The Feast of the Holy Family is one of the important celebrations of the Christmas Season – in fact, it is my personal favorite. It is also, I think, one that isn’t emphasized as much as it should be. With the emphasis on Christmas, Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord along with the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, I think many Catholics see Holy Family as just the Sunday between Christmas and New Year.
Template for Family
The reason why the celebration of the Holy Family is for me such an important feast day is that in the Holy Family – Jesus, Mary and Joseph – we find the template for living an authentic Christian family life. While the Gospels of Matthew and Luke do provide us with all the information available about the Holy Family, they don’t tell us a great deal about the daily family life in the home at Nazareth. Matthew and Luke provide two views of the Holy Family that are rather different but are, nonetheless, consistent with each other.
The story of Jesus’ birth and infancy found in Matthew 1:18 – 2:23 tells of our Savior’s birth largely from the perspective of St. Joseph, while the account in Luke 1:5 – 2:40 provides the story from a Marian perspective. Neither Matthew nor Luke tells us much about Jesus in these birth/infancy narratives, but each does reveal significant information about Mary, Jesus’ mother, and about Joseph His foster father.
Joseph, the Courageous
Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Joseph was, “a righteous man… unwilling to expose [Mary] to shame” after finding that she was “with child” but the Child was not his (1:19). We also learn that Joseph was a man of faith who was obedient to the commands of God. When the angel appeared to him in a dream and told him the Child in Mary’s womb was conceived through the Holy Spirit, Joseph listened to what the angel said and obeyed. He took Mary into his home, and when the Child was born, he named Him Jesus.
Matthew tells of another important characteristic of Joseph, one that reveals an important aspect of his personality: he was a man of great courage. After the visit of the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12) the angel again appeared to Joseph and told him to take Mary and the child and flee to Egypt. Herod was searching for Jesus in order to put Him to death. Joseph awoke and departed for Egypt during the night with his wife and infant Son.
It took great courage, as well as great faith, for Joseph to accept the word of the angel, take his family and leave for Egypt immediately, abandoning all possessions, with no real assurance that they would even be welcomed in that foreign country. It was undoubtedly a very difficult time, yet Joseph had the courage and the faith to again follow the instructions of God’s messenger without question.
Mary and the Birth of Jesus
Matthew tells of the birth of Jesus in just 31 verses, and while we learn something about the kind of man Joseph was, we don’t learn very much, if anything, about his background. Luke, on the other hand, is more expansive. He tells the story of the birth of Jesus in 115 verses, or 126 verses if you include the account of Jesus in the Temple. As a result, we learn more about Mary than about Joseph, but not a great deal more.
Luke’s Gospel indicates that Mary was a women of great faith – just as Matthew tells us about Joseph. However, considering the culture of first century Palestine we know that the “woman” Mary was likely only a teenager. She was betrothed to Joseph and was a virgin. We know this because when the Angel Gabriel tells her she is going to have a child, Mary responds by saying, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” (Luke 1:34)
But it is clear that Mary has great faith, even for such a young woman, because she ultimately responds to Gabriel, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). In demonstrating her great faith Mary also reveals that she is a woman of courage. When she accepts the word of God’s messenger, she shows not only her faith but demonstrates that she is brave enough to make this life-altering decision without seeking advice from anyone else; she is brave enough to accept whatever consequences might result.
Mary, the Contemplative
Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus also reveals that Mary had a contemplative side. When Gabriel greets her, Mary is troubled by the greeting but doesn’t cry out in fear or run away. Rather she “pondered what sort of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29). Our Lady also demonstrated her reflective nature when the shepherds came to Bethlehem and explained what the angel had revealed to them as they tended their flocks. We are told that Mary “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
And while it is a bit of a stretch to consider the story of twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple as part of the birth narrative, the episode gives us more insight into Mary’s reflective nature. After Joseph and Mary found Jesus in the Temple, we are told that the Holy Family returned to Nazareth “where Jesus was obedient to them, and His mother kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51). I think it is a fairly safe assumption that Mary reflected on everything that occurred as her Son grew and matured.
The Presentation in the Temple
The story of Jesus in the Temple also gives us some insight, though minimal, into the formative years of our Savior. We are told that after Joseph and Mary did all that was required of them by the Law of Moses, the Holy Family returned to Nazareth, where Jesus “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40). The last insight about Jesus’ childhood comes at the end of the Temple story. Luke says that when the family returned to Nazareth, Jesus “advanced [in] wisdom and age and favor before God and man” (Luke 2:52).
The Continued Relevance
What do the narratives of Jesus’ birth found in Matthew and Luke tell us about the Holy Family that is pertinent to our lives today? Above all, they show Joseph and Mary to be people of great faith and courage. They were willing to do what God called them to do and to do it regardless of the potential consequences under the Law of Moses or the possibility of physical harm.
These stories, especially the accounts in Luke, show Mary to be deeply reflective as she strives to understand all that is special about her Son. Additionally, Luke’s Gospel points out that while Jesus is the Son of God, He still needed to grow-up and to advance in wisdom and favor before His heavenly Father.
Making Them Real
But if we want the Holy Family to be real for us, if we want them to be role models and have significance in our lives, our job is to imitate them and not just place them on a pedestal. If the Gospel stories about the Holy Family teach us anything, it’s that the only way to endure and overcome the trials of this life is to have the faith and the courage to place our trust in God.
None of us will ever have to deal with the realization that one of our children is conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. We may never have to abandon our home and our livelihood and flee to a foreign country. Hopefully, we will never have to go through the agony of searching for a lost child for three days. But we may very well have to deal with the serious illness, or even death, of people we love.
We may have to accept and move on from the loss of a job. We may have to recover and rebuild our lives when a natural disaster destroys everything. And the only way to have the courage and the openness to accept these things and continue on with our life is to have courageous faith and trust in God.
Living in imitation of the Holy Family will require us to pray for faith and grace and wisdom from God constantly. This will make it possible to accept all things – accept them, that is, even if, like Joseph and Mary, we don’t always understand them.