Sunday, December 30, 2012

Homily for the Feast of the Holy Family

Homily for
the Feast of the
Holy Family
Dec. 30, 2012
Luke 2: 41-52
Ursulines, Willow Dr., New Rochelle

“Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2: 49).

So read most of our modern translations.  An alternative translation, e.g., in the King James, the Douay-Rheims, and the original Jerusalem Bible, as well as in footnotes to some other versions, reads “must be about my Father’s business” or something similar.  If you prayed Evening Prayer last nite, you may have noticed that the intercessions use both forms.

Either rendition is valid, Luke’s Greek and Jerome’s Latin being ambiguous.  Jerome puts it thus:  “Nesciebatis quia in his quae Patris mei sunt oportet me esse?”  “Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s things?”  (Both classical texts use a plural indefinite form—tois in Greek, or his quae—which doesn’t line up precisely with the idea of “house.”)

“My Father’s house” does obviously fit the context, for Mary and Joseph have found the boy in the Temple.  At the same time, there he’s found “sitting in the midst of the teachers [of Torah], listening to them and asking them questions” (2:46); this, too, is his Father’s “things,” his Father’s business:  to understand and to carry out the Torah.
Child Jesus in the Temple
stained glass, Holy Savior Church, Bruges
At age 12 Jesus would not already have become bar mitzvah, a son of the Law.[1]  But he would already have been aware of the importance of the Law; he would have known that his age of maturity as a son of the Law was approaching.  He seems to be taking that responsibility very seriously.

A little too seriously in his parents’ eyes, of course:  “Son, why have you done this to us?” (2:48).  It’s a cry of anxiety, as Mary says (2:48), of consternation, of stifled anger perhaps, of relief, that any parent would understand.  The anxiety, the fears, the terror of separation from a child were brought home to us all too tragically on the 14th.

Jesus, on the other hand, has a gentle rebuke for his mother and the man who has functioned as his earthly father for 12 years.  When he refers to his “Father’s house” (or his “Father’s affairs”), he’s not referring to Joseph.  Can we imagine how that must have startled both Mary and Joseph—no matter how well they may remember the amazing story of this child’s origin, they have to have settled comfortably into their parental roles.  Wouldn’t Joseph, after 12 years, have begun to think of Jesus as his own son just as much as Mary did?  Is Mary’s exclamation, “Your father and I have been looking for you” (2:48), meant only for public appearance—how else could she speak of her husband here?—or does it represent a way of thinking that both she and Joseph have just taken on naturally over the course of the quiet years?

So Jesus recalls them to a different set of relationships.  Mary and Joseph are his family—as we celebrate today—but God is his Father.  His Father’s house is the Temple; whether by design or not, Luke doesn’t say, “He went home with them and came to Nazareth,” but, “He went down with them and came to Nazareth” (2:51).  “Going down” and “going up” were the ordinary ways of speaking about leaving or going to Jerusalem, sited as it is on a prominent height.  Luke’s phrasing may be nothing more than that.  On the other hand, he could hardly have referred to Nazareth as Jesus’ home right after what the boy had just said.

The word house shows up 5 times in today’s liturgy:  once, as “household,” in the OT reading; once in the psalm, besides “dwelling place,” and in the psalm refrain; once, sort of, in the gospel, as we’ve been considering; and once in the Collect.  The word, as we know, can mean both a physical building, like the Temple, and a family, like Elkanah’s household (1 Sam 1:21) or “the house of David” to which Joseph belonged or God’s “house” in heaven (Collect).  In addition to those 5 usages, Hannah brings her son to God’s house, tho that word isn’t used, and Samuel becomes a member of the priestly household, “dedicated to the Lord” (1:24,28).
St. Mary's Church, Fredericksburg, Va.

As we celebrate the Holy Family, we pay homage to their “shining example” and pray that we might “imitate them” in our own natural or religious family, our household dedicated to the Lord (Collect).  But we also look to a heavenly family—the Father, the Son, and the Spirit—which Joseph and Mary entered mystically by taking God’s Son into their home, and which we, also, enter mystically thru our religious consecration.  The Holy Trinity was present in their home at Nazareth thru the Son’s union with his Father and the Holy Spirit.  No doubt the Spirit guided Mary’s meditations as she “kept in her heart all the things” that she witnessed and took part in (Luke 2:51).  No doubt the Spirit was part of the boy’s advancement in wisdom (2:52)—as that’s understood by human beings, of course, since Divine Wisdom has no need to grow.

The Holy Trinity made the “house” of God in Jerusalem into a temple.  They call us, invite us, to come to the heavenly temple, to become part of their heavenly household.  Without using the word house or household, St. John voices that idea, too:  the Father’s love bestowed on us enables us to “be called children of God” (1 John 3:1), i.e., members of his family.  But, according to John, that’s only a start:  “we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.  We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1:2).  When we do finally come to the Father’s house, a tighter bond, a tighter relationship, than Father to children, awaits us, John seems to be saying.  Seeing God in his essence is going to transform us in some manner presently unknown to us.  Perhaps this is related to what we prayed in the 3d Mass of Christmas:  “that we may share in the divinity of Christ” (Collect), however that’s to be understood.

This divine transformation begins here below.  John links our relationship with God as his children to 2 things:  “belief in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love [for] one another just as he commanded us” (3:23).  “Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them” (3:24); i.e., they dwell with and in the Son, and vice versa, sharing in the Son’s relationship with his Father “from the Spirit [that the Son] gave us” (3:24).

The Collect is perhaps a little more specific about those commandments when it prays that our imitation of the Holy Family include “practicing the virtues of family life and the bonds of charity.”  What precisely those virtues and that charity might be, in practice, in a household of religious women—that you pretty much know after your many years of practice; and you may, of course, imitate the Virgin Mother by continuing to “keep these things in your heart” in such wise that the virtues of Ursuline family life and the bonds of Christ-like charity become more and more deeply rooted.  All of this amounts to imitating Jesus in “being about the Father’s business”:  study and meditation upon the Torah, or more broadly, the commandments of Christian life, and loving one another in day-to-day practice—acting like we already belong to God’s household, his family.  And what we shall later be…will eventually be revealed to us, by God’s grace.


      [1] Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, ed., The Jewish Annotated New Testament (New York: Oxford, 2011), note on Luke 2:42.

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