One very popular, modern English Christmas tradition is the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols created in 1918 at King’s College, Cambridge. It begins with a single choirboy singing the 1st verse of the 19th century English hymn Once in David’s Royal City. The choir and eventually the whole congregation soon join in the singing. One of the verses seems to have been tailor-made for today’s feast of the Holy Family:
And through all His wondrous childhood / He would honor and obey,
Love and watch the lowly Maiden, / In whose gentle arms He lay:
Christian children all must be / Mild, obedient, good as He.
I can still remember attending Mass on this feast back when I was in elementary school more than 50 years ago (when this feast was still celebrated in the 2nd week of January). It was, of course, the parish “Children’s Mass,” and the priest took advantage of the occasion to preach to us about our obligation to obey our parents. Fair enough, I suppose. But I can remember thinking to myself how the priest seemed to have based his whole sermon on one line near the end of the Gospel – He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them (Luke 2:51) - conveniently ignoring Jesus’ somewhat more independent behavior earlier in the story! (As an altar boy at an adult Mass one of those years year, however, I heard another priest base his sermon on the significance of Mary and Joseph finally finding Jesus “in church”).
Today’s feast of the Holy Family is, obviously, about more than obedience to parents – or children going to church. Introduced by Pope Leo XIII 120 years ago, it reflects the modern Church’s concern, in the wake of both the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution, to reaffirm the essential nature and fundamental importance of the family as a natural institution in society and as the unique human community through which society institutionalizes its commitment to the next generation. Addressing that concern is inevitably a critical component of the Church’s social mission. That said, the scriptures read at Mass today focus only tangentially on family life.
Like those Old Testament parents Hannah and Elkanah, about whom we hear in today’s 1st reading (1 Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28), Mary and Joseph are portrayed as devoutly faithful to their religious obligations. Luke’s Gospel recounts an incident in which Jesus, Mary, and Joseph travel to the Temple in Jerusalem for Passover. Jesus is now at an age when he will soon assume his adult responsibilities and obligations as a member of God’s Chosen People. He is, in effect, what we would today call an adolescent. Indeed, in purely human terms, Jesus’ behavior coudl be said to resemble that of a maturing adolescent, out to define his own personal identity. Of course, I doubt that many modern teenagers would choose to show their independence by hanging out in church for 3 days! I suspect it wasn’t too common then either.
On the other hand, the Gospel’s interest in this episode was obviously not to suggest some sort of teen rebellion or to explore issues of adolescent personal identity. What this really is, I think, is a kind of “vocation” story – Jesus’ first public acknowledgment of who he is and what his mission will be. Already anticipating his later behavior as an adult, Jesus here puts his priority on his relationship with his heavenly Father rather than his earthly family. Hence, his mission is to be in his Father’s house, rather than in the caravan among relatives and acquaintances. Likewise, the wonder experienced by the teachers in the Temple anticipates the wonder so many will eventually experience at Jesus’ teaching during his public life - and the wonder we continue to experience as we experience his continued life among us in his Church.
Like Hannah and Elkanah, Mary and Joseph had a son dedicated to the Lord, a son whose mission in life would take him – and his followers – beyond the limits of natural human relationships – reflected in the contrasting uses of the word “Father,” first in Mary’s question and then in Jesus’ surprising response. Through the Church, our new relationship with God in Jesus incorporates us into a new network of relationships both wider and more inclusive than any natural human relationships.
At the same time, we continue to be involved in and dependent upon those natural networks of human relationships, of which the family is the first. Yet, today’s feast calls our attention to the transforming effect of the Incarnation in all aspects of our daily life - intruding into and transforming everything else and all those day-to-day natural human relationships, including our families.
When he established this feast, Pope Leo XIII wrote: “When Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are invoked in the home, there they foster charity, there they exert a good influence over conduct, set an example of virtue, and make more bearable the hardships of every life.” (Neminem fugit, 1892)