Feast of the Holy Family - Sunday, December 29, 2013
Today’s readings for the Feast of the Holy Family take up the tension between rights and obligations. Our Scripture texts maintain that obligations have primacy over rights. Hence the truly human, genuinely Christian priority is not so much what others can do for me but rather what I can do for others. Preoccupation with self must be set aside as we cast ourselves in the role of servant rather than served. Serving and selflessness are at the core of authentic family life.
Honoring fathers and mothers
Ben Sira, the early second-century B.C. author of today’s first reading from Sirach [3:2-6,12-14], offers a brief but invaluable commentary on the fourth commandment: “Honor your father and your mother.” The author describes the earthly rewards that belong to those who revere their parents. Even to old and infirm parents this respect is due; through it, the sins of children are pardoned. Failure to render respect is blasphemy and merits a curse from God [3:16].
Life in the Christian Home
The second reading from Colossians [3:12-21], deals with the Christian life as it is to be lived in the Christian home. The characteristics of the believing family are mutual forgiveness, love, peace, and gratitude modeled on the self-giving of Christ.
A tragic adult story
In both today’s Gospel for Holy Family Sunday [Mt 2:13-15,19-23] and next Sunday’s Gospel for the Feast of the Epiphany [2:1-12], we realize once again that far from being a children’s tale, Matthew’s Infancy narrative of Jesus is a tragic adult story. A child is born at the same time as a death-dealing power rules. King Herod tries to co-opt the wise men to betray their journey, to end their commitment to future possibility and new life. At the centre of the whole story of striking contrasts lies a baby who is joy. Herod is afraid of this “great joy for all the people.”
[Mt 2:13-15,19-23] shows the family of Jesus to be clearly rooted in fidelity to God’s Word. Joseph accepts the command to leave Israel and then return again at a later date. Joseph places the accent on obligations first. Jesus must be the cohesive center of family life. The Holy Family is a wonderful example for us of the dignity and beauty of human and family life- it is here, in the house of Nazareth that Jesus learned how to reach out to the poor, lonely and defenseless. It was at Nazareth that something beautiful was transmitted from Mary and Joseph to their Son, Jesus.
Joseph, the righteous man
On this Sunday dedicated to families, let us reflect on the silent witness of St. Joseph in the Christmas stories. Joseph is not the biological father of Jesus, whose Father is God alone, and yet he lives his fatherhood fully and completely. He is often overshadowed by the glory of Christ and the purity of Mary. But he, too, waited for God to speak to him and then responded with obedience. Luke and Matthew both mark Joseph’s descent from David, the greatest king of Israel [Mt 1:1-16 and Luke 3:23-38]. Scripture has left us with the most important knowledge about him: he was “a righteous man” [Mt 1:18].
Joseph was a compassionate, caring man. When he discovered Mary was pregnant after they had been engaged, he knew the child was not his but was as yet unaware that she was carrying the Son of God. He planned to divorce Mary according to the law but he was concerned for her suffering and safety. Joseph was also a man of faith, obedient to whatever God asked of him without knowing the outcome. When the angel came again to tell him that his family was in danger, he immediately left everything he owned, all his family and friends, and fled to a strange country with his young wife and the baby. He waited in Egypt until the angel told him it was safe to go back [Mt 2:13-23].
We are told that Joseph was a carpenter, (more likely a builder), a man who worked to provide for his family. Joseph wasn’t a wealthy man, for when he took Jesus to the Temple to be circumcised and Mary to be purified he offered the sacrifice of two turtledoves or a pair of pigeons, allowed only for those who could not afford a lamb.
Joseph revealed in his humanity the unique role of fathers to proclaim God’s truth by word and deed. His paradoxical situation of “foster father to Jesus” draws attention to the truth about fatherhood, which is more than a mere fact of biological generation. A man is a father most when he invests himself in the spiritual and moral formation of his children. He was keenly aware, as every father should be, that he served as the representative of God the Father.
The Gospel, as we know, has not kept any word from Joseph, who carries out his activity in silence. It is the style that characterizes his whole existence, both before finding himself before the mystery of God’s action in his spouse, as well as when — conscious of this mystery — he is with Mary in the Nativity. On that holy night, in Bethlehem, with Mary and the Child, is Joseph, to whom the Heavenly Father entrusted the daily care of his Son on earth, a care carried out with humility and in silence.
Joseph, faithful and wise servant
As Pope Benedict has taught us:
“What is important is not to be a useless servant, but rather a “faithful and wise servant”. The pairing of the two adjectives is not by chance. It suggests that understanding without fidelity, and fidelity without wisdom, are insufficient. One quality alone, without the other, would not enable us to assume fully the responsibility which God entrusts to us.”
In Joseph, faith is not separated from action. His faith had a decisive effect on his actions. Paradoxically, it was by acting, by carrying out his responsibilities, that he stepped aside and left God free to act, placing no obstacles in his way. Joseph is a “just man” [Mt 1:19] because his existence is “adjusted” to the word of God.
Joseph, the “foster-father” of the Lord reveals that fatherhood is more than a mere fact of biological generation. A man is a father most when he invests himself in the spiritual and moral formation of his children. Real fathers and real men are those who communicate paternal strength and compassion. They are men of reason in the midst of conflicting passions; men of conviction who always remain open to genuine dialogue about differences; men who ask nothing of others that they wouldn’t risk or suffer themselves. Joseph is a chaste, faithful, hardworking, simple and just man. He reminds us that a family, a home, a community, and a parish are not built on power and possessions but goodness; not on riches and wealth, but on faith, fidelity, purity and mutual love.
May St. Joseph strengthen us and help us to imitate the Holy Family of Nazareth, who listened attentively to God, acted upon his Word, treasured the gift of the Child Jesus, all the while modeling to us how the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us.
The Word of God in Family Life
As we continue reading Pope Benedict’s Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini, today it is good to consider the section #85 on “The word of God, marriage and the family.”
“The Synod also felt the need to stress the relationship between the word of God, marriage and the Christian family. Indeed, “with the proclamation of the word of God, the Church reveals to Christian families their true identity, what it is and what it must be in accordance with the Lord’s plan.” Consequently, it must never be forgotten that the word of God is at the very origin of marriage (cf. Gen 2:24) and that Jesus himself made marriage one of the institutions of his Kingdom (cf. Mt 19:4-8), elevating to the dignity of a sacrament what was inscribed in human nature from the beginning. “In the celebration of the sacrament, a man and a woman speak a prophetic word of reciprocal self-giving, that of being ‘one flesh,’ a sign of the mystery of the union of Christ with the Church (cf. Eph 5:31-32).” Fidelity to God’s word leads us to point out that nowadays this institution is in many ways under attack from the current mentality. In the face of widespread confusion in the sphere of affectivity, and the rise of ways of thinking which trivialize the human body and sexual differentiation, the word of God re-affirms the original goodness of the human being, created as man and woman and called to a love which is faithful, reciprocal and fruitful.
“The great mystery of marriage is the source of the essential responsibility of parents towards their children. Part of authentic parenthood is to pass on and bear witness to the meaning of life in Christ: through their fidelity and the unity of family life, spouses are the first to proclaim God’s word to their children. The ecclesial community must support and assist them in fostering family prayer, attentive hearing of the word of God, and knowledge of the Bible. To this end the Synod urged that every household have its Bible, to be kept in a worthy place and used for reading and prayer. Whatever help is needed in this regard can be provided by priests, deacons and a well-prepared laity. The Synod also recommended the formation of small communities of families, where common prayer and meditation on passages of Scripture can be cultivated. Spouses should also remember that “the Word of God is a precious support amid the difficulties which arise in marriage and in family life.”
This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2010 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.