Holy Family Values

Luke 2:41-52
First Sunday after Christmas
Feast of the Holy Family

I once lost my younger son in a department store.

He was a toddler, chubby and unwieldy on his feet but, man, did he disappear in a flash. For the two or three minutes it took to find him (an eternity in such situations), my heart was in my throat. The dread was as unbearable as the relief was palpable when I finally found his impish, grinning self.

This weekend offers something of a holiday smorgasbord liturgically: the First Sunday after Christmas, the Feast of St. John the Evangelist, the Commemoration of St. Stephen, and the Feast of the Holy Family. There is a wide array of readings and alternate readings, too.

For churches using the text from St. Luke’s gospel, we’ll hear that the infant Jesus is now twelve years old and has gone missing in Jerusalem. Despite the decorous prose (“your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety”), we can imagine the unbearable dread and palpable relief when, after three days (not three minutes), his parents find him safe and sound. 

The Holy Family has been on the move. In utero, Jesus traveled with Mary to visit Elizabeth—the story we heard on the fourth Sunday of Advent. On Christmas Eve, we glimpsed what the tyranny of the imperium romanum meant for its subjects, as Mary and Joseph made the arduous journey to Bethlehem, despots and oligarchs giving them hassles, asking for papers. On the first Sunday after Christmas we hear of their travels, a few years later, to Jerusalem and back—and back again to retrieve the missing Jesus.

The Holy Family from the very beginning—before its beginning—was a family under suspicion. Dubious paternity. Refugee status. Hunted by a paranoid ruler. Through the sentimental gloss of our sanitized versions of Christmas, do we have ears to hear in their story God’s special affinity with the displaced and dispossessed, with migrants, refugees, deportees, detainees, “aliens” of all kinds—all men, women, and children, past, present, and future, in forced exile?

For all the rhetoric in recent decades about “family values,” it turns out that only certain kinds of families will do. Those of dubious paternity, refugees, and the variously persecuted are more and more viewed with suspicion and derision. Our own families, on the other hand, get a pass, or are assumed—despite what we know about the inner workings of all families—to be models of virtue.

But the texts for the First Sunday after Christmas, for the Feast of the Holy Family, should not encourage us to unduly venerate our biological families, even as we disparage other configurations of family. Rather, the struggles of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus remind us that, through baptism, we are adopted into a family not of our own choosing, in whose company we will often be disappointed.

As Jesus confounds his parents in the Temple, we imagine them reckoning with his burgeoning self-understanding, his growing sense of vocation. (Mary, after all, we are told, pondered these things in her heart).

It is interesting that this is the only story of Jesus’ childhood that the early church preserved. We know that other apocryphal gospels relate tales of the boy Jesus turning clay pots into live birds and cursing a playmate only to bring him back to life. But these stories seem too fantastical. It’s more persuasive (to me at least) that Jesus’ childhood was so unremarkable that no stories save St. Luke’s survived.

But it’s exactly in the ordinariness of family life, in the dailiness of being good Jews, that the boy Jesus and his parents lived out their calling as a family called by God to bear witness to a new way of being family.

Maybe the precocious Jesus, enthralling the teachers in the Temple and “lost” there for three days, knew that his destiny was somehow wrapped up in that place—that two decades hence and during the last three days of his life, having caused another stir in the Temple, everything would change. It turns out, maybe, that Luke’s account of the young Jesus is a rehearsal of the Easter story.

It’s Christmas still.  This Sunday is the third day of Christmas to be precise. But the cross is already in view.

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