The first Sunday after Christmas is always dedicated to the Holy Family. It comes very soon after Christmas Day and so perhaps we see even more clearly the link between the two celebrations.
This Feast of the Holy Family is uniquely Catholic and is not usually kept by the Protestant Churches. I wondered why this was and thought that it might have been dropped at the time of the Reformation because it was too sentimental. But I was wrong, actually this feast is quite a latecomer on the liturgical scene and, although it has its origins in the 17th Century when devotion to the Holy Family was apparently quite strong, it wasn’t formally established until 1893 and didn’t actually get into the universal calendar till 1921.
I think you will agree that it is a lovely feast day and helps us to keep the focus on family life which is so important, especially at this time of the year.
The Gospel of Matthew today tells us of the journey made by the Holy Family into Egypt and their eventual return to Nazareth where Jesus was brought up. We aren’t given any details of the sojourn in Egypt except to say that it lasted until Herod was dead. That probably meant four or five years.
The important thing to understand is that there is a significant theological motive for Matthew’s account. By going to Egypt and then returning to Israel Jesus is presented as being the new Moses.
You can easily see the parallels: the infant Moses was rescued from the evil Pharaoh and the infant Jesus is rescued from the wickedness of King Herod. In the Exodus Moses leads the Chosen People out of slavery in Egypt and the equivalent mission of Jesus he is that he also comes out of Egypt to bring salvation to all.
There is also a parallel between Herod’s massacre of the infants and Pharaoh’s slaughter of the male children of the Hebrews. Later on in the Gospels, you can notice other symbolic parallels such as the forty days and nights Jesus spent in the desert which symbolically correspond to the forty years Moses spent in the desert.
The final phrase of our Gospel text today is also most interesting. He will be called a Nazarene. By going to live in Nazareth he naturally becomes a Nazarene, but there is a play on words here because the word Nazarene also means a select holy one set aside for God’s service like Samson and Samuel.
This is confirmed in John’s Gospel where the sign above Jesus as he dies on the Cross reads: Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews. And Jesus certainly merits this title since he truly is the Holy One of God, the unique God-man who alone can bring salvation in all its fullness.
So, what we have here is not just a pious story about Jesus being taken to safety and returned in due time to live in a nondescript village in Palestine until he is ready to make his mission known. No, what we actually have is an account of a series of events which are in fact a revelation of the identity of Jesus.
As I said, this is not so much a story as a theological exposition. Matthew is making it absolutely clear to his Jewish readers just who Jesus is and he underlines it heavily by means of scriptural parallels so that there can be absolutely no mistake. Jesus is the New Moses, the Holy One, the Son of God, the one who comes to save his people.
This theological analysis aside, what do we make of this feast of the Holy Family? To all outside appearance they are a family that has got off to a very unfortunate start: The wife pregnant before marriage with its unfortunate connotations, then the journey to Bethlehem for registration where they are forced to take refuge in a broken down stable.
The child born in these adverse circumstances is suddenly dragged off on an even more perilous journey into exile for some years in Egypt. Stability is only found when they come to the rural town of Nazareth; and they only end up there because Judea would have been too risky.
This is the story looked at with the eyes of an outsider. But we who understand Jesus’ role in the world see clearly that it means that he intentionally chose not to be born into the wealthy and powerful elite but into a poor and marginalized family. This was a deliberate choice since his message is first and foremost good news for the poor and downtrodden.
What Jesus values is not wealth and position, intellect or culture. Jesus values our humanness; that is just us without all the trappings. He values our being and nothing else.
This has a reflection in our family life. We value each other, our brothers and sisters, our parents and children, not for what they achieve but for who they are. We accept our brothers and sisters, our parents and children quite unconditionally. Their failures and mistakes are forgiven without them even needing to ask for it.
This is because we know them deeply; it is because they are our own flesh and blood, because we have grown up together in a bond of trust. Now this is not always the case, not all are so fortunate as to have grown up in a loving family. But it is still today the norm for most people and certainly what everyone desires and works towards achieving for their own children.
We are not always very good at expressing our feelings towards the members of our family. Perhaps it is precisely because these bonds are so deep that we cannot find the words to adequately express what we feel, and too often perhaps we therefore take each other for granted. But, somehow, we manage to find other ways to affirm each other and to express our sincere appreciation.
When these family relationships become damaged it is a very serious matter for everyone concerned and we should do everything in our power to prevent discord in our families. This might require great sacrifices but they are worth making for the sake of preserving these important bonds.
We ought to realise that the relationship that we have with God is on the same sort of level, or if anything deeper. God is our creator and therefore is in a very real sense a parent to us: Why else do we call him Father?
But perhaps, as with our human family, it is sometimes difficult to express in words what we feel and we need to find other ways of acknowledging the importance of our relationship with God.
The family bonds that keep us close to God are unseen but very much present. He values us, not our status or our successes or our material possessions. But like a true parent he values us for who we are —his son or daughter. And he loves us more than we can ever know.
We have our earthly family whom we love dearly, but we also have our heavenly family which is, if anything, even closer and more important to us.
I wish you a very happy feast day and pray that the bonds of love which keep you close to God and to each other grow ever stronger and deeper.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket