Holy Family Sunday
Luke 2:41-52 (see below)
Today's Lectionary Gospel reading for this the final Sunday of the year brings to life the very human results that surround the circumstances of Jesus' birth, which like most of us involved him growing-up in a family.
This reality that Jesus was socialized and nurtured in a family follows from the reality of his birth, but if we are not careful Jesus' family life can be easily skipped over in order to get to the more exciting parts, like his ministry and his passion. This is especially true since so little is said about his younger years.
But, the silence and meagerness of the mentions should not lead us to the conclusion that Jesus’ childhood was unimportant. No, to leave out the growth of Jesus into manhood from his family experience is to ultimately short-circuit our understanding of his genuine humanity.
Or, said differently, to side-step Jesus' family life is to make of him something he was not. Jesus was not a fully-formed human entity out of the womb. He had to be part of a family if he was to be truly human. He had to learn of life from his family, where he suffered the exasperation which we all share that is family life. And, it was those family relationships that ultimately helped make of him what he became. Or, do you doubt that Jesus learned and grew into humanness just as we all do? (Hebrews 5:8)
Or, said differently still, Jesus learned the meaning of human love and the richness that is being human through the lens of a human family. If not for that, the incarnation may mean a lot of things, but it would not mean that the Savior could ever fully identify with me and you.
At this point it would be good to reflect upon the family life from which you and I have come. Truly, most of us can be grateful for the family involvement that taught us the responsibility that follows this sort of dedicated love and the loyalty that those relationships involve. To be sure, those relationships from our family of origin may have been either positive or negative, healthy or unhealthy, or both at the same time. Either way, they have shaped us both positively and negatively, both healthily and unhealthily. This is simply the truth.
Which is not to say that we can never overcome those original family challenges, but it is to say with the Frenchman, "The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.” Which means to say that overcoming these challenges is often only accomplished with great difficulty.
This leads us back to Jesus' family, and the challenges they may have faced. I have in mind here the faithfulness of Joseph in the face of his place in the Holy Family.
From all we know about Joseph he was amazingly honorable. When faced with what appeared to be Mary's infidelity he was both just -- "I'll put her away with divorce," and he was merciful -- "I'll do so privately so as to protect her from shame." This is amazing, really, and its significance is not to be seen as in any way trivial.
So, when the angel appears to him in his dream, answering the question of Mary's fidelity, there is still the underlying concern of Joseph's relationship to Jesus' as his foster-father. Now, how would that relationship work? How would it be to parent the Messiah, the chosen one? It would seem on the face of it to be no easy task.
This reality seems especially acute in today's reading, when, after Jesus is lost to the family for three days, Mary and Joseph finally find their twelve year old and scold him:
"his mother said to him, 'Son, why have you done this to us?
Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.'"
To which Jesus replies:
"Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?"
The text tells us that Mary and Joseph did not understand the meaning of Jesus' words, but at this late date it is hardly difficult for us to understand them. Jesus' father was not Joseph; Jesus' calling was not his foster-father's business. In short, the Holy Family was blended, and faithful Joseph was in this way separated from Mary and Jesus, as many American families find themselves today.
Of course, we do not know enough to speculate at all how this truth would have affected the Holy Family. Knowing what we know about Joseph, perhaps not at all. But the point is, Jesus and Joseph and Mary are not exempt from these sort of tangled questions and struggles that make up the human condition. They simply are not, and to think that Jesus' family of origin was some sort of ideal, heavenly home with no trouble and no turmoil not only fails to take seriously the biblical record (how about the slaughter of the innocents or the forced sojourn in Egypt), it also trivializes the heart of the incarnation which is the gravest of heresies as well.
Think of the words of the writer of the book of Hebrews to see the import of my argument. The text from Hebrews four reads:
That is why we have a great High Priest who has gone to heaven, Jesus the Son of God. Let us cling to him and never stop trusting him. This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same temptations we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it.(4:14-16)
Here is the power of the Nativity; here is the power of the living and ever human Christ to us. In his particularity he becomes a human being -- in a time, in a place, in a culture, and in a family. Jesus swallows our humanity in full, experiencing all its brokenness and ugliness, all it joys and beauties.
We are not told, of course, but we can easily suppose that his stepfather died while Jesus was still at home. I’m sure he knew this as grief, perhaps even profound grief (think of his response to the death of Lazarus, his friend).
We also know that when his family saw the confusion his prophetic ministry was causing his community they sought to end his vocation. (Mk.3:20-21)
And, finally, when faced with what had to be the rawest of human experiences -- public humiliation and state execution, Jesus’ mother is there! What awful grief they both must have shared. In this moment, this very human moment, Jesus faces his mother and allows another to begin care for her. (Jn. 19:26-27) What must have this been like?
My point is that we must not blow off these life-events as somehow unimportant just because he was Messiah, GOD’s Son. These events shaped both his Messiahship and his humanity. Likewise, what we must remember is that in his humanity Jesus pushes through the brokenness of the human condition, including even the experience of death, and he offers us, by being thoroughly human and yet victorious on the other side, the reality of a true and genuine humanity, and to us a new humanity.
Said differently, Jesus offers us, in his incarnation, and in the suffering and the victory of his cross, a Psalm 8 humanity, which we will now proclaim as we close this homily:
O LORD, our Lord, the majesty of your name fills the earth! Your glory is higher than the heavens. You have taught children and nursing infants to give you praise. They silence your enemies who were seeking revenge. When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers -- the moon and the stars you have set in place -- what are mortals that you should think of us, mere humans that you should care for us? For you made us only a little lower than God, and you crowned us with glory and honor. You put us in charge of everything you made, giving us authority over all things -- the sheep and the cattle and all the wild animals, the birds in the sky, the fish in the sea, and everything that swims the ocean currents. O LORD, our Lord, the majesty of your name fills the earth!
Each year Jesus' parents went to Jerusalem for the feast
and when he was twelve years old,
they went up according to festival custom.
After they had completed its days, as they were returning,
the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem,
but his parents did not know it.
Thinking that he was in the caravan,
they journeyed for a day
and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances,
but not finding him,
they returned to Jerusalem to look for him.
After three days they found him in the temple,
sitting in the midst of the teachers,
listening to them and asking them questions,
and all who heard him were astounded
at his understanding and his answers.
When his parents saw him,
they were astonished,
and his mother said to him,
"Son, why have you done this to us?
Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety."
And he said to them,
"Why were you looking for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?"
But they did not understand what he said to them.
He went down with them and came to Nazareth,
and was obedient to them;
and his mother kept all these things in her heart.
And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor
before God and man.