Devotion to the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary, and Joseph) seems to have been given its major impetus in the 1600’s by St. François de Laval, the first bishop of New France in what is now Canada. In 1893, Pope Leo XIII instituted the Feast to be held on the Sunday after Epiphany. And in the reforms after Vatican II, it was moved to the Sunday after Christmas.
When parishes were being merged in the Archdiocese of Boston a dozen or so years ago, often the pastor of the merged parish would choose the name Holy Family for the parish. At the time I thought it was kind of silly to try to suggest to parishioners that somehow joining St. Swithin’s and St. Ursula’s made one big happy family. But now I think that however helpful, or not, it may have been to call the new parish Holy Family, it was somehow providential that we got a number of Holy Family parishes.
Our readings tell us something about the ideals of family life but these examples aren’t the main reason I think this feast is so providential for our time. Implicitly, it tells us we need families: families are good; families are important; families are part of God’s plan for us. And the way we get families is through marriage — because family is permanent, and marriage is what makes the relationship of man and woman permanent. And marriage is the place designed for the procreation of children. The scriptures tell us that children are a gift from God, a blessing.
Recent Popes have emphasized the importance of the family, culminating with last October’s Synod on Marriage and the Family, following up on one a year earlier. One reason Pope Francis decided to devote two synods to marriage and the family is that many people today are not getting married and having children — and it’s not just people who are becoming priests and religious. This has been a concern of the hierarchy for a number of years. It seems that for whatever reason many people are not willing to make that permanent commitment of marriage, which is the image of God — the Holy Trinity, permanently united in love. And it seems that many married people are refraining from having children. Maybe they don’t see children as a gift. Or maybe they think that they have to be able to provide a certain level of material comfort for their children. Of course children are a great responsibility, and prospective parents should be sure they can at least provide the necessities of life: food shelter, clothing, and so forth. But maybe some things parents think they should be able to give their children are really luxuries, not necessities. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were not well off materially. None of us would want to have their first-century standard of living. But they had what they truly needed in the context of their time. Whether we’re single or married, parents or childless, we would all do well to ask ourselves if we really need everything we’d like to have. So this feast is an encouragement for us to think of the value of family as a gift from God.
With that foundation let’s turn to today’s readings.
The feast wants us to see Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as the model for our families. We don’t have much information about their domestic life. Of course it had to include all the routine work of cooking, cleaning, making clothing, and earning a living, but the first thing we see in today’s gospel — Luke 2:41-52 — is that they practiced their faith, including making the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover, with Jesus becoming part of it as soon as he was old enough. Next we notice Mary and Joseph’s anxiety for him when he was lost. And then after Mary and Joseph found him, he returned to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. So there are these three elements of family life: faith and worship, parental love and concern, obedience.
If we look back to the first reading — 1 Samuel 1: 20-22, 24-28 — we see another family that practiced their faith, making pilgrimages and offering sacrifices at the temple at Shiloh. In an ultimate expression of faith Hannah gave Samuel to the Lord, who had a vocation for him. Samuel grew up in the Temple, and became the prophet who anointed David as King of Israel. Mary also sought to understand God’s will for her son and pondered the meaning of Jesus’ words to her, just as she pondered the words that were spoken about Jesus by the angel before his birth and by the shepherds when he was born. Parents should seek to understand what God wants for each of their children, who are theirs, but are also God’s. They should be open to God’s plans for their children.
In the responsorial psalm — Ps 84:2-3, 5-6, 9-10 — we think of Samuel’s childhood and adolescence as we meditate on the joy of beimg in God’s temple. This also prepares us the sympathize with Jesus’ desire to stay in is Father’s house.
The second reading — 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24 — introduces a couple of points about a wider family. We who are baptized are all God’s adopted children. And so we are all members of this larger family. The faith which should characterize us a children of God is the faith which should animate our personal families. And the love which we should show to spouses, parents, children, and extended family members, should also be given to all the members of God’s family.
Today, the Church invites her members to reflect on the Holy Family. Do we see the Church as a family? Are our individual families active in our faith; are they havens of love, respect, and obedience? Are we seeking to understand and promote God’s plans for us and the other members of our families? If we are single, are we willing to commit ourselves in love to another in holy marriage; if married, are we willing to share our lives and love with children, and give them to the Lord? If we are settled in our state in life, are there ways we should gently encourage others (by word or example) to marry and raise children?