Feast of the Holy Family
Each year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the feast
and when he was twelve years old,
they went up according to festival custom.
After they had completed its days, as they were returning,
the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem,
but his parents did not know it.
Thinking that he was in the caravan,
they journeyed for a day
and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances,
but not finding him,
they returned to Jerusalem to look for him.
After three days they found him in the temple,
sitting in the midst of the teachers,
listening to them and asking them questions,
and all who heard him were astounded
at his understanding and his answers.
When his parents saw him,
they were astonished,
and his mother said to him,
“Son, why have you done this to us?
Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”
And he said to them,
“Why were you looking for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
But they did not understand what he said to them.
He went down with them and came to Nazareth,
and was obedient to them;
and his mother kept all these things in her heart.
And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor
before God and man.
The Feast of the Holy Family suffers a bit in its placement between Christmas and Epiphany, which along with the Baptism of Jesus constitute the three major feasts of the Christmas Season. Before Vatican II and after Vatican II, preachers—perhaps worn down by the Christmas schedule—gave the same sermon every year on the Feast of the Holy Family: “your family should live like the Holy Family.” One of my earliest memories of my mother is coming home from church after such a sermon and getting her take on the message: “Easy for him to say. God and two saints!”
Sunday’s Gospel, from St. Luke’s Christmas narrative stream, is a hint that all is not well in Camelot, so to speak. I wrote a few days ago that both infancy narratives—Luke and Matthew—have been described as miniature passion accounts, hints of the sufferings of the Messiah and those around him that would begin long before Good Friday. In Matthew this is rather obvious, with Herod’s hunting of the child, the flight into Egypt, and the slaughter of the baby boys in Bethlehem.
Luke is subtler and psychological. If we look at his infancy narrative in its entirety, the joy is tempered by other emotions, many of them not pleasant. Right off the bat Zechariah is a conflicted man, struck dumb by Gabriel in an evident crisis of faith. Mary herself betrays an array of conflicting emotions and concerns when she hears Gabriel’s announcement. The very birth of Jesus occurs when an occupying army orders her husband to his town of origin for a tax accounting, in the less than glamorous setting of a barn, attended only by shepherds, isolated men who essentially killed wild animals for a living and carried a reputation as fierce as any hombre in the old American West.
In Sunday’s Gospel we get a look at Mary’s inner turmoil again. Jesus was presented in the temple twice. The first episode (which precedes this Gospel piece) describes how Mary and Joseph brought the infant for his dedication as a firstborn son. It is here that they encounter the holy man Simeon, who advises the couple that their new son will be a “sign that will be opposed” (Luke 2:34-35) and then to Mary, “you yourself will be pierced with a sword.” Joel Green’s commentary summarizes most reflection on this line, that Mary will be caught up in the vortex of Jesus’ final judgment and the establishment of the New Jerusalem.
Sunday’s Gospel is the next episode, occurring twelve years later. Green observes that Mary and Joseph are pious Jews—they make the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem at Passover—implying that Jesus was, in his formative years, immersed in the traditional worship and faith of his contemporary Israel. If this narrative had followed its expected course, this little family of three would have consumed its Passover lamb, probably with relatives or hospitable residents—and returned home. The crux of the story, however, is that Jesus—who to this point has been quiet and passive in the entire Christmas narrative—finds a voice and a will. He has, in Luke’s earlier phrase (1:40), been growing in age, wisdom, and grace. On Sunday we get a look at his growth trajectory.
Green, in so many words, describes Jesus as taking the reins. Things no longer happen to him, he is not steered by conventional habits and religious practices, and he even redesigns the working framework of his family. The crux of the story is the reunion of the family, which is not exactly cozy. Mary articulates her concern and, importantly, that of his father (Joseph). Jesus’ reply (his first recorded words in Luke, in fact), is a contradiction of Mary, as he indicates that he is with his father, thank you very much, and there is surprise (rebuke?) from Jesus that his mother didn’t understand the arrangement. Luke reports that his parents did not grasp his answer.
There is a profound theology contained here: standard Jewish religious observance is no longer enough for the Kingdom of God that Jesus will bring. Even at twelve he is no longer content to observe Passover and return home to the parochial setting of the Nazareth synagogue. His inclination even now is to stay with his Father who art in Heaven, in the closest approximation, and devour his words as taught and interpreted by those who should know them best, the temple teachers. I am reminded of Psalm 19 which talks of God’s law and teaching as “sweeter than honey.”
While Luke does not imply that Jesus’ questions and answers were in some way miraculous, as is sometimes taught, his give and take in the temple was certainly elevated from what a twelve-year-old boy from the hinterlands would normally command from attendance at his synagogue school and his family hearth. There is a note of sadness in the text that even Mary does not comprehend her son, and as Green notes, Luke’s text has Jesus in the active voice choosing to rejoin his parents for the journey home and living obediently but freely in some kind of familiar harmony.
Luke, then, in this episode, has depicted the template of the man we will readily identify years later in the narrative. Jesus loved his faith and was obedient to its dictates, all the while preaching its reform and rejuvenation for the coming of the Kingdom of God. Jesus, who loved the old while transforming it, was indeed a sign of contradiction, a hard man to understand. Mary’s timely inclusion in this Gospel is, more than anything else, a model of courageous religious faith at great cost. To use Luke’s words of Mary, we have much to ponder in our hearts.