I want to begin by pointing out that that Christmas is not yet over. One of the results of foregoing Advent and jumping right into Christmas is that Christmas, as a season, receives short-shrift. Instead of enjoying the feast that follows the fast, many people busy themselves over Christmas with cleaning and getting things “back to normal.” In addition to celebrating today’s Feast of the Holy Family, during Christmastide we also celebrate the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God on 1 January. Next Sunday, 6 January, we observe Epiphany. Because Epiphany commemorates the visit of gift-bearing magi to the Holy Family, traditionally and in some countries even today, Epiphany, not Christmas, is the main day for exchanging gifts (but please don’t tip-off the stores about this). This year, as Roman Catholics in the United States, for whom Christmas ends on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord and not on Epiphany, we have two more weeks of Christmas!
It is also important to note that the Holy Family is very much a non-traditional family. One might say that the Holy Family is the proto-typical non-traditional family. After all, the Holy Family was formed as the result of a near break-up prior to marriage due to a surprise pregnancy. If the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke are what we go by, Joseph was Jesus’s foster-father or something like that. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus powerfully reminds Joseph and Mary who he is by reminding them whose he is. His reminder came after Mary (understandably) castigated him, saying, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” (Luke 2:48). He then asks: “Why were you looking for me?” In other words, what does it mean to seek and find Christ? “Did you not know,” the Lord continued, “that I must be in my Father’s house?” The Gospel-writer then adds: “But they did not understand what he said to them” (Luke 2:50).
How often is it the case with us that we do not understand the meaning of Jesus’s words? To understand his words, we need to recognize that he spoke them not only in a specific context but in a particular time, place, and culture. When one closely examines Jesus’s teaching, it becomes clear he was not overly concerned about what we call “the traditional family.” As a matter of fact, he sometimes pointed to family attachments as an obstacle to receiving the Good News. The so-called “nuclear" family, consisting of father, mother, and children, which is often invoked today for ideological purposes, was not what people in Jesus’s time and culture understood as “the family.” In Jesus’s culture, the family was multi-generational and consisted not only of mothers, fathers, and children, but grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, great-aunts and uncles, second cousins, etc.
Nuclear families produce individuals. Because we were made for communion by a communion of divine persons, we know that one person is no person. Along with Jesus, Mary and Joseph constituted the Holy Family because, like the Son of God made man, both of them were wholly committed to doing the Father’s will come what may.
The family with which Jesus was concerned, the family Jesus came to establish, is the eschatological family of God. Included in this holy family are those who are cast-off from their own, natural families or those who, for whatever reasons, find themselves with no family. God's family, to paraphrase a still-popular Christmas show, just might be the Island of Misfit people. Does this mean family doesn’t matter? Of course not! It does mean that families now and always have taken different forms and come in different sizes.
Baptism was our re-birth as children of the Father through Christ Jesus by the power of their Holy Spirit. This reality is what prompted the inspired author of our second reading to exult: “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God” (1 Jn 3:1). Our Baptism makes us children of the Father and members of God’s family, the Church. As members of the family of God, each of us can take our rightful place at the Eucharistic table. As in any reasonably healthy family, there is always enough for room, enough food, enough love for one more. And it is always to quote Kurt Cobain, “come as you are.”
Pope Benedict XVI noted in his encyclical letter, Deus caritas est (i.e., God is Love), God’s family fulfills its mission by engaging in three endeavors: leitourgia, martyria, and diakonia (Deus caritas est, 25a). Leitourgia, or liturgy, refers to worshiping God. This is what we are doing at this very moment. While we worship God in many ways, the principal manner in which worship is through our celebration of the sacraments. But our participation in the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, sec. 11). Among other things, the Eucharist is the Sunday supper of the family of God, a motley crew, indeed.
Martyria, or martyrdom, refers to being a witness. There are two distinct but related aspects of martyria: evangelization and catechesis. To evangelize means to tell others the Good News. Evangelizing primarily consists of bearing joyful witness to the love of God you have experienced through Jesus Christ. Especially in this age of anxiety, when depression and loneliness are so widespread, the most persuasive means of evangelizing is not apologetics, but true joy, the joy that only comes from knowing Jesus.
Catechesis means to “echo,” or, in this context, to “resound” the apostolic teaching. To catechize means to impart the Christian faith, to hand it on to those who have come to believe. It is clear that infants and small children cannot have faith apart from that of their parents and godparents, who promise to untiringly teach them the faith by word and example. Catechizing young people, which is very different from indoctrinating them, is a major effort every parish undertakes. Teaching the faith is so much more than trying to have people memorize doctrinal formulae or, worse yet, trying to impart a bit of morality.
Faith is often reduced in two ways: we reduce it to sentimentality (something that Christmas might stand as the example par excellence), or we reduce it to morality, to mere moralism. “The Church has nothing to say about morality,” Fr Timothy Radcliffe observed, “until our listeners have glimpsed God’s delight in their existence… We have nothing to say at all until people know that God rejoices in their very existence… Jesus is the incarnation of God’s pleasure in us, in everything that we are, body, mind and soul” (What is the Point of Being a Christian?, Kindle Locations 1154-1157, Bloomsbury Publishing, Kindle Edition).
Many people are alarmed at the rate young people seem to be abandoning the Church and all religious practice. This can be traced, at least in part, to a failure of both evangelization and catechesis, or, stated more precisely, the lack of evangelization in catechesis. Our response to this seeming crisis results in the development of strategies for keeping young people “in the Faith,” by which we mean practicing the faith on their own as adults. We always bear in mind, however, that because faith is a theological virtue, it can only be given by God, who is always offering himself to everyone. God’s always-being-offered gift of himself in Christ only becomes faith when a person receives it.
The most effective way to share your faith with your own children, with your grandchildren, with the young people in our parish, is to demonstrate by your own practice how much your faith means to you, how much joy you experience by being a Christian. Just as it is not our goal as parents to produce clones of ourselves, but authentic human beings, as people gifted by God with faith, our call is not to make carbon copies of ourselves, but to make disciples of Jesus Christ (Matt 28:19).
Finally, in a Christian context, diakonia, a Greek verb, from which we derive the word “deacon,” means serving others in Jesus’s name for the sake of God’s kingdom. In Deus caritas est, Pope Benedict noted:
The Church is God's family in the world. In this family no one ought to go without the necessities of life. Yet at the same time [this love] extends beyond the frontiers of the Church. The parable of the Good Samaritan remains as a standard which imposes universal love towards the needy whom we encounter “by chance” (cf. Lk 10:31), whoever they may be (sec. 25b)Those who because of their faith in Christ worship God in the power of the Spirit and so are impelled by the same Spirit to give joyful witness to the love of God, and who serve each other, as well as those in need, together make up the Holy Family of God.