Today in our Gospel reading we hear a lovely story from the hidden life of Jesus as a boy. It is about his visit to Jerusalem when he was twelve years old, how he got lost on the return journey and how his parents eventually found him discussing the scriptures with the doctors in the Temple.
This is an example of the kind of literature we call ‘seeing the man in the boy’. Through this story about the boy Jesus we get an insight into the kind of man he was eventually going to turn out to be. We observe from his discussions in the Temple at such a young age that Jesus is destined to become a great teacher of his people and an expert in the Hebrew Scriptures.
It is a very human story and one that we can all easily identify with. It is even a bit embarrassing for Mary and Joseph who failed to notice that Jesus was missing from the caravan. We can understand their deep anxiety at not finding him for three days. This is something that every parent dreads, hearing as we do from time to time on the news about missing children and their sometimes extremely gruesome fate.
I suppose that in those days Palestine was a more trusting place than the huge cities of today. Nowadays we have to be constantly on our guard against disturbed and dangerous persons and we need strong locks on our doors and even at great inconvenience we drive our children everywhere to avoid them walking on their own in the streets.
But in those days Palestine had a relatively small population living mostly in rural areas and it was probably much safer. The population of Jerusalem, its largest city, is estimated by some at only about 40,000 people which would make it the size of a reasonable sized town in Britain today, Inverness for example.
Nevertheless, Mary and Joseph would have been desperately worried. Besides their natural concern for the son they deeply loved you have also to take into account their awareness of the fact that God had entrusted this child to them born to be the Saviour of the World. That’s a pretty awesome responsibility and whether they said anything about it or not they must have been deeply anxious.
The boy Jesus is, of course, quite unconcerned. He is in the most natural place of all, in the Temple of Jerusalem. As the Son of God he would surely regard the Temple as his true home on earth. And what is he doing? He is discussing the scriptures with the Doctors of the Law and, at his young age, showing remarkable insight and wisdom; so much so that he astounded them all with his intelligence and perception.
Prodigy or not, his parents scold him for the anxiety he caused them. Of course, the precocious child tells them that they should have known he was about his father’s business. But he submits to their authority and meekly returns home to live his life with them in Nazareth where he was to grow into maturity as an adult.
So although our tendency is to think of the Holy Family as some sort of idealised family unit we must realise that its members faced the same pressures as we do. They went through the same crises and had the same worries as we ourselves. This story of a lost child helps us to realise that their family was not so different from our own family.
As we celebrate this beautiful feast we must ask ourselves about our own family groupings. We must ask ourselves if we as individuals are pulling our weight in the family or whether we are expecting others to take up the slack.
Sometimes we are not very good at showing affection to each other. Frequently we let our tempers get out of hand. Often enough we find ourselves giving in to selfishness and failing to treat the members of our own families with the respect that we should.
It is good that this Feast of the Holy Family comes right after Christmas which is, after all, the most family oriented feast of all. We give presents and gifts at Christmas but perhaps it is only on this Feast of the Holy Family that we come to realise that there are many other things that we fail to give to our loved ones.
So often in the family we want the other members to understand our moods and give us a bit of slack from time to time. Yet we fail to do this very thing ourselves. We frequently neglect to appreciate the mood swings that others experience, we often take them for granted and don’t make any allowances for their feelings and difficulties.
Maybe what we all need is to show a bit more patience, a bit more forgiveness, a bit more understanding. If we do these things then our homes will become warmer and friendlier and more nourishing for us all.
The Church throughout its history has constantly proclaimed the value of the family as the basic unit of our society. It promotes, perhaps today more than ever, the need for united traditional families. In these days of family splits and breakdowns it remains ever more vital to uphold the values of family life.
However, we should not take its defence of the traditional family to think that the Church looks down on people belonging to families which have split up and reconfigured in unorthodox ways. This would be an error because the Church values each human person and defends all families whatever their circumstances or however they are formed.
The basic family bond is a bond of love and the Church promotes love above everything else. The Holy Family themselves could hardly be described as fitting the mould of a traditional family. So those whose families which don’t meet traditional expectations should not worry overmuch.
The Church speaks up for the family and it is right that it does so. It proclaims the traditional values of love and honour and respect around which our families can build their lives. The Church believes that a strong upbringing in a good family is the best thing that can provide a sound basis for a solid and honourable adulthood. So let us hope and pray that our society does what it can to uphold the values that will enable families to truly flourish in the modern world.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket