The first Sunday after Christmas, we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family. As Jesus enters into a family, and we celebrate Christmas together as family, it seems appropriate to celebrate the beauty of family, the original vocation. But all is not as expected.
The first reading, from Samuel, is the dedication of the child Samuel. Hannah has prayed for a child – prayed for the gift of family. It says she called him Samuel, “since she had asked the Lord for him” – implying that in Hebrew “Samuel” means something like, “I asked, God answered.” But when God grants her prayer, she turns it upside down.
Our Gospel reading will have the Holy Family praying together. “Each year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover.” Family and faith in beautiful unity.
But that is not the case with Hannah. “The next time her husband Elkanah was going up with the rest of his household to offer the customary sacrifice to the Lord and to fulfill his vows, Hannah did not go.” God grants her prayer for family, and she responds by not praying together with her husband.
And then she gives up her family: “Once the child is weaned, I will take him to appear before the Lord and to remain there forever; I will offer him as a perpetual nazirite.” As a small boy she will send him away forever. (A tradition says Mary’s parents did the same with her.)
This is a strange reading for a celebration of family.
The key is in the Gospel, the Finding in the Temple, from Luke. It begins with family togetherness. But this time, it is not the mother, but the child – Jesus himself, God from God, Light from Light – who breaks the unity of the family: “the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it.”
In their attempt to resolve the problem, we see the unity of the family: they “looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances.” Such a joyful procession of family and acquaintances, a village of human affection, going up to pray in Jerusalem. And Jesus is not there.
Mary’s words when at last they find him, three days later, in the Temple, are a key to understanding St. Joseph’s place in the love of the Holy Family. “Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” Mary speaks for the heart of Joseph. She and Joseph share one anxiety for their child. Heart speaks to heart; this is a marriage of profound friendship.
And a depth of family, too. It is of course biologically untrue to call Joseph “your father.” And yet in the love of the Holy Family – for example, in their loving anxiety for one another – Joseph is Jesus’s father. These are not cold, formal relationship. In Mary’s short words are a whole world of humanity, of family affection.
But Jesus is not there. The anxiety of the parents for their child is tied to the words, “Why have you done this to us?” – forever the words of parents to children who do not respect their family ties.
And Jesus responds with disrespect: “Why were you looking for me?” Why indeed! “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
Here is the heart of the matter: Jesus is Son of Man, but also Son of God. He who takes flesh and blesses this world comes from outside of this world, and calls us beyond this world.
At the end of the story, “he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.” He entered back into human family, his self-emptying marked by his obedience to human parents. But that obedience always teeters on the edge of a higher calling: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
This is what “his mother kept . . . in her heart”: the tension of man and God, human family and divine vocation.
For the Epistle, we had a choice between Colossians and First John – but the message of both is about the same. On the one hand are the virtues of family love: “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another” (Col. 3); “love one another just as he commanded us” (1 Jn 3).
But in both, that human love is rooted in the divine: “let the peace of Christ control your hearts . . . . Let the word of Christ dwell in your richly. . . . Do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
In short, the only way to discover family is through holiness; we can only know the beauty of father, mother, child, and love if we keep foremost the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Our families can only thrive if we live a calling higher than family.
In what ways does your family need you to look beyond family, to your divine vocation?