Sunday, December 29, 2013

Homily for the Holy Family

Homily for the Feast
of the Holy Family
Dec. 29, 2013
Matt 2: 13-15, 19-23
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison

“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).

The Flight into Egypt
The Bible of Tbilisi
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 1st 2 chapters of St. Matthew’s gospel, we meet an angel, a virgin mother, a wicked king (Herod), and 3 magi or wise men (they weren’t kings).  But the chief supporting character is St. Joseph.

So today:  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 3 of his own sons and his favorite wife out of fear that they were plotting against him.  When the magi tell him that there’s a newborn king of Israel, he plots to destroy this perceived threat to his power.  The verses we skip over in our gospel this morning, vv. 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 —isn’t the child’s 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’s a model for all mothers too.

He’s a model, 1st, because he seeks to do God’s will in everything.  In ch. 1 Matthew describes him as “a just man” or “a righteous man” (depending on your translation).  That means he 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’s a model, 2d, 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 nite.  We don’t know how soon Herod’s soldiers arrived in Bethlehem to do their brutal murders, but Bethlehem is only about 5 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 (1:20), and “when Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him” (1:24).  Later, the angel tells him not to re-settle in Bethlehem, or anywhere in Judea, so he changes his original plan and takes the family to Galilee, to the town of Nazareth (2:22-23), which must have been disruptive, even disappointing—but necessary for the child’s protection.

He’s a model, 3d, because he acts without discussion, argument, questions.  In fact, Joseph never says a word in the gospels.  He’s nicknamed “Joseph the Silent.”  This trait is related to his obedience.  Many times people will do the right thing only after they’ve tried everything else 1st and found that their bad choices didn’t really help them, or they’ve 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 commanding.  Imagine your son or daughter when told to clean a bedroom.  Joseph doesn’t 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 his 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” (2:15,23).  Matthew is seeing this by looking back at what happened and matching events against the Scriptures.  We wouldn’t say that Joseph consulted the Scriptures in advance.  But we would say there’s 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.

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