Joseph And The Holy Family

Joseph And The Holy Family December 31, 2023

Jim Forest: Giovanni di Paolo ‘s Flight Of The Holy Family Into Egypt / flickr

Jesus’ immediate family was important to him and, likewise, to Christians after his ascension. Though he did not have any biological brothers or sisters, nor a biological father, Joseph took on the role of being Jesus’ earthly father. Joseph’s family became his own. And, as a result, Joseph was given a special task, to protect Mary and the infant Christ, which he did:

 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt,  and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt have I called my son” (Matt. 2:13-15 RSV).

Traditionally, most understood that Joseph was a widower who had children with his previous wife, some who joined him when he took the Holy Family into Egypt. Among them we find is James, the brother of the Lord, who helped Joseph and his step-mother and Christ deal with the difficulties that they encountered during their flight. The holy family went to Egypt as refugees, and like refugees today, they received mixed reaction from the Egyptians. Some helped them, while others, like Egyptian authorities, did not like their presence in Egypt, making it that the Holy Family had to be constantly on the move, trying to hide from those who wished them harm.

James, therefore, had an important role in Jesus’ infancy; because he fulfilled it, he was able to receive another role, as he became one of the major leaders of the early Christian movement, recognized as the first “bishop of Jerusalem.” This is why Paul, after he converted and had to have his own mission accepted by the church, met with James alongside Cephas (Peter): “Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother” (Gal. 1:18-19 RSV).

Joseph, and all of his biological children, have their place on Jesus’ family tree, even if Jesus is not biologically related to them. This is because Joseph’s family and family line, just like Mary and her family line, was chosen for the special mission to help raise the infant Christ. They were given special graces, so that Joseph would have all the grace and holiness he needed in order to represent human fatherhood to Christ. It is hard to deny that Joseph and his family line held a special place in salvation history, as Joseph had a role which no one else could or would have.

While Jesus’ family played a pivotal role in the early church, the first of the apostles, the leader of the church, was Peter, not James. The family of Jesus is important, but the Gospel and the church transcends them. Paul, likewise, served in part to remind all the other apostles the transcendent quality of the church, which is why he often found himself in conflict with Peter, James, and others. We must not confuse such conflict as indicating he denied their authority, he did not, but he found it important to serve them by reminding them of the mission he had been given and what that mission meant for the church. The Christian community, like any family, will have its struggles, but it must always try to come together and not let those struggles divide them, even as families can and do come together when a crisis arises.

Scripture does not indicate how long the holy family was in Egypt, nor the journey they took; all it indicates is that they were there as long as Herod was alive, and then, when Herod died, they were told it was time to go back to where they were from, though with caution:

But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying,  “Rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.”  And he rose and took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.  But when he heard that Archelaus reigned over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee.  And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, “He shall be called a Nazarene” (Matt. 2:19-23 RSV).

Joseph took his role seriously. Once he knew that God was at work with and in Mary, he accepted his role and did all he could to protect Mary and Jesus. He knew he must always press on, using the wisdom he had been given to do his best to serve God. Thus, when Herod died, he did not take his family back to Bethlehem, but rather, he took the family to Nazareth, showing us that we should not always look back and try to go to where we were in the past, or repeat the way things were in the past, after we had to leave them behind. We need to go forward, and engage the needs of the present instead of trying to apply the circumstances of the past to our lives today. We can easily forget this lesson, and Christians, it seems, often do, as many misappropriate tradition as being more than it actually is, as if the way things were done in the past are necessarily better than the way they are done now, and things should always stay the same. What was done in the past met the needs of that age. What is to be done today should meet the needs of the present age. If we don’t learn that lesson, we might foolishly find ourselves caught in a trap, as Joseph and the holy family would have been if they just went back to Bethlehem after the death of Herod.

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