement about being a child of God had not dimmed: “See what love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we may be called ‘children of God’.  And so we are!”  John uses the term “called” in its ancient Hebrew sense as “defining the nature of a person.”

Even though divine filiation is arguably the central truth of the Christian faith, in practice it has been and continues to be forgotten by so many Christians.  St. Josemaria Escriva “rediscovered” this truth in his early priestly ministry when God gave him the gift of infused prayer.  He writes about this experience as follows:

“I felt the action of God, bringing forth in my heart and on my lips, with the force of something imperatively necessary, this tender invocation: Abba! Pater!  (‘Abba! Father!’). . . . Probably I made that prayer out loud. And I walked the streets of Madrid for maybe an hour, maybe two, I can’t say; time passed without my being aware of it. People must have thought I was crazy. I was contemplating, with lights that were not mine, that amazing truth. It was like a lighted coal burning in my soul, never to be extinguished.”

“I understood that divine filiation had to be a basic characteristic of our spirituality: Abba, Pater!  And that by living their divine filiation, my children would be filled with joy and peace, protected by an impregnable wall. And they would be apostles of joy, communicating their peace, even in the face of their own or another’s suffering. Because we are convinced that God is our Father.”—St. Josemaria Escriva

G. The Gospel (ABC) is Matt 2:13-15, 19-23:

When the magi had departed, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt,
and stay there until I tell you.
Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”
Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night
and departed for Egypt.
He stayed there until the death of Herod,
that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled,
Out of Egypt I called my son.

When Herod had died, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream
to Joseph in Egypt and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel,
for those who sought the child’s life are dead.”
He rose, took the child and his mother,
and went to the land of Israel.
But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea
in place of his father Herod,
he was afraid to go back there.
And because he had been warned in a dream,
he departed for the region of Galilee.
He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth,
so that what had been spoken through the prophets
might be fulfilled,
He shall be called a Nazorean.

This Gospel is one of the few that focuses on St. Joseph as the protagonist.  Let’s recall a few facts about such a great but overlooked saint.  St. Joseph was of royal blood.  In fact, he himself was heir to the throne of Jerusalem: that is the point of the genealogy of Matthew 1.  However, although he is the legitimate heir, he has to flee from the imposter who actually sits on the throne: Herod, a half-Jewish, half-Edomite aristocrat and politician who bribed, manipulated, and married his way onto the throne of Israel.  Herod is one of the original anti-Christ figures of the Bible.

Although St. Joseph was of the royal line of the tribe of Judah, he’s named after the patriarch of a different tribe, one that always rivaled Judah for leadership of the twelve tribes of Israel (cf. Gen 49:10 & 26, NAB).  Like Joseph of the coat-of-many-colors fame, St. Joseph is particularly open to communication from God, and receives revelatory dreams that involve traveling to Egypt and preserving God’s people from harm.

In this period of salvation history, the safety of the Holy Family and thus the preservation of the hope of salvation for the entire human family is all in St. Joseph’s hands.  Mary is immaculate, the child Jesus divine, but like many good action movies, at the moment of crisis the plot is all in the hands of the one character who does not have “superpowers”!  In this way St. Joseph is a type of the believer: Jesus entrusts himself to us, he dwells within us through his Spirit and the Eucharist.  In a way, too, through the communion of saints in the Spirit, the Blessed Mother dwells with us (John 19:27).  But how well do we cherish the Lord and his mother who have been entrusted to us?  Do we allow their life to flourish, such that we can say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me?” (Gal. 2:20).

What does the Scripture highlight about St. Joseph?  What qualities does it put forward as the virtues that made him successful in the role to which God called him?

We note two qualities in this passage: (1) He was open to hear the voice of God, and (2) he was prompt in obedience.

Practically speaking, being open to hear the voice of God in our own lives usually requires certain habits, among which we may list: (1) devoting adequate time to prayer, including silence in prayer when we can let our heart be moved by God; (2) reading and meditating on Scripture, through which God speaks to us; (3) the counsel of a holy confessor or spiritual director; (4) the practice of penance and (at least small) mortifications, through which we develop detachment from the material goods and pleasures that often dull our spiritual senses.

Hearing the word of God for us must lead to action, however.  Some spiritual writers say that God stops sending inspirations when we habitually refuse to act on them. 

St. Joseph sets an example for all Christian fathers in particular, and for all believers generally, of how to hear God’s Word and obey it.  St. Joseph, pray for us!

Gc.  The Gospel for Year C is “The Finding of the Boy Jesus in the Temple,” 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.

New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham proposes a rather direct connection between the text of our First Reading this Gospel portion.  Bauckham suggests that the boy Jesus may have understood himself a priest-prophet designated from birth, on the model of Samuel, and that when his parents brought him up to the Temple on this occasion, he believed that the plan and expectation was that he would stay and begin his service in the Temple, as Samuel did.  The theory is speculative, but worth considering.  It would explain Jesus’ apparent confusion when his mother and father finally arrive: “Why were you looking?  Did you not know … ?”  In other words, Jesus thought his parent’s plan was that he would stay.

One of the obvious themes in this Gospel is the true origin of Jesus, or in other words, the true Fatherhood of Jesus.  Though Joseph is (rightly) called Jesus’ “father” by the Our Blessed Mother (“your father and I have been looking for you”), nonetheless Jesus responds “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”, reminding us of Jesus’ divine origin, and that Joseph was in the end only his adopted father.

At first we are tempted to say that for most of us, this is a difference between Jesus and ourselves.  We have natural biological fathers, but Jesus had God as his Father.  But again on further reflection, we have to admit that there is not so much difference—or better said, there is a closer analogy between our origin and Jesus’.  Like Jesus, those of us who have been baptized have been “born of God,” born in a supernatural way from a heavenly father: “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn 1:12-13).  This is the point of the Second Reading option from 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24Our biological fathers are in a sense merely adoptive fathers, stewards of our education and well-being until we can begin our lives of prophetic and priestly service to God.  All fatherhood has its origin in God (Eph 3:15 [Greek patria]), a point Jesus himself drives home with great force: “call no man on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father in heaven” (Mt 23:9).  In the church’s spiritual tradition, this powerful doctrine of childhood to God is called divine filiation, and it is the source of great joy for believers.  As we contemplate the Holy Family this Sunday, we need to ponder the fact that, like Jesus, we have a supernatural origin from God the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Having God as our Father makes it possible for us to break out of patterns of sin that we may have learned, consciously or unconsciously, from our human fathers—good men though they may have been—and live in “the glorious freedom of children of God” (Rom 8:21).

The moral sense of this Gospel also contains important reminders.  Although the whole incident with the loss of Jesus in the Temple was finally resolved without harm to anyone, nonetheless we must recognize the event must have been a terrible stress and strain on St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother.  This account reminds us that even in a family of two great saints and a divine child, misunderstandings arise and can cause strain on relationships.  Faithful living of the Christian virtues can alleviate many of the more obvious dysfunctions in family life, but are not a guarantee of freedom from all stress and difficulty.  There is some consolation in realizing this, and we can thank St. Luke for recording this incident, which reminds us that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph also had to bear with the sufferings of a fallen world, even though they did not participate in sin.

We are also instructed by the humility of Jesus, who being already wise in the Scriptures at the onset of his manhood (age twelve being a traditional time of transition from boy to man), nonetheless submitted to his parents and was “obedient to them.”  In families, as in all human organizations, there has to be some order of authority for the sake of the common good.  Often it happens that the one exercising authority is less gifted in various ways than those he or she is entrusted to lead and care for.  Such was the case in the Holy Family: St. Joseph was entrusted with its leadership, though he was neither immaculately conceived like his wife, nor divine like his son.  Perhaps he was tempted at times to feel inadequate to the job.  Yet in his role as father, he had the support of his obedient son and the trust of his wife, which certainly must have been a great encouragement.

The role of the father is greatly under attack in contemporary culture, and it is even becoming politically correct—even if wholly false from a scientific and objective perspective—to claim that fathers are optional, and children do just as well or better being raised, for example, by two women rather than by their own father and mother.  Yet the Scriptures assume that the Christian father is one who takes responsibility for, and thus leads, his family under the ultimate guidance of Christ himself.  So, going back to the Second Reading, we find that within the love of the Christian family, there remains an order of authority:

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.

This beautiful yet challenging text lays out the reciprocal responsibilities of the members of the Christian family. Jesus’ example of obedience to his parents reminds us that deference to proper authority is not based on some “superiority of essence,” for certainly the Lord’s parents were not superior beings to him.

The limit to obedience to authority is always the threshold of sin, for to obey someone to sin is to disobey a higher authority, God.  Therefore this text of St. Paul has to be understood in light of the full teaching of Christian and biblical morality.  Children are not obliged to follow their parents into sin—including sins against themselves, that is, against the children.  Likewise in the husband-wife relationship, the injunction to be “subordinate” only holds in the realm of morally permissible action.  The leadership of the husband is only valid as he follows Christ—a father’s authority in the home does not extend to violation of the law of Christ and the Church.

As we mature in our relationship with Christ, we begin to realize more and more than any position of leadership, whether in civil society (mayor, governor), business (boss, manager), the church (pastor, bishop), the home (father, mother) is a responsibility for the well-being of others, and more of burden (from a human perspective) than a privilege (see Matt 20:27-28; Mk 10:44-45; Lk 22:24-27).

Whatever our role in our respective families, this Feast Day presents an excellent opportunity for us to make an examination of conscience concerning whether we are living the virtues that make for “happy and cheerful Christian homes” (a phrase of St. Josemaría Escrivà). These virtues are largely listed in Colossians 3, one of the options for the Second Reading.  This text from Colossians would be an excellent one to take to personal prayer sometime during this Feast Day.

This Feast also presents us an opportunity to ask for the intercessions of the Holy Family to live family life while.  In a particular way, those of us who are fathers may wish to invoke St. Joseph for the help we need to fulfill a role for which we often are inadequate if left to our own resources.

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