December 27, The Feast of the Holy Family
I am late again. I decided to not hold myself responsible for sermons for feast days—keeping up with Sunday is proving to be enough of a challenge. But “skipping” Christmas did not get me any closer to preparing for this feast. The choice of readings–two first readings, two second readings (with a choice of a short and long form for one of them) and two psalms–didn’t make it any easier. The final form of the sermon has a somewhat awkward transition to get to the conclusion I was aiming for, and I owe the conclusion to a friend, who fled an abusive husband, and who complained of alienation after hearing one too many treacly sermons about the Holy Family as the “true” image of all Christian families. Maybe this is not the right way to preach on domestic violence, but it seemed an appropriate time to raise the issue.
Today we celebrate Sunday in the Octave of Christmas, which is designated the Feast of the Holy Family in the liturgical calendar. The readings for today help us to understand the mystery of the Incarnation. On Christmas day we celebrate the birth of Jesus: God humbled himself, becoming not just a mortal man, but an infant child. And a very ordinary child: not the heir of Caesar Augustus in Rome, or of King Herod, or even the son of one of the leading priestly families. Rather, he was raised by his mother Mary and her husband Joseph, a carpenter, in the small town of Nazareth. God chose not just to share in our humanity, but to share in it at its most mundane: Jesus grew up the son of a laborer, in a small village in an Imperial backwater. From his earliest days Jesus would have been caught up in the daily rhythms—and indeed the drudgery and struggles—of a daily life that would be familiar to the majority of people who have ever lived.
According to today’s Gospel reading, a high point of the year was the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover: a journey of some 90 miles that, in the ordinary course of events, might be the furthest distance a resident of Nazareth would ever travel in his or her life. The incident in the Temple shows the humanity of Jesus in his relationship with his parents: what parent has not lost a child in a some way and spent a frantic time searching for him, only to have the child seem completely unfazed by the commotion he has caused? Luke then summarizes the whole of their relationship with the simple description: “He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.”
At the same time, when Jesus responds to their anxious demand, “Son why have you done this to us?” he shows that he is more than just another child growing up in Nazareth: “Don’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” His words remind Mary of the mysterious promise made to her by the angel Gabriel more than a decade earlier: “your child will be holy and will be called the Son of God.” This child is different and there is an unavoidable tension between his human identity—son of Joseph, the carpenter—and his divine identity as “the Word made flesh.”
Luke also recounts this incident because it foreshadows a much darker time in Mary’s life: 20 years later, at another Passover, she spent three frantic days before going to look for the body of her crucified son. That story, however, ends not in the temple but at the entrance of the tomb, where she is told by an angel, “why look among the dead for someone who is alive?” The joy of Christmas points directly to the sorrow of Good Friday. The humility of the Incarnation was the foundation for the greater humility which Jesus showed in accepting the cross. But it also points to the resurrection, the sure sign of the love of God for his creation. The story of Mary and Joseph finding the child Jesus in the Temple should remind us that we too can find the resurrected Lord present here at this mass, on this altar. In his humility Jesus continues to be present in his Father’s house.
I want to conclude by reflecting on the first two readings. To complement the Gospel on the Holy Family, the readings from Sirach and from Paul’s letter to the Colossians illustrate the virtues that should shape and sustain family life. The wisdom literature of Sirach would have been implicit in how Mary and Joseph understood their roles as parents. St. Paul’s exhortation to the Church of Colossae was intended to be applied more broadly, but would have found immediate application in daily family life.
For us too, these readings are a useful guide, particularly during this hectic holiday season. As we gather with family, some of whom we may love but not particularly like, expectations and tensions can run high. It is far too easy for tempers to flare, for sharp words to be exchanged, for old fights to be revived. When this happens, we are called, as Christians, to put on Christ’s peace. We are called to make a conscious decision to be kind, gentle and humble, even though we feel quite the opposite. We are called to “put on love”: to bear with one another and forgive one another. This will not always come easily, but Paul specifically reminds us that God has shown us mercy, and we must imitate His mercy and love.
But, while we must bear with one another in the ordinary course of events, there is nothing in today’s readings, or in Scripture, that requires us to accept abuse or attacks on our dignity as children of God. It is a sad fact that domestic abuse is far too common in America, and the stress of the holidays brings it to the fore: the short tempered husband with a drinking problem; the jealous, controlling boyfriend; the spouse who lashes out physically in response to every perceived problem. There is also a temptation to to ignore it or worse, to explain it away. “It’s not so bad”; “she doesn’t mean it”; “he’ll grow out of it”; “cut him some slack, he’s going through a tough patch at work”.
If you see this happening, do not be a silent witness. Learn to recognize the signs: the bruises, the excuses. Reach out with love and “heartfelt compassion” to the victim. Help her (or him—men can also be the victims of abuse) to see that it is not supposed to be like this, and help her to get professional help, and, if necessary, to get out of an abusive relationship. This Christmas season, and throughout the year, strive, as best as you can, to make our families places of joy, mutual love and respect, as it was for the Holy Family.