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.

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  • bill bannon

    I maintain that our over polite Christiandom never has asked out loud: why didn’t Christ leave word with His parents that He would be doing His Father’s business at the temple and not to worry…He was not lost. He could have and did not warn them. I believe that Christ was doing His Father’s business twice…once teaching the elders; secondly helping Mary and Joseph through shock….to untighten their grip on the good thing which was their being attached to Him. An unthinking selfish 12 year old would have done the same thing without a good reason. Christ was not that but did each detail out of love even when He said near the Canaanite woman…” it is not right to give the children’s food to dogs”….then seconds later He is praising her faith. Christ did nothing without the purpose of good….likewise when He scared His parents at 12. He was at work making their future safer by detaching them somewhat…a tiny bit… from this good earth and from family…in the lost incident.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      Bill, an interesting take. In preparing this homily, however, I ran into another explanation that I find attractive: Jesus did not sin in not telling his parents what he was up to, but he did make a mistake—the very kind of impulsive mistake you would expect from an inquisitive, energetic 12 year old. This explanation reinforces the full humanity of Jesus, and also provides some context for what Luke writes at the end of this pericope: “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom.” (NRSV) This suggests that the child Jesus was less wise at some point, and this incident in the Temple illustrates this. Now, accepting this reading leads to a somewhat lower Christology, but one which I think is still orthodox.

      • bill bannon

        But you’ve known as I have religious 12 year olds who would never make this specific mistake for such a period of time and distance at the expence of their parent’s worry. It’s not plausible that Christ had less altruism within his mistakes than people we’ve known. I’m going to have to stay put.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

          I must confess to not having met any religious 12 year olds, or at least none that projected it in any obvious way. And I agree that three days is a very long time for even an impetuous and headstrong youth to pull a stunt like this. (Where did he sleep? What did he eat? Did he have a few coins in his pocket? Beg for bread?)

          This also raises an important question about the humanity of Jesus: what would it mean to say that he was a “religious 12 year old”? As I said, I have nothing to compare this to.

      • Tatiana Durbak

        How about the possibility that whether or not this actually happened is unimportant, and that it is a backstory that Luke used to further cement the divinity of Jesus for his readers and those who heard the readings proclaimed?
        It seems to me that one misses the point of the story when one tries to turn it into literal reality.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

          I am not sure if I would go so far as to question whether this incident actually happened, but you make a good point and one I tried to touch on when I spoke about “foreshadowing”: this story is not an end in itself but serves a literary purpose in Luke’s mission of explaining who is Jesus. This, however, does lead to the very questions of Christology that Bill Bannon and I are discussing. Think of it this way: based on the gospels we can construct a model of what it means for Jesus to be human and divine. We can either use this pericope to build the model, or test the model with this as a datum.

  • Julia Smucker

    I think you’re right about the slight bit of awkwardness in that structurally, the way you end this homily would work better as a disclaimer than a conclusion.

    In the same vein, your introduction raised a question in my mind that the homily didn’t really answer: shouldn’t the Holy Family as “true image” of the Christian family be in itself a sort of counter-witness against domestic violence?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      Julia, thank you. I see what you mean about using it as a disclaimer, though I am not sure how I would have structured a conclusion. Part of the problem was that I really also wanted to comment on the scripture readings and their theological significance. So talking about domestic violence really ended up as a codicil. In constructing a homily I am always torn between specific topics that I feel need to be addressed (and for which the readings provide a hook) and “breaking open the word” which is, putatively, supposed to be the point of a homily. Of course, if I was willing/able to preach for 20 minutes, I could cover both topics adequately.

      You final comment about what I said in my introduction may have actually yielded a fitting conclusion, leading back from the issue of domestic violence to the deeper meaning of the feast. However, I am not really sure how to frame something like this. It is a subtle idea, and I really want to avoid anything that smacks of “just try to be like JMJ and all will be well in your family.”

      • Julia Smucker

        I think we’ve approached the image from different angles: you are justly and understandably concerned about how certain interpretations of the Holy Family as model may sound to someone who has suffered abuse. I think the reason your objection (or your friend’s) initially puzzled me a bit was that I was seeing the idea of emulating the Holy Family more as an admonition against any kind of abusive behavior.

        Moral agency is important here, even with potentially compromising factors like mental illness or addiction (which I raise not as any kind of excuse but to avoid the same kind of glib oversimplification you warn against). Inasmuch as anyone is culpable for anything, it must mean they could choose otherwise. I’m trying not to sound too coldly academic here, but do you get what I mean?

        • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

          Julia, the longer I think about the point you are making here, the more I like it. It fits in well with a more “radical” reading of Christianity, one which calls us to challenge social and cultural conventions that are contrary to the Gospel message. This should apply as much in the family as outside it.

          At the same time, however, I think your reading of the story “as an admonition against any kind of abusive behavior” goes against a long cultural history of interpretation (at least as I understand it), one which includes the subordination of women in the family. Note the final passage of Colossians in the long form, which I did not comment on but was in the back of my mind as I was preparing this: “wives, be obedient to your husbands.” This is a tricky passage, and I want to write a homily on it, but this time around I was not moved to do so. It is closely connected with the understanding of the Feast of the Holy Family—just consider the meditations prepared by SSPX (that source for all things pre-V2) which leads with every scriptural passage on the subject of obedient wives:

          So, in crafting this homily, I wanted to speak against this ingrained reading. Maybe, in retrospect I should have taken this as my theme and spent the whole homily developing my ideas more. If I had had your interpretation before me, I think I could have done that.

          With regards to your paragraph on moral agency: I understand it, I think, but I guess I really don’t since its connection to your broader argument eludes me. Could you spell it out?

        • Julia Smucker

          Thank you for engaging these questions so thoughtfully; this is feeling like a helpful conversation.

          I certainly get your point about the cultural history of interpretation, and I can’t be so naïve as to deny the existence of some pretty ugly hermeneutics, much as I’d like to dismiss that. This is one of those points where I would distinguish between Tradition and convention, in that certain social conventions have interpreted certain elements of the Christian Tradition badly, which must be acknowledged, but without making the mistake of rejecting those ideas and images from the Tradition (e.g. the Holy Family as exemplar) as irredeemably oppressive in themselves. I don’t see you going that far, but that is the caution I would raise. The existence of bad interpretations is all the more reason good ones are needed.

          On moral agency, my thinking was that “abuser” is one of those categorical terms (“criminal” is another common one) that are often used in a quasi-ontological sense, as if certain people belonged to such categories by nature. This usage is generally quite casual and seldom taken to its logical conclusion: that a person’s being innately criminal or abusive would essentially absolve them of any real responsibility for their actions.

          I see a hint of that idea underlying any assumption that the only thing that can be said on the subject of abuse is to people who have been victims of it. Not of course that what is said from that angle is untrue: even with the possibility of reform and repentance, it can be more urgently necessary for someone to escape a dangerous situation, often permanently. But neither is that the only thing that can be said. Anyone might be tempted to treat someone close to them in ways that disrespect their intrinsic human dignity, or even in ways that cross a line into abusive behavior (which is another part of the problem with ignoring moral agency: by conceiving of certain behaviors as ontological categories we can place ourselves outside of, we can too easily absolve ourselves of a certain degree of moral responsibility as well). All Christian families do need to be reminded of how we are called to love each other, and in that sense a Holy Family homily that included an exhortation to husbands to love their wives like St. Joseph could be very rich.

  • Tanco

    Can a permanent deacon be the Apostolic Preacher?

    I have long connected the Gospel for Holy Family Day with Luke 4:14 – 29. The “rejection” of Jesus from the synagogue of Nazareth, in my view, delineates to what degree the Jewish people of that time, those who formed the congregation of Nazareth, were not able to go beyond the astounding bar mitzvah candidate in the Holy Family narrative to the ministerial Son of God proclaiming his manifest glory through Isaiah. Jesus’ reminder that Elisha healed no Judean of leprosy — but rather Naaman, a Syrian — likely increased the tension between Jesus and the congregation.

    I don’t want to read how the SSPX has perverted these passages into anti-semitic messages. The modern Church has shown the way to the necessarily constant dialogue between Christianity and Judaism. Rather, a more irenic reading might focus on the inability of most of the congregation of the synagogue to accept Jesus’ presentation of the haftorah as a revelation of his divinity. We Christians likewise have often been unable to move beyond our comfort zones to accept Jesus Christ in his polyvalent true humanity and true divinity. That way, all Christians at one point or another share the concerns of the Nazarenes.

    I have stopped regularly hearing Mass (I did go on Christmas). My reasons for not hearing Mass are petty, mostly liturgically related. I am one metaphorically with the congregation of Nazareth — Jesus the Christ offers the reality that he is the Son, whether at the Coronation Mass or in the Praise and Worship hymnal. A comfort zone can shield a person for only so long.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      “Can a permanent deacon be the Apostolic Preacher?”

      According to Wikipedia and the Catholic Encyclopedia, for the past 250 years the position has been reserved for a Capuchin friar. I don’t know if the Capuchins ordain permanent deacons or if the position must go to a priest by their internal rules. The current office holder over 80, so it may be interesting to see who Pope Francis appoints to replace him.

      “We Christians likewise have often been unable to move beyond our comfort zones to accept Jesus Christ in his polyvalent true humanity and true divinity.”

      “Mary treasured all these things in her heart. I suspect that Luke is glossing over the fact that her acceptance was conjoined with a lack of understanding. She knew what the angel said, and accepted it in faith, but she was still (if you will pardon the stereotype) a simple country girl and these were pretty confusing involving her son. So I guess we are all going to struggle understanding the fullness of Christ’s humanity and divinity. Tomorrow is Epiphany, and I am pretty sure that something like this is going to come up in my homily. Teaser: “What are you going to offer the Lord?” keeps floating through my head as I ponder the readings. :-)

      “I have stopped regularly hearing Mass (I did go on Christmas). My reasons for not hearing Mass are petty, mostly liturgically related.” I am sorry to hear this, and I pray that you will again find consolation in the presence of our Lord in the Eucharist. Perhaps you need to shake things up—as a random thought, try finding a mass for an immigrant community whose language you do not speak, and try to simply, in the words of Br. Lawrence, “practice the presence of the Lord.”