“The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you’” (Matt 2: 13).
Today we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family, the family composed of Jesus, His Mother Mary, and Mary’s husband Joseph.
The Gospels are the story of Jesus of Nazareth, you know that already, of course: the story of His teaching and His work of redemption. But they have their cast of supporting characters. In the first and second chapters of St. Matthew’s Gospel, we meet an angel, a virgin mother, a wicked king (Herod), and three Magi or wise men (they were not kings). But the chief supporting character is St. Joseph.
In today’s Gospel reading, we find the child’s life is in danger. King Herod is so afraid of any challenge to his power that between 7 and 4 B.C. he executed three of his own sons and his favorite wife out of fear that they were plotting against him. When the Magi tell him that there is a newborn king of Israel, Herod plots to destroy this perceived threat to his power. The verses we skip over in our Gospel this morning, verses 16-18, were part of our Gospel reading yesterday on the feast of the Holy Innocents; they describe the massacre of the male infants of Bethlehem as Herod “searches for the child to destroy Him” (2:13).
St. Joseph, we know from what Matthew told us earlier, as well as from St. Luke’s Gospel, is not the child’s biological father. We call him Jesus’ foster father. He assumes the role of protector of Jesus and of Jesus’ mother, and we see him carrying out that responsibility today. He serves as a model for all fathers: biological fathers, adoptive fathers, foster fathers, even spiritual fathers. In fact, he is a model for all mothers too.
He is a model, first, because he seeks to do God’s will in everything. In Chapter 1, Matthew describes him as “a just man” or “a righteous man” (depending on your translation). That means Joseph tries in all things to obey the Torah, the Law that God gave to Moses, which is a law that covers not only morality but also worship and practical, everyday life.
He is a model, secondly, because once he understands what God wants, he obeys immediately. We see that today in his obedience to the angel’s message in his dream: “Take the child and His mother and flee to Egypt.” He gets up and departs that very night.
We do not know how soon Herod’s soldiers arrived in Bethlehem to do their brutal murders, but Bethlehem is only about six miles from Jerusalem. And the road to Egypt is a long one, which the Holy Family would have been traveling on foot, or by donkey at best. Haste is important for saving the life of our Savior, and Joseph acts quickly.
Earlier, the angel had told him to take Mary as his wife despite her pregnancy, “for the Child was begotten by the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20), and “when Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him” (Matthew 1:24). Later, the angel tells him not to resettle in Bethlehem, or anywhere in Judea, so he changes his original plan and takes the family to Galilee, to the town of Nazareth (Matthew 2:22-23), which must have been disruptive, even disappointing, but necessary for the Child’s protection.
He is a model, third, because he acts without discussion, argument, or questions. In fact, Joseph never says a word in the Gospels. In fact, in Sicilian tradition, he is known as “Joseph the Silent.” This trait is related to his obedience. Many times, people will do the right thing only after they have tried everything else first and found that their bad choices did not really help them, or they have argued with their parents, their supervisors, or their counselors (of whatever sort, including spiritual) and found their own arguments weak or self-serving, and only then do they reluctantly go along with those advising or instructing them.
Imagine your son or daughter when told to clean a bedroom. Joseph does not try to tell God (or the angel), “Do I have to? But I told the guys I’d meet them,” much less, “This is crazy! How am I supposed to believe this?” Not a word; just action. Perhaps silence was an important part of Joseph’s spirituality. Perhaps it was silence that left him truly open to hearing what God was telling him: the silence of prayer, the silence of reflection. We all need more silence in our lives: less electronic distraction, less gossipy conversation, more room for God’s angel to speak to us.
Let us also note this about what St. Matthew tells us today: as he does elsewhere in his Gospel, he brings out how this or that action “fulfills the prophets” (Matthew 2:15,23). Matthew is seeing this by looking back at what happened and matching events against the Scriptures. We would not say that Joseph consulted the Scriptures in advance. But we would say there is a correlation between his choices, his actions, and the divine plan revealed in the Scriptures.
The lesson for us in the 21st Century is to read, study, reflect on, pray over the Scriptures, the revealed Word of God, and try to discern what choices and what actions God would have us do, so that our lives may be in accord with His plan for us, so that, years from now, we might be able to look back and see how we fulfilled what He had mind. Joseph’s obedience was the salvation of the Infant Jesus. Our obedience to God’s Word is the key to our salvation.
The Holy Family of Nazareth, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, are put before us by the Church this weekend as a model for our families. We call them “The Holy Family” but that does not mean that they did not have problems. Just as every family has to face and endure problems and overcome them, or to put it another way, has to carry a cross, so also The Holy Family had to carry crosses. Their many crosses come to mind as we read the Scriptures.
We can easily imagine how misunderstood both Mary and Joseph must have been when Mary conceived Jesus through the Holy Spirit. Their story would never be believed. Even Mary herself had it very rough early in the pregnancy when Joseph was planning to divorce her before the angel intervened in a dream. When the time for Jesus’ delivery came it took place in an animals’ shelter since Bethlehem was already so crowded. Then the Family had to flee to Egypt as refugees because Jesus’ life was in danger due to Herod, in much the same way as refugees from war-torn countries are now entering many western countries.
Mary and Joseph suffered the awful experience of losing Jesus for three days when He was twelve years old and the only satisfaction they got from Him was that He had to be about His Father’s business.
After the family’s flight to Egypt and their return to Nazareth, we do not hear of Joseph anymore, so we presume that before Jesus began His public ministry in Galilee Joseph had died, the Holy Family suffering the greatest pain of all families, the pain of bereavement and separation through death.
Jesus’ public ministry must have taken its toll on Mary. Simeon had predicted in the Temple that a sword of sorrow would pierce Mary’s soul. We can imagine one such occasion, as we read in Mark 3:21 that when Jesus returned to Nazareth one day His relatives came to take Him by force, convinced that He was out of His mind. Not a very pleasant experience for any family, no matter how holy.
There was also the pain caused by the rhyme made up about Jesus: “Behold a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34).
And there was the growing hostility to Jesus by the Jewish authorities that must have caused huge pain to both Mary and Jesus, especially as it became increasingly obvious that Jesus would have to pay for His mission by dying.
The saddest moment of all came when Mary watched Her Son die on the Cross. No parent should ever have to suffer the death of a child, especially in such violent circumstances. What parent expects their children to die before them? When a child dies, every parent understands and empathizes with the pain, sorrow, and grief that Mary experienced when she watched as her Son was nailed to and died upon the Cross in agony.
From the first moment that Mary is introduced to us she is presented as devoted to God; “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). When she visited her relative Elizabeth, Elizabeth described her as a woman of faith; “Blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled (Luke 1:45) and Our Lady responded with her beautiful hymn praising God that we call the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), “My soul glorifies the Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
Twice during the early chapters of Luke, we are told that Our Lady was a reflective woman, pondering on the word of God: “Mary kept all these things pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19, see also 2:51).
When Joseph is first introduced we are told by Matthew that he is a “just man.” (Matthew 1:19).
When the angel told Joseph in a dream not to divorce Mary and take her as his wife, Matthew tells us that as soon as he woke up he did what the angel commanded him (Matthew 1:24). He was a man of immediate obedience to the word of God.
These are just some of the many challenges we see the Holy Family facing as we read the Gospels. What helped the family through all these tests was their prayer and faith just as prayer and faith help our families through difficulties. In the Gospels, we also see the prayer and faith of the Holy Family. We see the entire family in prayer together as they made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve years (Luke 2:41-52).
What kept the Holy Family together and sane throughout all these trials and crosses? The answer is ‘Love for each other and love for God’. Jesus’ love for Mary and Mary’s love for Jesus and the love they both had for God the Father was their rock and comfort. We see Jesus’ love for His mother when He was dying on the Cross and was worried about leaving her behind when He asked His close friend and disciple John to look after her, saying to Mary, ‘Woman behold your son’, and to John ‘behold your mother’ (John 19:26-27).
What holds families together also in times of difficulty is understanding and forgiveness. It is love which triumphs in the end, even if for a while love may have to take on a tough attitude and the form of some honest talking. When discipline needs to be given, if it is not given in love it is reduced to abuse. If ever our families fail in any way, it is because of a lack of love on someone’s part. Whenever our families are successful, it is because they are places of love, truth, and understanding.
I believe that the greatest threat facing families now is simply that we do not spend enough time together. We are so busy working or socializing or watching TV, or surfing the net, or texting on our cell phones that we have less and less time for each other. What a pity.
As I said, I believe one of the greatest threats facing families now is simply that we do not spend enough time together. Spending time together with the family is a way of showing our family that we love them. When we love our family, we want to sacrifice ourselves by spending time with them, and all the more so when we realize that by not spending time with them we are depriving them of our love and hurting them.
Families do not come about by accident. The family is part of God’s plan for us. God wants our families to be holy. The family is the basic unit of society and the Church; we could say the family is a little church. It is in the family that we first learn to communicate. It is in the family that we learn what love is. It is in the family that we first learn to forgive and to pray. It is in the family that we first learn about God and Jesus and Our Lady. It is in the family that first, we learn our values and what is good and bad. The future of humanity depends on the family because it is through families that society continues.
There are many attempts to destroy the family in our times but if the family will be destroyed in western society, the western world will crumble because all humanity comes from the family. There are many attempts today to redefine the family, but they do not reflect God’s plan for the family.
Apart from all the inspiration we can draw from reflecting on the Holy Family, in other places Sacred Scripture tells us what God intends our families to be. In Matthew 19, Jesus says, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator made them male and female…For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh? So, they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Matthew 19:4-6).
In the letter to the Ephesians, there is beautiful teaching on marriage and family in chapter five. There we read again what Jesus said, “For this reason, a man shall leave (his) father and (his) mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Ephesian 5:31).
But then there is a novel teaching in the letter as it says the love of husband and wife for one another is a reflection of the love of Christ for the Church (Ephesians 5:32). This is a great mystery, but one which is so beautiful and meaningful. The letter to the Ephesians says that if you want to know what a family should be like, just look at how Christ loves the Church. Christ gave His life in sacrifice on the Cross for the Church and that is how families are to be, loving each other to the end in a sacrificial way.
St. Paul goes on to give advice to husbands; they are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church, handing himself over for her (Ephesians 5:25); in other words, husbands are to love their wives by giving up their lives for them, should that become necessary. The second piece of advice for husbands is similar, husbands are to love their wives as they love their own bodies (Ephesians 5:28).
The advice for wives to be subordinate to their husbands is unfortunately misunderstood; it is not saying the husband is master of his wife; no, not at all. The letter says as the Church is subordinate to Christ, wives to their husbands; in other words, as the Church becomes holy by being united with Christ, the husband’s relationship with his wife is to help her become holy. Husbands are to help their wives be holy.
When you read St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians properly, it becomes obvious that it is not at all saying husbands are masters over their wives because earlier in the chapter the letter said husbands and wives should submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21) and husbands are to love their wives to the end as Christ loved the Church.
All of this was obviously very radical teaching in its time and shows the depth of the Christian understanding of marriage and how God wants to elevate family life above society’s understanding of family to reflect the relationship and love of the Holy Trinity. It shows us, without any degree of doubt, that God Himself decreed what a family is to be
Sacred Scripture also gives advice for children. When a man asked Jesus what he should do, Jesus listed the commandments including the fourth commandment that children are to obey their parents, and said to him, “You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 19:18-19). The letter to the Ephesians (Ephesians 6:1) repeats the command that children honor their parents but also adds that fathers should not provoke their children to anger but bring them up under the Lord.
The family is not an accident. The family was not created by man, but by God Himself. The family is part of God’s plan. God wants your family to be the best it can possibly be and be the best place for the proper upbringing of children. God wants your family to be holy, as He Himself is holy.
The Holy Family faced many trials, challenges, and obstacles, as does every family, and they overcame them through prayer and faith. Our families also overcome challenges through prayer and faith, remaining united in love as did Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Let us pray during this Divine Liturgy that our families will conquer all difficulties through love for each other and faith in God and that they may emulate, in every way, the Holy Family of Nazareth.