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The Feast of the Holy Family: Not Just a Model

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Those of us suspicious of the pious platitudes that too often make their home in Catholic homiletic practice know that the feast of the Holy Family is a “code-red” day for such platitudes. We families assemble in our parishes and are exhorted that we should conform our domestic life according to the peaceful, loving relationships of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. The image of the Holy Family that we receive is one pictured on holy cards where perfect beauty and order and attention are mutually given by Mary, Joseph, and Jesus (I suppose there were no smartphones to distract attention . . . otherwise Christ would have been found wandering around Jerusalem playing Pokémon GO instead of in the Temple).

Those of us with toddlers normally do not hear this point of homiletic insight (ironically) because our children want to take up their vocation as amateur arsonists by playing with the candles placed before the statue of the Blessed Mother or to take a swim in the baptismal font. But for those of us able to attend to the preaching this day, we walk away with a sense of guilt that our own family lives (whether married with children or not) are too messy. Not one of us comes from or is perfectly replicating a family that includes the Word made flesh, the Virgin conceived without sin, and the most just Joseph. Our family histories are marked by sin, by violence, by disorder. Even more so, not everyone in our parishes are themselves part of such families. Single men and women (with and without children), the infertile, the divorced, the widowed—should they tune out on the feast of the Holy Family because this day is not ultimately about them?

The problem with the homiletic platitudes delivered on this feast day in the Octave of Christmas is that they quickly reduce the mystery of the Incarnation into a series of moral maxims nearly impossible for most of us to fulfill. It is Christianity as a form of works righteousness, an American gospel of “try a little harder and you too can be like Mary and Joseph and Jesus.” Liturgical feasts are not lessons of morality (at least primarily). They present to us some facet of Christ’s own life (or life in Christ in the case of the saints) that the universal Church should contemplate. In the case of the feast of the Holy Family, we contemplate nothing less than the total, self-emptying love of the Word made flesh, who chose to dwell among the human race in a family.

For those of us who have experience with families, I find this fact at least as shocking as the Cross. Family life is exceedingly difficult. To be in a family involves learning to give yourself away even when you have no desire to do so. It is learning the virtue of obligation, of being there, of taking up one’s duties as a husband or father, a wife or mother, a child or a sibling. Yet, the real difficult part of family life (and where salvation comes from) is learning to “forget” that this love that you offer to the other is an obligation in the first place. Of course, wives and husbands are obligated to one another. They may even take turns with particularly onerous tasks (like getting up in the middle of the night to soothe a crying child). Yet, only the most ridiculous of marriages operate out of a system of exchange in which a couple keeps track of every thing that his or her partner is obliged to do.

This obligation extends to child as well. As a child, I have called home to speak to my parents every Sunday since I went off to college in the year 2000. At this point, this phone call is obligatory (on both the part of the caller and the receiver of the call I should say). Yet, the grace of family life is that obedience and obligation is transformed into gift. What we owe is to become what we give out of love. If family life is a school of love, it is not because existence within a family (at least for those of us who are fallen) is intrinsically harmonious, full of good will and cheer. Rather, family life teaches us to give and to give and to give, forgetting what the gift costs and costs and costs. Everything.

The scandal of the feast of the Holy Family is that the Word made flesh, the very creator of the universe, learned the art of this gift-giving from us. He was obedient to Mary and Joseph, obliged to live under their care. The absolute love that he manifested in his ministry and upon the Cross was not only divine love. Rather, it was a love made possible because he learned to love from Mary and Joseph. He learned what it means to give oneself away without counting the cost. The prayers of Christmas often speak about the marvelous exchange of humanity and divinity that took place in the Babe born in Bethlehem. This exchange of divinity and humanity did not conclude at his birth but unfolded as the Word became flesh, became part of a family. And now, too (after all it’s an exchange), our very own families in all of their messiness can become a place where the Word becomes flesh, where obligation becomes love, where the fullness of salvation unfolds.

For this reason, the feast of the Holy Family is not intended to make us feel bad that our families fall short of the measure of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph (and they do and will). Rather, it presents to us the fact that even the messiness of family life is part of our salvation. And our family life (like that of the Holy Family) is not absolute peace and perfection. The Holy Family exists in a world in which the innocents are slaughtered, in which they become migrants in Egypt, in which they lose their Son in the Temple, in which they gather around Joseph at his death, in which Mary watches her Son die upon a Cross at the hands of the Roman Empire. Even in this mess, salvation does unfold.

Thus, I would urge homilists of all sorts to preach not pious platitudes but the mystery of salvation that all families need to hear.

  • We all need to hear that the Word became flesh, forever transforming what it means to be in relationship with one another.
  • We all need to hear that God loved us so much that God entered into the messiness of history, not as idea but as embodied in a family.
  • We all need to hear that our salvation is inseparable from those very real obligations that we enter into as members of the human family as a whole—obligations that become gifts.

That is, the feast of the Holy Family is not simply for perfect families, with 2.5 children, with a nice house, where fighting and discord are absent. Rather, this feast is for the divorced, for those who struggle to love a parent who has done something atrocious, for those who long for children but cannot have them, for those who are forgotten and unloved, for single moms and single dads, for those who have left their homeland and families behind to send money to feed spouse and child, for those who are single but don’t want to be, and on and on. Even here, even in this messiness, the Word wants to become flesh and dwell among us.

And for our families, the goal is not to become merely like the Holy Family (Mom = Mary, Dad = Joseph, Child = Jesus). Rather, it is to become like the Word made flesh himself. To enter into the sorrowful places of the world, the places where neither obligation nor love is found, and to offer the gift of love that is the heart of Christmas. This is a feast worth celebrating and preaching upon. This is the feast of the Holy Family.

Featured Image: The Holy Family in Nazareth, detail (Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris); Lawrence Lew, OP; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.

Timothy P. O’Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, associate professional specialist in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame, and founding editor for Church Life.