The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary & Joseph
The Sunday within the Octave of Christmas is celebrated as the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. It is one of the more recent feasts on the Church’s calendar, first instituted by Pope Leo XIII in 1893 on the Sunday after Epiphany, and later moved to the Sunday after Christmas in 1969. Devotion to the Holy Family goes back much further than this, however. One can argue that the first person to be devoted to the Holy Family was Jesus Himself.
Certainly Jesus Christ, who became like us in all ways but sin, kept the Ten Commandments perfectly, including the command to honor your father and mother. So we know that Jesus was devoted to Mary and Joseph. To love Jesus involves more than to loving Him alone; it involves loving what He loves, which includes you and me. This is why the commandments to love God and to love neighbor are linked. We cannot truly love God without loving one another.
But in the grand and complex world of human relationships, mothers and fathers are different. There is a reason why out of the whole myriad of human relationships — husband and wife, sister and brother, friend and neighbor, co-worker and comrade — mothers and fathers are singled out in the Commandments. They are the first of all our human relationships. Each one of us is born into the world already in relationship with at least two other people, who were given the great privilege of sharing in God’s work of creating us.
Jesus’ first human relationship after His Incarnation was with His mother. He spent nine months reposed in the tabernacle of her womb before His birth. After His birth, the first faces the Son of God looked upon with His human eyes were those of Mary and Joseph.
So it is right that we honor the Holy Family with our love and devotion, as Jesus was devoted to His parents, and as they were devoted to Him and to one another. This feast of the Holy Family reminds us that the Incarnation did not happen by God descending from heaven in a fiery chariot. Jesus did not come crashing to the earth like some meteor from outer space. Our Savior entered the world the way that all humans do. He was conceived in His mother’s womb. He was born into a family.
The “Perfect Family”
And yet many pastors find it hard to preach on the Holy Family. There is a hesitation to laud the virtues of the “perfect family” when in many’s experience the “perfect family” doesn’t exist. The Holy Family consisted of two saints, one of whom was immaculately conceived, raising the Son of God. That’s not the family I was raised in! I was raised by two loving parents in an intact middle class home. I had a pretty great childhood. But we had our fair share of sin and selfishness and vice we had to deal with. Just like any normal family.
Our Church includes people who come from broken homes. Our pews are filled with people whose parents divorced, people whose parents have died, people with cold and distant parents, and people whose parents abused them. Their experience — maybe your experience — has shown the ideal of a “perfect family” to be unrealistic, or worse — a fairy tale.
So we instead accept the myth that no type of family is better or worse than any other — they are just different. And different is good. You can even invent your own family, if you don’t like the one you were born into! How many television shows or movies can you think of that teach that your “real family” are the friends that you choose?
Friends are very special and should be cherished. And single moms and dads have it rough, and need to be supported. Sometimes divorce happens, and that’s tragic, and those going through any sort of marriage crisis need compassion and care. And some people are simply better parents than others. Such is life. But the fact that not everyone experiences an ideal family life doesn’t mean we should throw the ideal away. In fact, it’s all the more reason we need to hold the ideal up for all to see, as a model by which we can attempt to form our own family lives, as best we can.
There is an old adage that applies here: don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
The Devil’s Final Battle
The importance of the family cannot be over stated. Sister Lucia, the only one of the Fatima visionaries to live into adulthood, prophesied that the final battle between Satan and God would be fought over the family. Many think that we are living in the midst of that final battle today.
This is not going to be a treatise on the demise of the family in modern society. But the numbers tell a grim tale. Half of all marriages end in divorce. More than half of all births are out of wedlock. And a third of all children conceived are killed in the womb before they are born. Family life in Western society has, quite literally, gone to hell.
Why would Satan want to attack the family? Because by attacking the family, he attacks the heart of God’s vision for mankind. When God created Adam He saw that it was not good for him to be alone. So He made a helpmate — another “I” that would be “bone of his bone” and “flesh of his flesh.” He commanded them to “be fruitful and multiply.” Marriage is the primordial sacrament established by God; the sacrament built into our very nature. And marriage is all about establishing families.
The Church Teaches
Consider these excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
- A man and a woman united in marriage, together with their children, form a family. This institution is prior to any recognition by public authority, which has an obligation to recognize it. It should be considered the normal reference point by which the different forms of family relationship are to be evaluated (CCC 2202).
- The family is the original cell of social life (CCC 2207).
- The importance of the family for the life and well-being of society entails a particular responsibility for society to support and strengthen marriage and the family. Civil authority should consider it a grave duty “to acknowledge the true nature of marriage and the family, to protect and foster them, to safeguard public morality, and promote domestic prosperity” (CCC 2210, quoting Gaudium et Spes 52).
The message is clear: the family is sacred and society is obligated to protect, support, and defend it. What we are experiencing today is a systematic failure of society in these duties. I am not just referring to the recent recognition of so-called “same sex marriage.” It started long before that, with no-fault divorce laws, acceptance of contraception, the scourge of abortion, and the infestation of pornography. The one thing all these “hot button” political issues of the day have in common is their contribution to the breakdown of family life.
What Do We Do?
The picture is grim, but all is not lost. In the fight between God and Satan, we know who the winner will be. Christ has already defeated the devil. All he can hope to do now is drag as many of us as he can down with him. So long as we put on the armor of Christ, to paraphrase St. Paul, the devil cannot prevail against us.
Or to quote from this feast’s second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, we should put on “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Col 3:12), and over all these we should “put on love” (Col 3:14). It is no accident that St. Paul places these instructions immediately before his advice on how husbands and wives, parents and children should behave toward one another.
There are good families out there. Half of marriages don’t end in divorce. My own grandparents just celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary this year. Thanks be to God! My wife and I this weekend celebrate 17 years of marriage. We have been blessed, but we are not alone. We all have examples of broken marriages in our lives. But we also have examples of families staying together. For every negligent and abusive parent, there are many more good, loving parents. For every mother or father who has given up on their family, there are many more who are trying, sometimes struggling against great obstacles, who need our love and support.
Maybe there are not a lot of “perfect families” out there. But there are many, many good families, and many more who are trying to find their way out of the darkness of past mistakes. They need our love, support and guidance.
College students may not think any of this has immediate relevance in your lives because most of you are not yet married and don’t have children of your own. But this is just when these teachings matter the most. Because you have the chance to do better. You have the chance to begin the healing of family life in our society. You do this by starting today to form yourself — or, more accurately, to let God form you — into a holy husband, wife, father or mother.
The Catechism calls the Christian family a domestic church (CCC 2204). The family is meant to be a community of faith, hope and love. It is the classroom where we first learn the difference between right and wrong; where we first learn obedience; where we first learn how to pray. It is where we first learn to put others’ needs before our own. It is where we learn the meaning of sacrifice. It is where we first learn to love. The family, like the Church, is the place where sinners learn to become saints.
If we want our families to be holy families, we need to become holy ourselves. We need to hold fast to prayer, participate in the sacraments regularly (especially Confession and Eucharist), and listen to the teachings of the Church. A good place to start is with a renewed devotion to the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.