December 30, 2018
First Reading: Sirach 3:2-6
Responsorial: Psalm 128 1-2, 3, 4-5
Second Reading: Colossians 3: 12-17 OR
1 John: 3 1-2, 21-24
Gospel: Luke 2: 41-51
When I was growing up, I was always skeptical of the Holy Family as a model for all families. I saw depictions of this joyful, haloed threesome on holy cards, walking happily along a path lined with flowers, seemingly without a care in the world; it certainly didn’t look like my family! While I grew up in a loving home, I don’t remember similar strolls with my parents (along with my two brothers and a sister in tow). I can only imagine how this image must contrast with the everyday experience of parents who are living out their day-to-day commitment to each other and to the child/children they have brought into the world. I believe that the idealized “holy card” version of the Holy Family fails to reflect both the tensions and dynamism present in the relationship of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as described in the Gospel — and risks proposing a completely impossible model for a family to imitate.
A close reading of the Gospel does not depict the Holy Family as otherworldly. Quite the contrary — it reflects the reality of the incarnation, the messiness of human family life. Apart from the supernatural elements that Luke adds to underline the importance of Jesus, if we look at “just the facts,” the coming of Jesus takes place in humility and want. Jesus is born to a couple ‘from the provinces” in a stable surrounded by cattle. Their subsequent return to Nazareth hardly presages greatness since this small village was regarded as a backwater — a sad place located near massacres perpetrated by the Roman authorities to deter rebellion. For that reason Nathanael asks the question in John’s Gospel, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”(Jn 1:46).
Today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke emphasizes the fact that Jesus’ came from an observant Jewish family, obedient to the Law of Moses. They travel “every year” to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage feast of Passover in the company of family and friends. It was in Jesus’ twelfth year, however, that an incident occurs to which most parents can relate. Jesus exhibits independence from his parents that causes worry and heartache. Without telling either Mary or Joseph, for three days, he stays behind to “listen to and ask questions” of the teachers in the Temple. How could Jesus have been so thoughtless? Mary’s rebuke echoes what parents have been saying to their children from time immemorial, “…why have you done this to us?”Pope Francis’ exhortation on the family Amoris Laetitia (AL) offers an insight into this incident. He says that “we should remember that Jesus’ own family, so full of grace and wisdom, did not appear unusual or different from others. … Jesus did not grow up in a narrow and stifling relationship with Mary and Joseph but readily interacted with the wider family, the relatives of his parents and their friends. This explains how, on returning from Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph could imagine for a whole day that the twelve-year-old Jesus was somewhere in the caravan, listening to people’s stories and sharing their concerns…” (AL 182).
This story of Jesus’ youthful “rebellion” belies the “holy card” image of his family. Ironically it is because of the freedom and trust that Mary and Joseph placed in Jesus that he had the freedom and confidence to set out on his own. In a way, they paid the price for not being “helicopter” parents. In looking at the Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, then, we see that concern and heartaches are a natural part of good parenting. They often stem from a love that makes it possible for a child to follow his/her calling and make mistakes in judgment. Why should this be any different for the Holy Family as it is for our own families? If we take the incarnation seriously, Mary and Joseph must have had other trials like the one described in our reading this day from Luke’s Gospel. Improbable as it may sometimes seem, the Holy Family can serve as a model for the today’s families by looking at Mary and Joseph who gave room for Jesus as truly human to come to a knowledge of himself and his call to be faithful to God.
Fr. Mark R. Francis, CSV
Professor of Liturgy