This homily was given at Saint Thomas Apostle, Woodley Park, Washington, D.C., on the feast of the Holy Family.
Meeting to prepare a wedding with a young couple, it is rather easy for a priest to get a cheap laugh – at least from the groom – if he simply suggests having today’s reading from the letter of Saint Paul to the Colossians at the wedding. ‘Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord’, says the apostle. What often (and equally swiftly) wipes the smile from the young man’s face – if his bride-to-be hasn’t done so herself – is the next line: ‘Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them’. The groom has his responsibilities too. He is to be a strong, characterful, moral family leader, and he is to accept the great and serious burden of protecting and caring for his wife, whatever that might bring on him. Just as in the old English wedding vows where the bride promises to love, honour, and obey, her husband, ‘be subordinate to your husbands’ is not a call to a master-servant relationship, but one of mutuality. We might say, in fact, that the bride is permitting herself to be looked after and cared for, above the husband’s own concerns and well-being.
The same is true of the relationship, spelled out by Saint Paul, between parents and their children. ‘Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord’, but also, ‘Fathers, do not provoke your children, so they may not become discouraged’. There is a reciprocity here, between husbands and wives, and children and parents; each are called to a mutual relationship with each other that builds up into what is so perfectly modelled for us in the Holy Family, whom we celebrate today.
By today’s feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph we are given a beautiful example of what the family is called to be. Not only does Saint Paul tell us that there is to be this profound mutual relationship between persons, but in the lives of our blessed Lord, and his mother and foster-father, we are given tangible examples of how that life is to be lived. Saint Joseph, as today’s gospel reminds us, protects and guards the infant Lord, whilst Blessed Mary tends the infant Lord at her breast, and holds his lifeless body in her arms at the foot of the cross. In these two figures, we see in natural ways a supernatural love, shown to us in the earthly life of Christ, in order that we might grow toward the perfect love which his human family reflects.
And what of the child Jesus himself? How does he show us the beauty of the family even with so little of his early life revealed to us in scripture? One of the earliest encounters we have with him, for example, is his disappearance at the temple – hardly the behaviour we might encourage in our own children. And yet, when we think about this episode, we cannot say that he is wrong in what he does, because even this seemingly disobedient act points us toward a greater, more profound truth.
What is this truth? The young Jesus, far from being disobedient, shows us by this act the necessity of allowing his heavenly Father into the relationship of the earthly family. It is only in his obedience to God the Father, that God the Son – made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ – seems to act contrary to the wishes of his human parents. His obedience to the Father alone supersedes his obedience to his earthly family, and in this he – together with Mary and Joseph – points us toward the real meaning of today’s great feast.
In the Holy Family, then, we gain a glimpse of that reciprocity and mutual relationship about which Saint Paul writes so vividly. In Christ, and by him in Blessed Mary and Saint Joseph, we begin to see and begin to understand the relationship upon which all true relationships must be based, and by whose standards all relationships must be judged. That relationship, of course, is the perfect relationship of mutual love between the persons of the Most Blessed Trinity – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
Christ’s obedience to the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, shows us the perfection of love itself: always giving to another, and thereby receiving; always pouring out oneself, and thereby being filled. In the Holy Family – and in his words and actions from the wood of the cradle to the wood of the cross – this is the message of Christ: love God above all things, and enter more profoundly into the life which, through baptism, you have been given. That life – that relationship – begins at the moment at which our family is given to us: I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Together with the pouring of water on our foreheads, those words enrol us into the family of Jesus Christ – which does not simply extend to Mary and Joseph, but to all the saints, and to God the Father himself. By our communion with Christ and his family – the Church – we are united to God the Father, and caught up in that perfect reciprocity and mutual love which flows from him to his beloved Son, in the power of his Holy Spirit.
How can we remain in that perfect family? First, by desiring to live within it. We must have a profound wish to live in the communion of the Church, and to be united to our brothers and sisters who are one with us and Christ in the sacrament of holy baptism. Secondly, by constantly seeking to enter more deeply into that perfect relationship, by examining our consciences – asking ourselves what it is in our lives that separates us from being fully enthralled by the mystery of that perfect love and perfect family. Only when we know this, can we seek God’s forgiveness and mercy through his priestly minister, and become once more a part of the eternal and perfect love of God.
So may Blessed Mary and Saint Joseph intercede for us. May their family example encourage us, and may we see in them the perfection of all relationships, into which we have been called to live – the relationship of God himself, in Christ and through the working of the Holy Spirit. And may this and every offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice be a moment of faith in that perfect love, that by our simple offering of bread and wine we may be united to the eternal offering of God the Son to God the Father, in the power of the God the Holy Spirit, and so be forever united in his praise – sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, of the one true God.