Homily - Feast of the Holy Family

Samuel 1:20–22, 24–28
John 3:1–2, 21–24
Luke 2:41–52

This episode in the life of Jesus hits directly on the world of parenting in at least two ways. First and most terrifying is the loss of a child on the part of Mary and Joseph. Suddenly the parents realize that Jesus is not where they thought he was or even where they assumed he was supposed to be—with relatives and acquaintances. They thought he was with members of their extended family or others from their village. This child is now missing, not back home in the familiar territory of the village but on the road and in the throngs of people milling about in Jerusalem at Passover. It does not take much for a parent to identify with the feelings of losing a child, of finding a child gone off somewhere in a shopping mall. Mary says, “Your father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety.” That “anxiety” is a loaded word; it expresses everything about losing someone whom you are responsible for and who cannot fend for themselves. We sometimes label this story the lost child as though it were the child who is lost. But the story is really about about the parents’ experience of losing a child.

This leads to the second theme of parenting found in this Gospel story, namely the emerging adulthood of Jesus. The story does not say that Jesus wandered away from his parents or the pilgrimage group. Jesus chose to stay behind in Jerusalem. Jesus is 12 years old we are told. This is the age in his culture when he begins to assume responsibility for his own life. We can feel the tension that every parent knows when their child starts claiming life for themselves, when they begin the pull away from the parents and make it clear they want their own independence. The parents find themselves in the tension of holding on and yet needing to let go. The child thinks he is ready and the parents are not so sure. Mary seems to scold Jesus for causing them worry but Jesus responds that he has to be about his own life now so stop worrying. A short answer to a parent that perhaps makes us uncomfortable. At least for the moment, Jesus does go back home with them and remains there according to the Gospel. But something has happened. There is a shift in the relationship between Joseph and Mary and their child Jesus. A parent knows it when an adolescent claims adulthood and the separation from the parent begins. The parent feels the self-assurance of their child come forward. Perhaps, like Mary and Joseph, they no longer understand their child. In the end, they will have to find a new way of loving.

This Sunday after Christmas is called Holy Family Sunday. Perhaps the scene from today’s Gospel is meant to enlighten us about today’s family life from the example of the family of Nazareth. It is after all a nuclear family such as we might experience today. But when we look closer at the scene we find that the story is really a story about Jesus. It is clear that Jesus is not lost. In fact, as he says, he is in his father’s house. He is where he is supposed to be and doing what he is supposed to be doing. What we are hearing in the gospel is that Jesus’ life is guided by someone other than his parents of Joseph and Mary. Jesus speaks of his Father’s house. Jesus is at home in the temple among the teacher’s gathered there. The implication he is that he is among equals and yet learning from them and they from him. Jesus is at home in the very house where his story on earth is confirmed and recognized. It is in the temple that we hear about John the Baptist; it is in the temple that the old man Simeon recognizes Jesus as light and glory for the world and his own people and that the old woman Anna sees the redeemer of his people. And his own parents seem dumbfounded. Mary says nothing but keeps it all in mind as though someday she will remember and it will make sense.

Now, at the beginning of his life, Jesus sits with the teachers. And when he returns again for Passover some 30 years later where will he be but in the temple, this time teaching again. And where will his disciples go when Jesus ascends and leaves them; where will they gather but in the temple. There they will teach and there they will be challenged just as their master was challenged. Jesus is in line with a plan of God as well he should as he is God’s Son.

Jesus, says the Gospel, will be obedient to his parents and go back to Nazareth. Here he will grow in age, of course, but also in wisdom. And eventually he will leave Nazareth and we will hear that he will not be accepted there. Should we be surprised? Not really. Today we have heard that “home” and “house” are really not places but relationships. Jesus primary relationship is with God, his Father. And so he is at “home” with his Father. The story of Hannah, Elkanah and Samuel we heard earlier already hints at that. Hannah was desperate for a family, for a home, for a child. But when God gave her a child, she recognized that the child belonged to God. So she gives him to God in God’s house and leaves him there. Hannah contributed to God’s home.

Mary and Joseph have to come to realize the same thing. Jesus belongs to a family in which the primary relationship is with God. Their task is to recognize that and nurture it. Evidently they did that well. Jesus grew in wisdom in their home. And that wisdom led him to call others to form a family but not in Nazareth. He was to form a family around the Father with the Spirit as the binding force and love as the hallmark of the members of that family.

In the face of the fragility and brokenness that we experience in our human families, Jesus comes to call us to a new “home” found in a relationship with him and the Father. As Mary and Joseph discovered that their son was not theirs only but the Son of the Father and that he made home with him, so we too discover that in Jesus we too are children of God. Together we too make a home with God our Father. In that home we are brothers and sisters to one another. Jesus comes to heal and reconcile our broken human families by having us see another “house,” another “home.” In this house we are not lost but found in bonds of love that draw strength from the one who taught us how to be family by loving us to the end. And in this house where we live, the obedience we owe to one another is simply to wash each other’s feet as he once did to us and left as the new commandment.

Being faithful to the will of the Child Jesus will help us to grow in wisdom. That wisdom will guide us in listening to one another, putting the interests of others first, and having God’s mercy as the Spirit that rules our lives. Then we can be called a Holy Family, a home where God dwells.

Prior, Fr. Joel Macul, OSB