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Feast of the Holy Family - feast of humility and love

Kairos: Volume 20, Issue 2320-23-feast-pg10

The Feast of the Holy Family has a long and rich tradition in the Church. Some Eastern rites have marked the feast since the first century. After becoming popular in parts of the Western Church during the 17th century, Pope Benedict XV inaugurated the feast as a fixture on the Roman Church calendar in 1921. Having moved a couple of times since, in 1969 it found its current place within Christmas week, falling on the first Sunday after the great celebration of Our Lord’s birth.

Sadly, however, we can pass by this singularly unique ‘feast of the family’ without reflection – buried as it might be beneath a combination of wrapping paper, leftover ham and celebration fatigue.

It is not for merely sentimental reasons that we remember this family which, as Pope Benedict XVI reminds us, is a family like all others but at the same time unique. They were well acquainted with hardship and suffering, no strangers to persecution, but were also well aware of the joy and blessing of God’s loving provision – and all of this within the first weeks of Jesus’ birth.

They are a family whose members each had a unique personal mission which was both inseparable from and entirely dependent on the mission of each of the others. However, the way they lived their mission holds lessons for us all.

Joseph’s mission

As the only sinner in an otherwise perfect household, those muddy sandal prints across Mary’s clean floor could only have belonged to one person! (That’s assuming leaving muddy prints ranks as a sin – my wife tends to think it is). Despite this, it was he, as Pope John Paul II pointed out, who was entrusted with the mission of guarding our redemption. This artisan’s qualifications were nothing other than attentiveness to God’s prompting, the willingness to act in obedience to visions in the night. Joseph also possessed a most profound humility. He knew that he was given the task of teaching God – guiding the very hands of the Creator of the universe as He learned to fashion timber at a carpentry bench.

Mary’s mission

Mary, that great example of perfect obedience to her calling, was not exempt from the troubles we know so well in our own families. Though more intimate with God than anyone in history, she remained puzzled, perplexed (Lk 1:29) and seemed at times even to misunderstand her son and Lord – such as when she and Joseph lost the boy Jesus for three days! (Lk2:46) If the perfect mother can misunderstand the only truly perfect son, we should hardly be surprised at the often hurtful misunderstandings that take place within our own homes! If they happened in God’s own family they are sure to happen in ours. The questions become: how did they respond, and how do we respond?

Jesus’ mission

Being born into a family, Jesus Christ makes clear that the family is at the centre of the divine-human intersection. God has entered and grown to human maturity within the family. About 90% of His earthly mission was lived out in the seemingly mundane routine of family life. He humbled himself. He did not cling to His equality with God (Phil 2:4), but made Himself obedient to Joseph and to Mary (Lk2:51). Beside His earthly father, the bread of life served His family by partaking in manual labour and, by the sweat of His own brow, earned their bread.

What we learn from the Holy Family

The family of Nazareth teaches us that even perfection in this world does not exempt our families from being tested by suffering – in fact, the opposite is true. They call us to face the apparent drudgery, the uncertainties, the misunderstandings and the pain – the common lot of every family – with love. Each member of the Holy Family, in their own particular but related way, listened with humility and a heart ready to act in service. They, in their mission, served all humanity. In a sense, by serving our little circle of humanity, we do the same.

The family within

Especially in this season we are reminded of those of us to whom connections for our family are not what they once were. The suffering of isolation and loneliness – though surely a heavy burden – may be lightened by this reflection. We are never truly alone. The Father who spoke to Joseph, the Spirit who overshadowed Mary, and the Son who, through them all comes to us in the Eucharist, places the Trinity – that community of persons on which the family itself is modelled and indeed takes its very name (Eph 3:14), – within our deepest self. And so, through Jesus Christ, family is within each of us at Christmas.

Matthew MacDonald is Executive Officer of the Melbourne Archdiocesan Life, Marriage and Family Office.

Feast of the Holy Family