For most people, Christmas is over– the music’s stopped; Santa Claus is gone from the malls. The decorations are down and put away. It’s over.
But in church Christmas isn’t over. We’re still singing carols and continue to celebrate as we think about what it means when we say “our God was made visible.”
Today’s the feast of the Holy Family. The Word was made flesh, and as the child of Mary and Joseph Jesus was part of a family in the small town of Nazareth in hills of Galilee.
For one thing, families then were extended families or clans, living close together and working side by side. Archeological excavations in Nazareth and Capernaum (pictures below) make that clear. Families worked together in the fields or in business, they ate together and moved together, as they still do in parts of the Middle East and elsewhere today.
It’s safe to say that nuclear families didn’t exist then. A nuclear family– mother, father and children– is a modern form of family life. Mary, Joseph and the Child Jesus were not all by themselves in a small house in Nazareth. Rather, Jesus was raised in an extended family where grandfathers and grandmothers, uncles, aunts and cousins lived together and were involved in bringing him up.
That doesn’t take away the part Mary and Joseph played in his upbringing, of course. They weren’t props, standing by while angels brought him up. Some of the apocryphal gospels – early stories about Jesus which the church rejected – seem to say that. One story describes the Child Jesus forming the figure of a bird from clay, then breathing on it, and instantly it becomes a living bird and flies away. Stories like that presented him exercising miraculous powers as a child.
The church rejected those stories because they gave a false picture of Jesus growing up. He “was subject” to Mary and Joseph, the gospel of Luke says. He grew up in their care as an ordinary child would.
Like mothers and fathers everywhere, they saw to his needs, they held him in their arms, fed him, clothed him, stayed up at night when he was sick. They taught him his first words, guided his first steps, nudged him along this way and that.
They brought him to church–the synagogue, the temple–as we see in today’s gospel from Luke. They instructed him in his tradition. They taught him to pray, interpreted events for him, listened to his questions, encouraged him over and over. They had their misunderstandings, as today’s gospel indicates. In fact, they influenced his life.
Yes, angels were there, but at a distance. Mary and Joseph and that larger family and village around him raised the Child.
Today’s feast of the Holy Family takes in the years of Jesus’ childhood and early adult life called his “Hidden Life.” His years in that nondescript town among those ordinary people were truly hidden, yet were they less important than his Public Life, the few years he taught and did great miracles, suffered and died and rose from the dead? In those hidden years “he humbled himself.” A hidden life is important; it’s what mostly characterizes life in a family.
We need to think about family life today, because it’s in trouble. For one thing, the nuclear family– father, mother, children– is in trouble. I read some disturbing statistics recently. In every state in our country, families where children have two parents have declined significantly in the last 10 years. One of three children live in a home without a father. Almost 5 million children live in a home without a mother. A single mother may have an income of $24,000. Two parents are likely to have an income significantly greater.
What can we do? How can we help? Feasts like the Holy Family focus our attention on important things. They remind us what’s important in God’s eyes. The feast of the Holy Family focuses on the family. It’s important, it says. At the same time, it tells us God’s grace will be ours when we work to make families go and when we support them all we can. God points to family life today. It’s vitally important in our world.