Today, the Church gives us an episode from Jesus’ early family life to ponder. Why?
By Gayle Somers
Gospel (Read Lk 2:41-52)
After the profusion of Scriptures describing Jesus’ Nativity in this liturgical season of Christmas, we might be tempted to think we now know enough about His birth into a special family. However, today the Church reminds us of something most of us spend little time thinking about: Jesus wasn’t simply born into a human family; He grew up and lived the bulk of His life in that family. As the Catechism tells us, “During the greater part of His life Jesus shared the condition of the vast majority of human beings: a daily life spent without evident greatness, a life of manual labor” (531). What was that life like? Our Gospel reading gives us some clues.
St. Luke describes what must have been a pivotal event in Jesus’ family life. He and His extended family, like all Jews, made a yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, as required by the Law of Moses. This trip was like all the others that had preceded it until it ended. When the family (big enough to form a caravan) left the city, Jesus stayed behind. Perhaps He gave a message about this to one of His relatives to pass along to His parents, but it simply never got delivered. It is not hard to imagine how this could happen in the jumble of people and possessions that had to be packed up and gotten on the road home. Joseph and Mary discovered, after a day, that Jesus was missing. Anyone who is a parent or who has cared for a child will know the sickening feeling that surely overcame them when they realized their child must still be in the city. “After three days” they found Him in the Temple. It is terrifying for a child to be missing for three minutes, let alone three days! That had to be excruciating for His parents. The “three days” help us understand that this episode has significance beyond the disruption it caused in their family life. It reminds us that later, Mary and Jesus’ new family, His disciples, had to lose Him for “three days” as He began His glorious work of victory over sin, death, and the devil.
When His parents found Him in the Temple, He was in serious discussion with the learned teachers there. “All who heard Him were astounded at His understanding and His answers.” Probably no one expected wisdom like this from a twelve-year-old. His parents “were astonished,” too, but maybe it wasn’t His knowledge that surprised them: “Son, why have You done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for You with great anxiety.” We can feel Mary’s parental anguish in this question. His disappearance must have been totally out of character for Him. We know He didn’t remain in the city out of rebellion or disobedience, because Jesus kept the Ten Commandments perfectly. By no means did He intend to disobey or dishonor His parents. He thought they would know He was in His Father’s house. Why did He assume this? Perhaps even as a child, He had shown extraordinary reverence for the Temple on their annual visits there. Perhaps during the family’s visit this time, they had discussed its great beauty and significance in the lives of all Jews, especially His life. It was this very Temple where Simeon, the prophet, had told Mary that her Son was to be a light to the Gentiles and the glory of His people, Israel. Simeon had also warned her that He would be a “sign of contradiction,” that a sword would pierce both their hearts. Did Mary worry that His fate was about to unfold now? We know that Jesus’ answer to Mary’s question had a deeper significance than simply an explanation of His whereabouts. St. Luke tells us that although His parents “did not understand what He said to them” at the time, Mary must have known this event was tied to His future destiny, for she “kept all these things in her heart.”
What do we see in this slice of life from the Holy Family? We see many of the emotions, expectations, and actions any ordinary family might experience in similar circumstances. We see love and accountability. We see pain and uncertainty. We see parents confront the real mystery that always accompanies the raising of a child, a distinct and unique personality, whose life is truly in God’s hands. Jesus knows this part of our lives, because He lived it Himself. He engaged in the give-and-take of the community created by a family. His own formation and maturity took place within a family: “Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.”
It is good for us to ponder this Feast of the Holy Family, because it can strengthen us in our resolve to live our family life well, even with all its challenges—a mission from God that is within reach of every one of us, no matter what our vocation. On the Cross, did seeing Mary’s anguished face remind Jesus of the “three days” He had left her in such anxiety as a boy? Before His three days in the tomb, He gave Mary another son, John, to be with her and care for her. Family life teaches us how to love, the lesson that accompanies us into eternity.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, help me remember that my family life is my first and best school for sanctity.
First Reading (Read Sir 3:2-7, 12-14)
This reading enables us to see that the family—its structure of parental authority and its potential for harmony and long-lasting joy—is God’s idea. “God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority He confirms over her sons.” This ordering of family life by God Himself is why the Fourth Commandment requires us to honor our fathers and mothers. Our relationship with God is not unaffected by our treatment of our parents, because, in a sense, they are standing-in for God, having cooperated with Him in our conception and birth. Obedience and reverence for our parents grows into obedience and reverence for God.
Possible response: Heavenly Father, thank You for creating families. Please strengthen us all in an age that is losing respect for strong family life.
Psalm (Read Ps 128:1-5)
God’s first commandment to man and woman, at the dawn of Creation, was to “be fruitful.” All through Scripture, blessedness is described in terms of fruitfulness. In the psalm, we see that “Blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in His ways.” Reverence for and obedience to the Lord are the essence of blessedness. See how they are rewarded—by fruitfulness. First, the blessed will be able to literally “eat the fruit” of their handiwork. Their crops will yield great bounty. Then, “your wife shall be like a fruitful vine…your children like olive plants around your table.” Here is a beautiful picture of the blessing of family life, God’s great gift to His faithful people. What a wonderful corrective this is for a culture like ours that so often counts its blessings in possessions, not people.
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings. Read it again prayerfully to make it your own.
Second Reading (Read Col 3:12-21)
In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul directs the Christians to treat each other as fellow members of God’s household. He exhorts them to live in the Church the way we ought first to live in our families: with “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” Life in God’s family requires us to forgive others as He has forgiven us. Love is the “bond of perfection” that holds the community together. The family is the best place to begin learning these virtues. St. Paul has specific instructions for families to enable them to be a place where this kind of life is a reality. He tells wives to “be subordinate” to their husbands, which means showing the respect he is due as head of the home. Husbands are to love and cherish their wives, not allowing “bitterness toward them” to fester. Children, not surprisingly, are to obey their parents. Fathers are exhorted not to “provoke” their children, because that discourages them.
In other words, all the virtues mentioned in the first part of this passage and given to the Christian community at large need to be vigorously practiced in the home, our most intimate Christian community. The result of this discipline (and it takes discipline to live this way!) will be “the peace of Christ,” our true place of rest.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, family life takes work. On this Feast of the Holy Family, please give us grace to practice the virtues St. Paul describes as the ones that lead to Your peace in our midst.