One of the English-speaking world’s more popular modern Christmas traditions is the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols created exactly 100 years ago in 1918 at King’s College, Cambridge. Famously, it begins with a single choirboy singing the 1st verse of the 19th century English hymn Once in David’s Royal. 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.
Of course, today’s feast is about more than reminding children to obey their parents. Nor is it about what may be the more contemporary version of the 4th commandment: parents obeying their children.
Like those Old Testament parents Hannah and Elkanah, about whom we heard in today’s 1st reading, Luke’s Gospel portrays a devout Jewish family, faithful to their religious obligations and obedient to God’s Law, including the annual Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Our modern “adolescence” not having been invented yet, Jesus in today’s Gospel is now at an age when he must assume his adult responsibilities and obligations as a member of God’s Chosen People, and so Jesus also accompanies his parents and their extended social network on the pilgrimage.
So this is really a “growing up” story as much as a “family” story – Jesus’ first public acknowledgment of who he is and what his lifetime 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 with any 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 soon 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 – far beyond the limits of natural human relationships. We can hear this 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 – wider and more inclusive than any natural human family, wider and more inclusive than any caravan of relatives and acquaintances. As the Synod on the Family said three years ago, “Jesus made family relations relative in the context of the Kingdom of God.” Jesus introduced what the Synod called a “revolution in affection,” which represents “a radical call to universal brotherhood” [Synod 2015 Final Report, 41].
American Christianity, which is increasingly more about sentimentality than salvation, notoriously tends to focus a lot on family, forgetting perhaps that Jesus and the New Testament in general were much more focused on God’s kingdom and showed relatively little interest in marriage and family life. At the same time, just like the 12-year old Jesus, we Christians continue to be involved in and dependent upon the social networks of human relationships, of which the family is one. The family, Pope Francis has reminded us, is “where we learn to live with others despite our differences and to belong to one another; it is also the place where parents pass on the faith to their children” [Evangelii Gaudium, 66].
In our modern world, however, the social functions and so the very forms of family are in flux, as are all communities and forms of social connection. There are still old-fashioned extended families and modern two-parent, nuclear families, but there are also single-parent families, and “blended” families, and other complicated configurations, and there are more and more people with hardly any recognizable family at all. Less than half the adult population in the United States is married now, compared with more than three-quarters of the population half a century ago.
Then too, thanks to increasing economic inequality in our society, marriage is increasingly associated with those generally more economically and socially advantaged. All the more then is the Church challenged not only to advocate for sound public policies that benefit parents and children, but also to accompany individuals and families of all types, that are stressed in these various ways.
Just like the 12-year old Jesus in the Gospel, young people have their growing up stories to live and their life’s mission to figure out. The challenges they face are personal and professional, private and public, environmental and economic, social and structural. But, however distinctive today's context, such challenges are not entirely unprecedented. The Good News of God’s Kingdom offers the support of much needed communal solidarity with a long and strong tradition of moral and spiritual seriousness. Parishes in particular are challenged to instill in individuals and families a stronger sense of belonging to the larger human community that is the Church on earth.
Homily for the feast of the Holy Family, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 30, 2018.