For most people, Christmas is over– the music has stopped; Santa Claus is gone from the malls. The decorations are down and put away. It’s over.
But in church Christmas isn’t over. We’re still singing carols and continue to celebrate, and with the celebrations we continue to think about what it means when we say “our God was made visible.”
Today we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family. The Word was made flesh; Jesus was born; he became the child of Mary and Joseph in the small town of Nazareth in the hills of Galilee. He was part of a family.
Let’s think about this part of the life of Jesus. First, remember something about family life at the time of Jesus. Families of his day were extended families or clans, that lived close together and worked side by side, as archeological excavations in Nazareth and Capernaum make clear. They worked in the fields or in business, ate together and moved together, as they still do in parts of the Middle East and elsewhere today.
It’s safe to say that in Jesus’ day nuclear families did not exist. A nuclear family– mother, father and children– is a modern form of family life. For this reason, the picture we sometimes have of the Holy Family– Mary, Joseph and the Child Jesus all by themselves in a small house in Nazareth– is not a realistic picture. Jesus was raised in an extended family where grandfathers and grandmothers, uncles, aunts and cousins were involved in bringing him up.
That doesn’t take away the part Mary and Joseph played in his upbringing, of course. They weren’t props, standing at a distance while angels brought him up.
Some of the apocryphal gospels – early stories about Jesus which the church rejected – picture Jesus’ childhood in almost angelic terms. One story describes him forming the figure of a bird from clay, then breathing on it, and instantly it becomes a living bird and flies away. Stories like that presented him as a child exercising miraculous powers.
The church rejected the apocryphal gospels and stories like that because they gave a false picture of how Jesus grew up. He “was subject” to Mary and Joseph, the gospel of Luke says. He grew up in their care as an ordinary child would.
Like mothers and fathers everywhere, they saw to his needs, they held him in their arms, fed him, clothed him, stayed up at night when he was sick. They taught him his first words, guided his first steps, nudged him along this way and that.
They brought him to church–the synagogue, the temple–as we see in today’s gospel from Luke. They instructed him in his tradition. They taught him to pray, interpreted events for him, listened to his questions, encouraged him over and over. They had their misunderstandings, as today’s gospel indicates. In fact, they influenced his life. Yes, angels were there, but at a distance. Mary and Joseph and that larger family and village around him brought up the Child.
Today’s feast of the Holy Family takes in the years of Jesus’ childhood and early adult life sometimes called his Hidden Life. His years in that nondescript town among those ordinary people were truly hidden, yet were they less important than his Public Life, the few years he taught and did great miracles, suffered and died and rose from the dead? In those hidden years “he humbled himself.” A hidden life is important, and a hidden life is what mostly characterizes life in a family.
We need to think about family life today. It’s in trouble. For one thing, the nuclear family– father, mother, children– is in trouble. I read some disturbing statistics recently. In every state in our country, families where children have two parents have declined significantly in the last 10 years. One of three children live in a home without a father. Almost 5 million children live in a home without a mother. A single mother may have an income of $24,000. Two parents are likely to have an income significantly greater.
What can we do? How can we help? Feasts like the Holy Family focus our attention on important things. They remind us what’s important in God’s eyes. The feast of the Holy Family focuses on the family. It’s important, it says. At the same time, it tells us God’s grace will be ours when we work to make families go and when we support them all we can. God points to family life today. It’s vitally important in our world.