December 30, 2016
by Dennis Hamm, S.J.
Creighton University's Theology Department
click here for photo and information about the writer

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph
Lectionary: 17

Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14 or Colossians 3:12-21
Psalms 128:1-2, 3, 4-5
Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

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I have to confess that it took years for me to learn how to relate to the Feast of Holy Family. There was so much that set them apart from ordinary families—conception by the Holy Spirit, the divinity of the child, guidance through angelic dream visions. These things gave me plenty to marvel at but not much to relate to my life. Gradually, though, some helpful awarenesses about the Holy Family have dawned on me over the years. I’ll name four.  See if they help you.  

1. The first awareness was this: if I really take the incarnation seriously, that is, that Jesus is as fully human as he is fully divine, he had to develop like a normal kid. He had to learn his mother-tongue from his mother. He probably learned to pray from her, too. And he learned about what it was to be a man from Joseph. He learned a craft from his dad. That also meant that his idea of God the Father as Father had something to do with the kind of father Joseph was for him as a parent.

2. The second awareness was that the Holy Family was more than three. My grade-school religion books typically showed a picture of the holy family with Joseph in his workshop instructing Jesus in woodwork in the foreground, and Mary puttering around in the background, apparently doing kitchen work. It finally dawned on me that that picture didn’t fit the one in the text of the Gospels. Mark and Matthew mention those four “brothers”—James [Jacob, really], Joseph, Jude, and Simon, and at least two (unnamed) “sisters” (Matt 13:55; Mark 6:3). They could be cousins; early Christian tradition also held that they could be Joseph’s children from an earlier marriage. He was older, after all, and one of the most common causes of female mortality in the ancient world was death in childbirth. At any rate, whether cousins or stepbrothers and sisters, these six, or more, were part of the extended family, and they would have lived in the same compound with aunts and uncles, other cousins and grandparents. So the picture of Mary and Joseph raising the child Jesus in splendid isolation as a precious child requiring special treatment is probably not accurate. We should probably picture him in the rough and tumble setting of that extended family living together in a compound with a common yard, probably equipped with a shared outdoor stove.  The workshop in pictures may be the imagining of European translators and artists as well, for the profession of Joseph and Jesus is named in the Gospels with the word tektōn, which means a builder or craftsman. Since wood was rare in Palestine, it is quite possible that they were stone workers, men involved in the construction of buildings such as the theatre in nearby Sepphoris, which was built in the first century A.D.

3. The third awareness is that they were a Jewish family, that is, people who understood their family as embedded in covenant community and who lived according to the Scriptures and practices of Israel. (The boys were named after Israelite heroes; and Jesus, after all, is Greek for Joshua.) That meant that their relationships with one another were as important as their relationship with the Lord God. We heard about that in the first reading, from the book of Sirach.

4. The fourth awareness is that Jesus looked at the community of disciples that he was forming as a new kind of family. Recall Jesus’ statement when he was told that his mother and brothers were outside, wishing to speak with him, he said, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister and mother” (Matthew 11:46-50). So Jesus was, in effect, saying that his group of disciples (eventually called “the church” after Easter) was a community that was deeper than blood. What might sound at first like a dismissal of his family of origin was in fact a compliment to them. This new kind of group formed by faith in the heavenly Father was even a more intimate kind of kinship with Jesus. It would indeed take Easter and Pentecost for people to know what this means. Jesus’ own human experience of family with Mary, Joseph, and their extended family may have inspired Jesus to use kinship language for what was to become the worldwide church. When, in his letters, St. Paul calls his fellow Christians “brother” and “sister,” he is drawing on what he has learned from the traditions about Jesus.

Vatican Council II reflects that insight in another way when the council fathers called the Christian family “the domestic church.” All this is something to ponder: If, for Jesus, the community of church is a new kind of family, then family can be understood afresh as a kind of church. That has nothing to do with formalizing family; it has everything to do with making the church community a place of loving intimacy. History teaches that the church grew so rapidly in its early years because the Jesus people lived like a family who took care of one another, something that eventually attracted many others in the Roman Empire, Jews and gentiles alike. Jesus’ years as part of the Holy Family were the very seed of this way of living. After two thousand years, we are still learning how to live this way as church.

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