The Feast of the Holy Family celebrates the holiness and joy of the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary and Jesus of Nazareth. It’s place on the liturgical calendar is the Sunday following Christmas, unless Christmas falls on a Sunday. When that occurs, as it did in 2011, the feast is celebrated on Friday, December 30th.
Pope Benedict XVI observed in his Holy Family address in 2008, “On this Sunday that follows the birth of the Lord, we celebrate with joy the Holy Family of Nazareth. The context is more than adequate, since Christmas is the feast of the family, par excellence. So many traditions and social customs demonstrate this, especially that of gathering together, in family, for the festive meals and the congratulations and the interchange of gifts.”
Each and every one of us, to some degree, is a product of the family in which we were raised. I was blessed to be raised in a home through which the love of God radiated and reached each family member. But like all families ours was not without its share of problems and challenges.
My parents came from very different religious backgrounds. My father was a Baptist and my mother Catholic. They fell in love and were married in 1940 in the Deep South; at a time and place that harbored much suspicion and misunderstanding between these two faiths. My father, after looking into Catholicism, agreed to raise his children in the Catholic faith. This was no easy decision for him to take or for the family from which he came to understand.
The important thing I learned from this is that both of my parents realized that God expected them to welcome children as His precious gifts and to introduce them to Him and His infinite love within the setting of the family. They both believed and embraced the teaching that is the first and foremost theme of Catholic Social Doctrine — “that every human being is created in the image of God and Redeemed by Jesus Christ and therefore is invaluable and worthy of respect as a member of the human family.” [Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions -- Reflections of the US Catholic Bishops]
It is from this that a second great theme derives; the absolute respect for human life from natural conception to natural death. Imagine the heartache and disappointment my parents experienced; the same heartache some of you have known, when time and again the children they conceived did not reach term and were lost to miscarriage. One daughter and one son were born. It is the merciful love of God that allows me to trust and hope that I will one day meet my other brothers and sisters.
These were not the only hardships and disappointments my parents and our family were to experience over the years. From the war years of the 1940’s to the cold war that followed and the cultural revolution of the 1960’s; there were plenty of challenges, both of the extreme variety and the ordinary happenings of daily life. I was only sixteen when my father died, the war in Vietnam was soon to be raging and my mother had to shoulder great responsibilities. The times your families live in and the challenges they experience may be different, but they are just as real. What is important is how each of us… how each of our families respond to them and whether we remain steadfast in the love and light of Christ and in doing so, whether we pass on the faith to our children.
Jesus Set Apart the Family to Be Holy
Each year, the Church, in her liturgy, celebrates the Feast of the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary and Jesus.
It is important that we reflect on how our God entered into history as man. Everything He did was done for our benefit. The God-man revealed to us as Jesus could have arrived in any number of ways, but He came as a vulnerable and humble baby, truly conceived in and born of the Virgin Mary, and raised in a home provided for by Joseph and Mary. Jesus came to make all things new to redeem mankind and His very first act was to renew the human family, to sanctify it, setting it apart to be holy.
The Holy Family of Jesus is the greatest example and model for all human families. The Holy Family, like our own, knew and experienced hardships and tensions. We hear of one such episode in the Gospel which is the basis for both the third of the Seven Sorrows of Mary and the fifth of the Joyful Mysteries of the Holy Rosary; the loss and finding of the child Jesus at the Temple. As we meditate on this passage of Sacred Scripture (cf. Luke 2:41ff), we can relate to the emotions that Mary and Joseph experienced, the anxiety and joy, in realizing that they did not know where their child was and then finding him safe and well at the Temple. Going deeper, we can each, perhaps, see in our own life the times when we have left Jesus behind… the anxiety when apart and the joy and peace that comes when we have again found Jesus in the center of our family.
What We Can Learn from the Holy Family
There is much we can learn about remaining faithful to God through the experiences of their family life. From the announcement that the Virgin Mary would bear the child Jesus, to the birth of Our Lord in a stable in Bethlehem when Mary was still young by today’s standards, from their flight to Egypt to escape the butchery of Herod to the episode of the twelve year old Jesus at the Temple, to the death of Joseph when both Mary and Jesus were still young, to the passion and death of Jesus which pierced the heart of Mary, and all the ordinary events of daily family life in Galilee, theirs is a family that knew hardship yet remained steadfast in God. It is for our families to imitate the model of the Holy Family if we are to know joy and peace in the midst of this life; if we are to attain holiness and salvation.
The Gospel tells us that after Joseph and Mary found Jesus in the temple, He returned with them to Nazareth and remained obedient to them growing in wisdom and age and favor before God and man. For thirty of His thirty-three years, Jesus lived a humble and obedient life within His family before embarking on His public ministry. In this way, He allowed Himself to be taught experientially by His mother and foster-father, in their words and deed, in acts both extraordinary and ordinary. They taught Him the traditional prayers and piety, passed on the cherished customs of His people, showed him the greatest example of love and affection within the family, gave to Him a skill and trade to help support the family. In His public ministry, Jesus taught with words and examples taken from his early and hidden family life. In the lessons He taught, we discover the great love and courage that St. Joseph must have exhibited for Jesus and His Blessed Mother; the tender love and care that must have been shared between mother and son.
The Family as the Domestic Church
Yes, Jesus sanctified and elevated the family, set apart for noble and holy purpose. Another major theme of Catholic Social Doctrine is the right of people to form associations and the primary association to which we are all called and have a right to belong is the family.
The Catholic Church refers to the family as the Domestic Church. It is within the family that our children are first introduced to the faith and where they first encounter the Risen Lord and come to believe. Echoing the words of Pope Paul VI and the example of the Holy Family, we mothers and fathers should ask ourselves: Do we teach our children to pray, do we pray with them, both in and outside the home? Do we show them the love of God by our own love and affection for one another? Do we teach them about the suffering of Jesus borne for them when they are sick and hurting? Like Hannah in First Samuel, do we dedicate our children to the Lord? Do we diligently prepare them for the sacraments and invoke the angels and saints, especially Mary and Joseph to assist them and us? And to our children: Do you humbly follow the example of Jesus, who loves you so much, by honoring and obeying your parents as He honored and obeyed His?
Let us pray to Jesus our God, asking the intercession of St. Joseph and Our Blessed Mother, that like these two greatest of God’s saints, we will place Him at the center of our homes.
Into the deep…
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Into the Deep by Deacon Mike Bickerstaff is a regular feature of the The Integrated Catholic Life™ and usually appears on Sundays.
Deacon Mike Bickerstaff is the Editor in chief and co-founder of the The Integrated Catholic Life™. A Catholic Deacon of the Roman Rite for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Deacon Bickerstaff is assigned to St. Peter Chanel Catholic Church where he is the Director of Adult Education and Evangelization. He is a co-founder of the successful annual Atlanta Catholic Business Conference; the Chaplain of the Atlanta Chapter of the Woodstock Theological Center’s Business Conference; and Chaplains to the St. Peter Chanel Business Association and co-founder of the Marriages Are Covenants Ministry, both of which serve as models for similar parish-based ministries.
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