Today we celebrate the Holy Family: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, which is fitting because Christmas for most of us is a time for family. While the Holy Family is the family into which the Son of God was born and was raised, it was a truly human family. Over the previous two days here at church and in our homes we have been celebrating and pondering in our hearts the great mystery of God-made-man-for-us. Today’s feast urges us to reflect even more deeply on the mystery of our salvation. In today’s Gospel, Matthew moves us quickly from the stable of Jesus' birth, past the visit of the Magi, to the need Joseph discerns to take his family and flee from the feared wrath of King Herod. In this we see that the circumstances faced by the Holy Family do not fit the idyll we often imagine when staring at our manger scenes and Christmas crèches.
Precisely because the Scriptures don’t merely have something to do with our lives, but everything to do with us, we can’t help but notice what Matthew makes clear: that God is concerned about us and is guiding us, His family, just as He protected and guided the people of Israel and Joseph’s family. There is no greater proof of the divine mission given to Israel than the Israelites not only surviving, but thriving as a result of being exiled and both times returning from exile in tact as a people. The only people who are surprised by the story told in Scripture, which culminates with Jesus coming into the world, are those who are not familiar with it. The entirety of the Bible is one continuous story of God's love and concern for His people. The Holy Family concretely demonstrates God's desire for the well-being of all families.
In today’s Gospel Jesus reprises the history of his people. We need to take note that Matthew quickly dispatches Herod from the story because the earthly king must be put aside in favor of the newly arrived King, who is truly the king of the Jews. Matthew links Jesus to David by writing about Him being born in Bethlehem, the home of Israel's shepherd king as well as Joseph’s ancestral city. In Jesus’ leaving Israel for Egypt Matthew reminds us of the patriarch Jacob, whose name was changed by the angel to Israel, and of Moses, the infant who was protected from the murderous pharaoh in order to lead his people out of slavery. These events in the Lord’s life as depicted in St. Matthew’s Gospel are not incidental, but proof that He is both Messiah and Lord. Further, these events prove that God has not forgotten the chosen people, just as God has not forgotten us, His people, who wait in joyful hope for Christ’s glorious return.
In addition to the societal and even political forces that endanger the family, there are quite a few internal pressures that ordinary families face in contemporary Western society. It is often the case that both parents work full-time outside the home and that many poor parents need to hold more than one job to make ends meet and provide the necessities of life for their children. Additionally, children also have early pressures on them to over-achieve and be involved in multiple extracurricular activities. For many of us just having a supper with the whole family gathered around the table is very difficult. The point of our Gospel today is that the Holy Family, just like us, faced the very real circumstances that life presents.
These external and internal pressures we face daily take their toll on us and can lead to discord in our homes, which makes St. Paul’s advice to the Colossians as relevant for us today and it was for the Christians of the church in Colossae: "Put on, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, bearing with one another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do" (Col. 3:11-12).
At the beginning of Christianity, in such places as Colossae, believers met in each other's homes to pray and worship together. Hence, from the beginning we are familiar with the term "domestic church." The U.S. bishops, in their National Catechetical Directory entitled Sharing the Light of Faith remind us that the Christian family is "the basic community within which faith is nurtured." The Church teaches incessantly that parents are the first teachers of their children in the ways of faith. In fact, when having their children baptized Catholic parents accept "the responsibility of training them in the practice of the faith" (Rite of Baptism par.39). The Gospels clearly demonstrate that our Lord was born a Jew and raised in a devout Jewish family. It was in His home, from Joseph and Mary, that he first learned the Scriptures and the rites and rituals of Jewish religious practice.
It was being forced into exile away from the Temple and the various destructions of the Jerusalem Temple, the last one occurring in AD 70 that led to the establishment of synagogues and to Judaism becoming in many respects an "at-home" religion. Just think of the Passover Seder, which is celebrated in the home. As Christians we rightly emphasize the necessity of gathering for Eucharist on Sundays and solemnities, but we also need to practice our faith in our homes. One example of this is the Advent wreathes most of us used during our holy season of preparation for Christmas. At root, our Christmas trees, too, are religious symbols, which is why we don’t pitch them to the curb, or put them back in the box tomorrow morning, but leave them up until the Baptism of the Lord, the celebration that brings the season of Christmas to a close, which falls two weeks from today. Of course, between now and then, next Sunday to be precise, we observe the grand and ancient feast of Epiphany, around which many traditional home-based religious observances have been handed on to us, chief among which is the blessing of our homes.
In our day-to-day lives, we display crucifixes, icons, statues, and candles in our homes. Really, no Catholic home should be without such symbols, or without a Bible, a copy of the The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, along with a copy of Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers, the latter of which is published by United States Bishops conference and contains rites to be celebrated in our homes. In actuality, what we do together on Sundays should have its roots in what we do at home: sharing food, praying together and celebrating in creative, fun, and appropriate ways the seasons, memorials, feasts and solemnities of the liturgical year, which is how we mindfully live out and celebrate the great mystery of our salvation. In these ways, we enact in our homes what we express each time we gather for Eucharist- that we are the body of Christ, God’s family nourished through Word, Sacrament and each another. If Christ does not occupy the center of our homes, how we can say He is the center of our lives? For Christian parents, if Christ has no place, or only a marginal place, in your homes, how can He be at the center of your children’s lives?
Of course, we can’t make our families holy any more than we can make ourselves holy, only God can do that! Nonetheless, it all starts with our desire for holiness, which is nothing other than our desire to be completely satisfied, to be fulfilled, to be happy which recognition marks the beginning of our cooperation with what God wants to accomplish in us and through us, even if in surprising and unexpected ways, like the birth of His only begotten Son to a poor young woman in a stable in Bethlehem, who despite all the difficulties involved, said "May it be done to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38).
"Blessed, indeed, "are those who fear the Lord and walk in His ways” (Ps. 128:1). Merry Christmas!