The Feast of the Holy Family is a beautiful celebration, but I must confess that when I was young the choice of the gospel for this day was a bit confusing to me. We celebrate the Nativity of Jesus only days before, beginning the season of Christmas with the baby Jesus finally making an entrance into our crèche displays and celebrations. And then surprisingly, inside of seven days the gospel turns to a twelve year old Jesus! It had not occurred to me that the reason the gospel moves so quickly to the boy Jesus is not because of history or chronology, but it is because it gives us an insight into the relationship between Jesus and His parents, emphasizing the theme of obedience. I daresay that for most of us this theme is not very appealing. On the one hand we enjoy our peaceful scenes with the baby Jesus, and on the other, the word ‘obedience’ makes us cringe: it is not attractive to our culture at all! Our distaste for the concept really is a shame, because obedience stems from love, not from subservience. It is a misplaced focus on self which misleads us. Obedience understood as subservience is about ‘me;’ obedience understood as rooted in love is about the other, in this case, God. Therefore, the Feast of the Holy Family offers a wonderful opportunity to re-direct our understanding about what it means to be obedient to God and to put our focus back where it belongs. As it was with Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, we come to see that obedience brings incredible graces, particularly love, deep peace, and joy.
The biblical concept of obedience is the one which will help us to understand the choices of the Holy Family in response to God. Historically, obedience had been completely understood as keeping the covenant, and keeping the covenant meant accepting the love of God implicitly and then returning it as best as humanly possible. For them, (as for us), this meant that the response was bound to be flawed because humans are imperfect. However, they learned that the best response that can be given is sincerity, and this was what counted most with God: that one’s intention arises from love for Him. The covenant, then, was rightly interpreted as a monumental act of love on God’s part because through it He offered the people guidelines to keep them safe. If we look to Exodus and the Law, we see that the Israelites who accepted it were overcome with joy when it was given. (In Exodus 24:3 the people accepted the covenant and to ratify it, Moses made a sacrifice to God.)* Clearly, the people understood that the Law was meant as an act of love on God’s part because they recognized and accepted that His wisdom was beyond theirs and that His statutes and commandments were ways God was protecting them from all manner of harm. As a result, they viewed the law not as constricting, but rather as freeing. In this light, obedience and wisdom are inextricably connected: the obedient one is the wise one. Another way of putting this is that the obedient one is the holy one.
Mary is a model of this loving obedience. Her holiness sprang from a love of God so deep that she could not conceive (pun unintended) of doing anything contrary to that love; she knew she was created from Love for Love. So when an angel unexpectedly appeared and told her what God desired in terms of her participation, she agreed humbly. Remember, because true obedience stems from love, one is free at all times and so her free response of utter and complete trust, “May it be done to me according to your word,” was an obedient acquiescence steeped in “love beyond all telling.” (Advent Eucharistic prayer) Furthermore, Mary trusted so completely that she was able to go to the hill country to tend to her pregnant, but aged cousin on nothing more than the angel’s word. Upon her return, she continued to obey by entrusting news of her pregnancy to her betrothed, Joseph, a message that he perceived as coming from an infidelity on her part. Mary’s obedience was such that she was willing to risk Joseph’s understandable rejection of her which would mean she would have been an unwed mother, a crime under the Law. But her obedience, and hence her holiness, meant God’s obedience, too: He adhered to His promise that all would be as He had said.
Joseph was also a man of obedience and love. Remember that from his vantage point, his soon-to-be-wife Mary had left town for about three months, and when she came home she revealed that she was pregnant. He was going to adhere to the Law, but God sent the angel Gabriel back to Nazareth to tell Joseph that Mary’s story was true, and so instead of blindly obeying the Law, he obeyed the Love of God. He took Mary in, quietly married her, and was content to be in the background for the rest of his life.** Joseph’s love for God and for Mary was so great that even when he did not understand, he trusted God’s plan. Nor did he resign himself to obscurity with a shrug and a sigh: rather, he embraced it for the sake of his beloved God, his beloved wife, and his beloved son, Jesus. He understood obedience correctly: it is about the other and not about self.
The gospel for this Feast also contains the theme of obedience as an act of love. At twelve Jesus was still considered a child and as such He was deeply bound to his parents’ instruction and discipline. What we learn is that Jesus, still growing in wisdom and knowledge, thought that in teaching the scholars in the Temple, He was obeying His Father in Heaven. But in staying behind He had caused concern to the ones to whom He had been entrusted, even if His actions were well-intentioned. Remarkably, when Mary told Jesus that He needed to come home, implying that His time for teaching had not yet come, He obeyed her. *** The last two lines of the passage are the most important: “He went down with them…and was obedient to them…. And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.” (Luke 2:51-52) Jesus, though fully divine, was also fully human: therefore, growing in wisdom, He recognized the love of His parents as God’s love.
We learn from this important feast that obedience is about love and that it brings peace and joy. We learn that when we are obedient to God, we grow in wisdom and therefore, in holiness. Obedience also teaches us that the only way to be with another in love is to be open and listening. That means we must first take this posture with God, something we can develop by spending time with Him in prayer. All we need is a heart which intends to be open and the desire to make a response as we can. It means we develop trust in God, accepting that sometimes obedience means we will not understand what is asked of us. Just as what God asked Mary and Joseph to do was beyond their ability to understand, we will have times when even stretching our farthest will not be enough to comprehend the way of God or the outcome of a situation. But if we desire to grow in obedience we can ask Mary and Joseph to help us so that our response is as sincere and grounded in the love of God as theirs was. Once we become grounded in that love and love becomes our motivation, and once we focus on God and not on self, we will desire to have it no other way.
On this Feast of the Holy Family we are invited into a deeper love, a deeper holiness, and hence, a deeper peace and joy. As we gather around the crèche let us pray that it is a time of getting inside the experience of Mary and Joseph so that we see the value of obedience as flowing from love and not from subservience or oppression. And if we catch even the smallest glimpse of this truth, we can take it from the crèche out into the world. If we can understand that obedience is of love, and hence it is free, we can offer the freedom of being loved by God to others, too. In our kindness in the face of ugliness, in our mercy in the face of neglect, in our compassion in the face of unforgiveness, and in our selfless acts for others which are sometimes met by ingratitude and selfishness, let us consider that this is how we bring Jesus to others. Our world does not like the concept of obedience because it sees it as oppressive and values a misguided freedom, which at its heart is about license to act however one wants and thus is self-centered. Instead, the message of the Holy Family is that true obedience is about the freedom which comes from the wisdom of God, a free gift of love to which we respond freely. In our offering of self to Jesus this Christmas, we offer a paltry, unrefined, flawed gift, but one which He values more than all the gold, frankincense, and myrrh in the universe.
May we open our hearts to the wisdom of true obedience! May we find the peace and joy which come from trusting God in the way of Mary and Joseph! May we be filled with the joy of belonging to the Holy Family as members of the Body of Christ! May we be unafraid to offer ourselves as gift to Jesus during this Christmas season! And may we find joy and blessing in our humble worship, as one people around the manger with Mary and Joseph, angels and shepherds, and all manner of wise folk! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Notes: Next post on January 14, 2019.
* See Deuteronomy 4:32-40 to read about God’s love for His people from the beginning; Deuteronomy 7:12-15 and following also.
** Remember to regard the gospel passages together, as a whole, to get a more complete description from the birth narratives: Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 2:1-7.
*** Interestingly, it would be Mary who would indicate later when the time had in fact come for Jesus to begin His ministry. (John 2)
Final Note: The other readings of the Feast of the Holy Family also provide examples of biblical obedience. The 1st reading is about Hannah. The passage is excised from a rich, almost humorous, story: a previously barren Hannah wisely obeys the instruction of the High Priest and is able to bring forth Samuel, a son destined for greatness. (I encourage reading the entire passage: 1 Samuel 1-19.) In the 2nd reading, St. Paul also extols the wisdom of obedience. He writes: “Let the peace of Christ control your hearts….Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly….” (Colossians 3:15, 16) He reminds us that obedience to the Law of Love means that we try to act as Jesus taught. It is not that Paul was unaware that our response would be flawed, but rather that we would try to re-focus our response on God rather than to focus upon ourselves. This obedience once again, is about love, not blind adherence to rules.
1. The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, by Fr. William Hart McNichols: I chose this image of the Holy Family for its simplicity so that it speaks for itself. If you are interested in purchasing a copy in one of many mediums, you can find this image at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-nativity-of-our-lord-jesus-christ-034-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
2. One of my photos, taken in New Zealand at Larnach Castle in Dunedin (South Island): I chose this because the leaves seem to be obedient to the laws of nature, stretching toward Heaven in a gesture of praise to God for the very laws which govern them.
3. A painting by Bl. Fra Angelico which depicts the Visitation: I chose this one because I love the presence of the other two women who are witnessing the obedient love and service of Mary to her elder cousin, Elizabeth. (I especially like the one peering around the doorway.)
4. An icon called St. Joseph and the Holy Child by Fr. William Hart McNichols: I liked that this particular icon shows Jesus as an older child, not an infant, and also that part of Joseph's face is obscured, but so too is the face of Jesus. It is as if Jesus is 'absorbing' some of the obscurity of Joseph and making it His for 30 years. (Remember, Jesus was totally hidden until he was 30 years of age.) You can find it at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/st-joseph-and-the-holy-child-239-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
5. The Child Jesus in the Temple by Duccio di Buoninsegna, (1255/60-1315). One can clearly see Mary and Joseph imploring Him to come home. He is obviously attentive to them, and so He obeyed.
6. I took this photo while hiking down Gornergrat, a mountain just outside Zermatt, Switzerland. Our guide pointed out this chamois, a creature that is a mix of deer and mountain goat. They have horrible eyesight, but they can hear and smell with incredible sensitivity. It is clear that it caught our scent and it can be seen at attention, listening for our movement. I got this quick photo, and therefore could not be picky about the weed in the middle of it since the chamois darted off almost immediately after the shot. As in the text, it stretched to its furthest to get the information it needed and responded immediately.
7. Stained glass of the Holy Family: What is especially attractive in this amazing artwork is how the magi, seen on the right of the piece, are depicted. They do not look at all regal, and in fact, they look rather ordinary, and therefore, more humble than we usually see them portrayed. In fact, they do not look very different from the shepherds on the left side, but given that they are offering gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they are indeed the magi seen as examples of obedient, humble love.
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