The Holy Family with a Little Bird (c. 1650), Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
Of course, sometimes, when gathered with family, the less desirable sides of our human nature make an appearance. We end up sharing with them – and they with us – things less desirable than Christmas cookies and egg nog; things like old grudges, family disagreements, personal weaknesses, squabbles about politics or religion or any number of things. I remember someone telling me once that they never looked forward to the Feast of Holy Family, coming so shortly after Christmas, because they ended feeling as if their own family fell short in comparison.
The Holy Family – Jesus, Mary, and Joseph – certainly should be a model and inspiration holiness for us. The saints tell us that contemplating the inner life of the family of Nazareth, we can learn in our own families how to be kinder, more loving, more holy. But they also were a family that lived the same human reality that we do; though Mary and Jesus were without sin and Joseph a righteous man, they surely had moments of challenge, weariness, difficulty, just as all families do.
In the Gospel reading today, we hear about one such episode. For three days Mary and Joseph searched for Jesus in the large city of Jerusalem, their hearts no doubt as anxious as the hearts of any parent who has lost a child for just a few moments in a crowded public place. And when they finally find him, Jesus responds with this strange answer – that they should have known he would be in his Father’s house. Jesus, of course, is not being willfully insolent, as we might be at twelve years old. Instead, he is already helping his mother and foster father to understand something very important – that his Father has sent him for a mission, and that he is intent to fulfill that mission in its entirety. The purpose of the Incarnation, the Son of God becoming man, is that he might fulfill the will of the Father in restoring humanity back to holiness.
God could have chosen to save us from our sins in any number of ways, and yet he chose to become one of us to share our reality. And Jesus could have shared our human reality in any number of ways – as a great king or a conquering general – and yet he chose to come as a humble child, born into a family, living a domestic life that to outside appearances would not have seemed remarkable. And yet, the Holy Family shows us that the most important measure for any family is not the things we so often preoccupy ourselves with – the accomplishments of children, contentedness of the father and mother, security and achievement. Rather, it is in the daily living out of faith and hope and love – in short, in holiness – that any and every family lives out what God desires it to be.
This is why we as Catholics are so strong in our promotion of the family as the key to society. It's why we need good, holy marriages, which are open to life, and families that take time to pray together and attend Sunday Mass together. We need parents who will raise their children to understand why their Catholic faith is important, children who respect their parents as God’s guardians over them, spouses and siblings who look for opportunities to show sacrificial love to each other each day. The great English saint Thomas More once wrote that, “The ordinary acts we practice every day at home,” – that is, in our families – “are of more importance to our soul than their simplicity might suggest.” Never doubt that the daily routine of living as part of a human family, just as Jesus did, is a very important part of your path to heaven.
Even more important, I think, is the reminder today that Jesus has not just come as part of a Holy Family but to create a new family, one that we share in. Through Jesus we are members of the Body of Christ, the Church, we are intimately connected to the family life of Jesus – we too can call God our Father, we too look to Mary as Mother, we too honor with Joseph the Christ Child who has been born for us. Families today are so varied and diverse, and so often these things can be sources of division and alienation. But in the Holy Family, by being in a sense part of the Holy Family, by striving to live out the life of the Holy Family in our own families, we share more deeply in the peace and harmony that the Christ Child has come to bring. If you know that you or your family is not living out the life of a holy family in the best way, don’t feel bad – but turn to Jesus so that he may help you be the holy family he has called you to be.
My friends, the celebration of the Holy Family today is not intended as a comparison to our own families, as if to point out our own imperfections. Rather, we are reminded that no matter what our family situation may be – whether it’s relatively wonderful, our relatively difficult, or even if we have no human family to speak of – Jesus has made us part of his family. By opening ourselves, and helping our families to be open as well, to the grace of God, then we are lifted from imperfections and raised to something much greater, indeed, something everlasting. Let us strive to live as members of holy families now that we might one day rejoice to join the eternal Holy Family of Jesus in heaven.