Feast of the Holy Family, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—13 January A.D. 2013
Today we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. We also commemorate the Baptism of our Lord in the Jordan River, one of the three events of the Epiphany, the octave of which we celebrate today.
The feast of the Holy Family is fairly new, being established only in 1893 by the saintly Pope Leo XIII, who reigned as Pope from 1878 to 1903, just a little after the Industrial Revolution. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most of the world’s economies were largely agricultural, and most manufacturing was done in small shops by more or less skilled craftsmen. By Pope Leo’s time, many people were moving from the farms to the cites to take jobs in the newly organized factories.
The advances in production made many more necessities and luxuries available to the common man—but not without a moral cost. Movement to the cities required families to live in relatively cramped quarters, and factory work might be more dangerous than that performed on the farm. Women and children employed in the factories were subject to new dangers, previously unknown. Factory employers tended to view workers as just another element of capital, rather than as men and women with souls. Small city apartments were a temptation to unnaturally reduce the size of working class families.
Pope Leo wrote a great number of letters about the social problems of his time, including the brief, Néminem fugit on the Holy Family, Quod apostolici muneris, condemning socialism, Rerum novarum, on the conditions of working men, and a goodly number of others. In Néminem fugit he proposes the Holy Family as an exemplar for all families to imitate:
Today, we still have some of the problems that plagued society in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. If anything, we have more to worry about than in Pope Leo’s time. The affluence of modern society has given many family members the idea that the world owes them a living, which in turn gives them the idea that they no longer need the strong bonds of family life. The leftward elements of our society are against the traditional understanding of marriage and family, and portray children as a sort of “disease” to be prevented or excised. The mass media make fun of parental authority, often portraying the fathers of families as complete idiots. And, of course, we have seen our own American government institutionalize some of this anti-family behavior under penalty of law. In many cases, government has made it economically beneficial to not have the father as part of the household.
I think, that, if we have to characterize the modern anti-family problem, it might be called a “crisis of authority.” Modern day women are less likely to look up to their husbands as the authoritative heads of their families; modern day children are less likely to look up to their fathers and mothers for guidance as to how they should conduct their lives; and government has intruded itself into family life, arrogating an authority which it simply does not have.
In this morning’s Office, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux pointed out something very interesting about the authority within the Holy Family. “He [Jesus] went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them.” Saint Bernard points out that Jesus was “subject to them”—not just to Mary, who was His natural mother, but also to Joseph, who was not His father in any biological sense. Saint Bernard says that He was subject “to Joseph also for Mary's sake,” but I think he misses the point somewhat. Our Lord was subject to Joseph because this had been appointed by His Father in heaven. Again. as Pope Leo pointed out, the Holy Family was an exemplar for all families to imitate. Joseph was divinely tasked, not only with providing the material necessities of life, but also with providing the authoritative guidance of the family. It was God’s holy will that Joseph have authority not only over Mary as her husband, but over Jesus as well. Note that it was to Joseph whom the angel appeared to instruct the Family to flee to Egypt from the persecution of King Herod, and again to Joseph when it was time to return to Israel, and it was Joseph who made the decision to return to Nazareth rather than to return to Judea.
In my personal opinion, we are soon to face difficult times in America and abroad. We have seen many of our constitutional liberties curtailed in recent months, we have seen high rates of unemployment, and we have seen significant devaluation of our money. There is very little reason to expect any of this to change. Those who live in strong Christian families are far more likely to survive these troubles than those who do not.