For a little over a century the Church has had us celebrate this feast of the Holy Family—Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—on the first Sunday after Epiphany. The Mass was authorized by the saintly Pope Leo XIII (1893), and extended to the entire Catholic Church a few years later by Pope Benedict XV (1921). The devotion is much older—an “Association of the Holy Family” was founded in Montreal in 1663 by lay woman, Barbara d’Hillehoust. And, of course, the Holy Family is the subject of a significant portion of the Gospels.
In the Breviary we have a portion of a letter written by Pope Leo XIII when he introduced today’s Mass. It is quite likely that Leo wrote in response to the declining social situation of the family brought about by industrialization. While modern man was becoming more economically secure through mass production, there were terrible trade offs that sometimes had to be made at the expense of family life. And even though times were more generally prosperous, the distance between “the haves” and “the have-nots” was greater than ever. In brief, Pope Leo’s message was that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were role models for everyone in society—fathers, mothers, and children. The powerful could learn moderation for good times, and equanimity in the face of bad times. Those of slender resources could look to the poor Family of Nazareth to drive away envy and bitterness.
Yet, it is important to note that Leo XIII’s purpose in writing was not merely to address economic matters. He referred to the Holy Family as “the definitive model of domestic society, holiness, and virtue.” Men and women must look to the necessities of staying alive, of course, but there is much more to the ideal of family life. Jesus Christ became one of us in order to redeem mankind, and to return us to being sons and daughters of God. Life on earth is important, not just in itself, but insofar as it is a beginning of the life with God, which is intended to continue in eternity. The aspects typified in the Holy Family—“the mutual exercise of charity, holiness of character, and the expression of filial devotion” go far beyond making earthly life pleasant—they train family members to be part of God’s family.
Look at today’s epistle. Obviously it was chosen because it speaks to the “mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and charity,” so necessary to family life. But notice that Saint Paul was urging these things not only for their value in the world, but also because they were the characteristics of “God’s chosen ones.” We are to “sing in our hearts to God by His grace.” The virtues of good family life are the same virtues as those of eternal life.
The Gospel tells us that Jesus’ “parents went every year to Jerusalem, at the solemn day of the Passover.” Rather than remain in their homes and villages, the observant Jews of our Lord’s time joined in an immense pilgrimage to Jerusalem to offer solemn sacrifices in the Temple on the anniversary of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt.
It may be difficult for us to understand today, but the Passover in Jerusalem was a sort of giant extended family reunion. People came from all over Israel to the holy city. No one was turned away; everyone was accommodated somewhere. Public funds were available for the poor, who might not have enough to purchase the paschal lamb, the fine unleavened wheat breads, and the wine for the supper. On returning, Mary and Joseph were unaware of Jesus’ absence, precisely because everyone was family at Passover time. There was very little need for concern that a child might be harmed in the midst of this extended family.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of this giant family was that its Father was God Himself. Every year these people would journey to their Father’s house for this gathering. It was He who had delivered them out of Egypt, He who led them through the desert, He who fought their enemies and brought them into this “land of milk and honey.” It was He who commanded the mutual hospitality which made such occasions possible.
Certainly, the young Jesus was unique at twelve years of age, holding His own in discussions with the scholars of the Temple—and even more unique in that He was the true Son of God the Father. But, on some level, His statement that He “must be about His Father’s business” is not as unique as it might first seem. Everyone in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover was there “about his Father’s business,” for God was the universal Father of His chosen people.
What makes our Lord’s “business for the Father” unique is that through Him that relationship of Father and children would become far deeper and far broader.
Mankind’s relationship with God would become far deeper because the Father’s natural Son interceded for His adopted brothers and sisters. God’s graces became available, once again, as free gifts—the kind of gifts a father bestows upon his children, rather than the wages one might pay the hired help.
Mankind’s relationship with God would become far broader, for His Son was sent not only to the people of Israel, but to the people and nations of the whole world. “Many would come from the East and the West and feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Family life is essential to our very existence, and the example of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph is a model for all of us, regardless of our state in life. Mankind is a family—but it would be terribly wrong to understand that relationship in the purely secular sense, as the atheists and the modernists do. It is not enough just to get along and to cooperate economically in the present. Rather, we must pattern our lives, our families, our Church and our society after the Holy Family. The family of mankind is meaningless unless it is directed to eternal life and unless it is rooted in the Fatherhood of God.