Fifth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph
Readings: Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14; Colossians 3:12-21; Luke 2:41-52
Our First Reading is taken from the oft-neglected Book of Sirach (also known as Ecclesiasticus). This extensive collection of wisdom and sage advice, on both common and uncommon matters, is not considered Biblical canon by the Protestant churches – which is unfortunate, because it is a key text for understanding Jesus historically. This book was completed in the early 2nd century B.C., and had been translated into Greek from Hebrew by the end of that century. It encapsulates the philosophical mindset of the Jewish world in the century or so before Jesus was born, a world that had been married uneasily with Greek culture and was now beginning its courtship with Rome. It, along with the Book of Wisdom (also not Protestant canon), is the closest source outside of the New Testament for understanding in an intimate way the values and virtues of the culture into which Jesus Himself was born and raised.
And in this reading, taken from the early chapters of the Book, we find instruction regarding the treatment of parents, especially of one’s father. “Whoever honors his father atones for sins,” writes the author, and “he stores up riches who reveres his mother.” “Kindness to a father will not be forgotten,” he continues. Even “he who obeys his father brings comfort to his mother.” Surely this is a people who holds the family as the source and cradle of learning how to get along with friends, neighbors, strangers, and superiors. How appropriate for a people whose faith tradition holds “Honor your father and your mother” as the greatest of the divine commands concerning one’s relationships with other people. And, after all, any man or woman you meet is someone’s son or daughter. If only more of us today regarded such advice so highly…
And yet, in our Gospel reading from the investigative Evangelist, we see the 12-year-old Jesus in the midst of doing something that causes His parents “great anxiety,” as Mary says to Him. After accompanying His family to Jerusalem for the Passover – probably for the first time in His life – He remains behind in the city after His family leaves for home. For three frantic days His parents search for Him among the family and the caravan before going back to the city, and there they find Him in the Temple, dialoguing with the teachers and scribes. Now Luke does go on to say that He went back with them to Nazareth “and was obedient to them,” presumably for the rest of His childhood and until the story resumes at the beginning of His public ministry. But what are we to make of this incident, recorded only in Luke’s Gospel – a Gospel written for the purpose of confirming the truth of the faith of baptized Christians? The ever-sinless Jesus, son of righteous observers of the Law, basically running away from His parents to be in what He called “my Father’s house?” Isn’t this a bit too hypocritical or contradictory to bear?
Once again, Saint Paul provides us inspired context in the Second Reading to reconcile the Old and the New. In the midst of his own (and, sadly, too often mocked) advice to wives and husbands regarding their treatment of and for each other and their children, and exhorting the people of Colossae to cultivate the practice of noble virtues such as humility, patience, forgiveness, and thankfulness, the Apostle writes: “over all these put on love – that is, the bond of perfection.” It is a theme Paul has written on before, in such a beautiful way, to the people of Corinth, telling them that all the gifts and talents and great deeds in the world are as nothing unless there is love in them. It is the epitome of the Christian way: no thought, word or deed is complete (Latin, perfectus) without love. Love is what keeps the wisdom of Sirach from being just a series of moralistic maxims or empty rules. And it is what keeps the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph intact even in the midst of anxiety and confusion.
Jesus Himself is the Incarnation of God’s own wisdom, His Word (Greek, logos) through Which He created and sustains the cosmic order. That is what we mean when we say “the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.” It is why the Holy Spirit is also fully God, and why He is the active of force of God in the created world even today; He is the love, the “bond of perfection” that exists between the Begetter and the Begotten, He is the Breath that came forth when the Creator spoke His Word. God’s entire Trinitarian existence is the incomprehensible sign of an unfathomable love that first reveals itself to us in our very first relationship: to our family.
Because of this divine love, everything Jesus did in His human nature was ordered towards His divine nature, towards His Father. This brief loss of the Child Jesus – one of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary – would not be the last time He caused Mary “great anxiety,” and it would not the last time He did something that she did not fully understand. But she knew and believed, as did righteous Joseph, that this Child – “called holy, the Son of God” – had to follow the will of God in all things. Both of them had done the same, and their choices had brought them to this moment, where their Child was now sitting in His Father’s house, Wisdom speaking wisdom with the wise.
And then Wisdom “came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.” For “he who obeys his father brings comfort to his mother” – when obedience is made in love.
Go, love your family, please!