Jesus is God Incarnate, the Savior, the Redeemer. Mary is Mother of God, guarantor of the Incarnation; and Immaculate Conception, the perfect model of holiness. But the Sunday within the octave of Christmas calls us to look more broadly, to the Holy Family: to include poor St. Joseph. Remarkably, the readings show us how important Joseph is for a true understanding of Christianity.
It has been said that the key to St. Paul’s theology is the Church. On the road to Damascus, Jesus speaks to him as identified with the members of his Church: “why are you persecuting me?” And woven constantly through Paul’s letters is the theology of the Body of Christ. For Paul, Jesus is not just a historic figure, but the cosmic “head of the body, the Church” (Col. 1:18). To be a Christian, meanwhile, is precisely to be part of Christ’s body: pulsing with his Spirit, united to the head and the members. Once you are alert to this theme in Paul, you see it is everywhere.
It is, for example, in our feast day’s reading from Colossians. This is one of the infamous readings where the Church gives us a censorship option. In this Sunday’s reading, as also in Ephesians 5, Paul gives a general discussion of love within the Church, then particularizes it within familial relationships. We are given the option to ignore what Paul says about family – on the feast of the Holy Family! – because it is not politically correct. But it is fabulous.
“Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved” – as members of Christ! – “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another.” In short, live as members of Christ: “let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body.”
This is the heart of Paul’s moral teaching: to live as members of Christ’s body, pulsing with his heart, his spirit. It is the heart of his teaching on the family, too. Today people often get this upside down, and think of the Church in terms of family. To the contrary, Paul teaches us to think of the family in terms of Church. The family is the most immediate, ordinary place where we live the radical love of the Body of Christ.
Thus after discussing this general attitude of Christian love, Paul gives a brief teaching on family relationships: whatever is right in wifely submission and husbandly leadership, as also in parental authority and childly obedience, must be suffused with Christian love. Paul actually doesn’t teach about obedience – he just assumes we understand that natural dynamic; what he teaches is that this obedience must be penetrated with the love of the Church. Nature is permeated with grace, natural authority with Christian love. The family must be the first place where we live the love that is the Church.
Our first reading, from Sirach, particularizes this as it relates to the father of the family. “God sets a father in authority over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons.” Whereas Paul merely assumes these familial relationships, and suffuses them with his theology of the Church, the Old Testament is chock full of wisdom about family, especially in the wisdom literature: Proverbs, Sirach, etc. The teaching is very homely. We live out charity by the way we relate to one another.
This is the true meaning of the Holy Family. Jesus came into a family. He showed that love is not just vague and general. The love of Christ is what we live out when children honor their parents – and parents honor their children. When wives and husbands live as wives and husbands ought (a relationship the Bible treats not in terms of sex, but of household order). Jesus is obedient to his parents – “he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them” (Luke 2:51) – precisely to show that his love enters into these particulars, including the natural dynamics of authority.
And then the Gospel just gives us the story of the leadership of Joseph, caring for his family as they flee from Herod. Joseph is not the star of the Holy Family. He is not the Redeemer, not even the Mother of God. He is just an ordinary father. But his authority within the Holy Family is nonetheless key to the Gospel, because it shows that what Jesus redeems is ordinary life, the natural relationships of parent-child, husband-wife – and shopkeeper-customer, neighbor-neighbor, and everything else. That is where the love of Christ shines forth. The Gospel radiates in the person of St. Joseph.
What does Joseph tell you about your life?