This Sunday, the Holy Family Makes Christmas Last All Year
This Sunday, the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, the Gospel shows how Christmas provides every family member a model for how to live the joy of Christmas year round.
Every family role can turn negative and harmful if one ingredient is missing; with that ingredient, family life is a joy.
St. Paul tells the Colossians the secret to family life is to above all “put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.”
St. John Chrysostom compares the “bond” of love to the bonds that keep ships and our bodies together. “As in a ship,” he says, “even though her rigging be large, yet if there be no girding ropes, it is of no service … and in a body, though the bones be large, if there be no ligaments, they are of no service.”
Love makes everything work together. And when you look at the prime example of a family, the Holy Family itself, you see that each of us has a leadership role — children, mothers, and fathers — each in our own way.
Take parental control first. Without love, it would feel overbearing.
First, we learn Joseph and Mary were the kinds of parents who take their child to church. “Each year Jesus’s parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover,” the Gospel begins, “and when he was twelve years old, they went up according to festival custom.”
Then, we learn they were not the kinds of parents who keep a constant tab on their child — at least not when they were with their close-knit community of friends and family. “When they were returning, the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it,” the Gospel says, so they “looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances.”
Last, we see how the Blessed Virgin Mary herself handles tension with her child. “Son, why have you done this to us?” she asks. “Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” She doesn’t hide her disapproval, but she also doesn’t jump to conclusions about what he has done. That’s good parenting, the kind that is meant to build thoughtful self-control within a child, not total independence on the one hand or slavish conformity on the other.
Mary’s approach doesn’t just show good parenting — it is a model of motherhood.
It is significant that it is Mary doing the talking to Jesus, in the same Mass as the second reading today, which says, “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord.”
If Paul that means that the Christian ideal for a woman is to be passive and acquiescent, then Mary falls short of the Christian ideal. But she is the Christian ideal. “Be it done unto me according to your word” was her attitude toward God. Her attitude toward the world is totally different:.
- She “goes in haste” (Luke 1:39) to help Elizabeth, showing how active she is.
- She confidently predicts (Luke 1:46-56) the overthrow of the mighty, the rich, and the proud, insisting on justice.
- She arranges the miracle at Cana (John 2:3-5), initiating the Lord’s public ministry.
- When Jesus’s relatives thought he was crazy, she brought them to talk to him, (Mark 3:21,31). Showing her taking charge, with the same advice she gave at Cana: “Do whatever he tells you.”
- That’s why Jesus puts Mary in charge of John (John 19:25-27), and with him the Church, at the crucifixion.
- And that’s why Mary has been at the center of the Church’s activity from its earliest days (Acts 1:14) to the end (Revelation 12).
The same verbs that describe Mary describe all mothers (and the maternal virtues of non-moms): active in service, forceful for justice (“mama-bears”!), arranging and encouraging, taking charge, and gathering in prayer. These are the virtues on display in the Psalm today in which the wife is a fruitful vine and the children are like olive plants at the table — a mom doesn’t just bear good fruit, she starts a whole garden of fruits.
So, in what sense are wives “subordinate to their husbands”?
St. Joseph shows what the husband’s place is, and isn’t, in Sunday’s Gospel.
People tell jokes about what it must have been like for Joseph living with a sinless wife and a sinless son: No matter what happened, it was his fault. And the follow up joke is: Just like every other husband.
But something much more profound is true: Joseph really was like every other husband. The “feminine genius” in his life relied on him for protection and provision, companionship and counsel, love and leadership. His child, Jesus, was the purpose of his life; in an analogous way, our children (and Jesus) are the purpose of our lives too.
That the Second Person of the Trinity and the Mother of God were “subordinate” to Joseph says all you need to know about whether one’s role makes one superior or inferior. Without love, Joseph’s leadership would make his wife and child his servants. With love, it makes him their servant.
Mary said it herself, “your father and I have been looking for you.” Joseph was truly Jesus’s father. If he adopted Jesus, then Jesus would be every bit as much Joseph’s son as Augustus Caesar, the emperor at the time, was the true son and heir of Julius Caesar, his adoptive father. But theologians point out that Joseph didn’t have to adopt Jesus, because Jesus was the child of Joseph’s marital union with Mary. Jesus wasn’t fathered by Joseph, but he was not fathered by anyone outside the union, either.
Then, the Gospel says, Jesus “went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them,” adding “and Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.” Christians have thought long and hard about what that entailed:
- “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered,” says Hebrews.
- “During the hidden years in Nazareth, Jesus learned at the school of Joseph to do the will of the Father,” Pope Francis said.
- The Catechism puts it this way: “The everyday obedience of Jesus to Joseph and Mary both announced and anticipated the obedience of Holy Thursday,” when he said to God the Father, “not my will but yours be done” and took our sins onto himself.
Jesus’s obedience to Joseph “was already inaugurating his work of restoring what the disobedience of Adam had destroyed,” the Catechism adds. That means Jesus and Joseph perfectly fulfilled what Sirach says in the First Reading for Sunday. “Whoever honors his father atones for sins.”
That makes Joseph the guardian of the redeemer, and more. Joseph was the guide of the Way, the primary teacher to the Truth, and the model for the Life — the father of the Lord.
And that brings us to one last example of how a family member should act: The boy Jesus.
“Why were you looking for me?” Jesus asks his parents in the Gospel. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
Imagine being Joseph and hearing your son say that to you. Then realize that this is precisely what will happen in your relationship with your own children. One day they will say, “Didn’t you realize your home is not my ultimate home?”
Of course, Jesus is a special case. He is God becoming man, to show us what God is like. But he was also born to be a model human being. As St. Bede said, “The Lord, born a human being, among human beings, did what God, by divine inspiration through his angels, prescribed for human beings to do.”
Thus, when Jesus was “sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking questions,” he was showing children what wisdom looks like for them: listening more than talking, and asking questions more than answering them.
Then Jesus “was obedient to them” and “advanced in wisdom.” St. Jerome says this means “his human nature was instructed by his own divinity.” But according to St. John Damascus, it also means that “He made his own the progress of people in wisdom and grace, as well as the fulfillment of the Father’s will, which is to say people’s knowledge of God and their salvation.”
In other words Jesus was a model of what love does for obedience in a child: It changes the child’s goal from slavish conformity to a team effort to prepare the child for a vocation.
In fact, nothing in family life is done out of “slavish conformity.”
Love truly works as the “rigging” of a home. Love lightens the hard work of mothers, inspires dedication in dads, and rewards children’s obedience. In Sunday’s Second Reading, St. Paul explains how: “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience,” allow you to live in harmony, “bearing with one another and forgiving one another.”
So, to keep Christmas year-round, “Let the peace of Christ control your hearts.” Do it the way you do it at Christmas, Paul says: “admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.”
Family love is the secret Christmas ingredient that will transform your life.