Today the Church celebrates the Holy Family- the relationship of the Lord Jesus to his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary and her spouse, Saint Joseph.
It is my perception, that as a general rule, the emphasis of preachers in regards to today’s celebration is moral- how the faithful can enhance their own relationship with Christ and the members of their own families by imitating the virtues of the Holy Family. Be obedient as the Christ Child is obedient. Be humble as Christ’s Mother is humble. Be stalwart and just as Saint Joseph is stalwart and just.
All this is true. In terms of the virtues of family life, Christ’s family serves as a model and guide. Imitating their virtues, aspiring to be Christ-like or Mary-like or Joseph-like would go a long way in helping families to thrive in their relationships with one another.
However, as important as the moral lessons of the Holy Family are, it is not the moral lesson that is of primary significance for discerning the meaning of today’s celebration.
Instead, the meaning of today’s celebration is discerned through the great revelation of Christmas- the revelation of the Incarnation of God in Christ.
The Incarnation of God in Christ is the stunning fact that God has, in Jesus Christ, accepted a human nature and lived a real human life. God in Christ’s acceptance of a human nature was so total and complete that he experienced for himself the limits of a physical body- even to the point that he accepted the experience of suffering and death. God in Christ immersed himself in ordinary course of growth and development that make all of us human- God gestated for nine months in the womb of his mother. God was born into the world as a baby. God accepted the dependency and vulnerability of having to be cared for by others. God immersed himself in the process of learning how to do the practical tasks of daily living. God grew from infancy, through childhood and adolescence, and faced for himself all the challenges of coming to maturity as an adult.
God became human in Christ.
This descent into our humanity is his gift for us and imparted to our humanity a dignity that we could never give to ourselves. Through his Incarnation, God met us face to face in what is raw and real for us- he met us face to face.
This astounding fact has a tendency to get lost in the culture’s annual celebration of Christmas, which has become over time more and more a winter festival, than a distinct and unique expression of the Church’s profession of faith. The customs of Christmas are cherished and honored, even adopted and adapted and appreciated by those who do not profess or practice the Church’s faith, but the substantial reason for all the fuss is no longer at the forefront of what we are doing. And when Christ is mentioned, it is often to done so to cite him as a great man of history, a person of influence whose main contribution was to provide a life to be imitated and to impart moral values toward which we should aspire.
None of this is wrong or evil, but it is incomplete, because it misses the point of who the Lord Jesus reveals himself to be- God, the one, true God, who has remarkably and unexpectedly, accepted for himself a human nature and lived, like us, a real, human life.
And lest we get caught up in flights of fancy about the human life that God in Christ lived, that somehow because he is God that is must have been easier for him that it is for us, consider carefully how those who knew him personally described his life- the manner of his conception which would have exposed his mother to accusations of madness and promiscuity; his birth in straw poverty; the degrading burden of living in a region of the world that was governed by cruel tyrants and subject to invasion at any moment; and do not forget the manner in which he suffered and died- tortured and killed by the very people that he called his own, abandoned by his friends, and bereft of any consolation, even experiencing for himself what it feels like to be abandoned by God.
Sure, there were mysteries of his experience of human life that were joyful and glorious, luminous with his divinity, (it wasn’t all a pain-filled slough through suffering) but his divine identity did not make things easy, but more complicated and difficult. He is truly, as the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews testifies- like us in ALL things but sin.
And being like us in all things means that God in Christ was born into the world at particular time and in a particular place and accepted as his own a particular family.
The family he experienced in its immediacy, is his Holy Mother, Mary and her husband, Joseph. Mary accepted becoming Christ’s Mother knowing it would make her life difficult, not easy. Joseph accepted the Christ Child as his own son, even though he knew that he was not. Mary and Joseph reared the Christ Child in accord with the customs of their Israelite culture, making sure he knew himself not just as their child, but as a Child of Abraham, and as a member of a people with an extraordinary mission in the world- which was serve as a living witness to the Law of the one, true God.
And it is also true that the family of the Lord Jesus, God’s family, extended into a vast network of grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and from there the bonds of kinship worked their way through the whole culture- God’s family, in Christ, was literally the family of Israel, which is why two of our great Gospels, Matthew and Luke, begin, not with stories about the Lord Jesus or lists of his teachings, but with genealogies, that is, family histories, that show us God in Christ’s family’s relationship to the family of Israel- and through Israel, to the family of humanity.
All this is meant to demonstrate that the revelation of God in Christ in the world is not just a myth and that Christ is not just a legendary figure whom we value so much that we make a god out of him. No. Instead, God revealed himself in Jesus Christ in reality, a reality so concrete, that we can point to his place in a specific family, in a specific culture, in a specific time. All this is meant to say that God has in Jesus Christ accepted a human nature and lived a real human life.
Today is first and foremost about what God has done in Christ- to himself.
Now, because humans are practical minded, the realization and acceptance of what God has done in Christ provokes us to think about what we have to do about it. If I accept God has done something as extraordinary as living a human life like my own, what should I be doing as a result?
This is where the call from preachers to imitate the virtues of the Holy Family comes from, and as I said, such an invitation is a good thing. We lose the point however, if moral imitation is all we get out of this extraordinary revelation.
God became human in Christ, he accepted a human nature and lived a real human life, so that the human nature he accepted and the human life that he lived, could become for us an invitation to know him, to love him, to serve him and to become his friends.
An invitation to a personal relationship, to friendship with God in Christ, is what the Incarnation is about. God didn’t want our relationship with him to be superficial, or based solely on culture, or even on kinship, he offers himself to us through Christ a way to become his friends.
As such, the challenge to today’s celebration of the Holy Family, is whether or not friendship with God in Christ is what we have accepted or is even something that we want.
Friends want to be with one another, and they want to know one another. Friends want to share their lives with one another.
This is what God offers to us. But is it what we have accepted from him?
How well do we know God in Christ? If we met him face to face (which one day we all will) would we even recognize him? Is Jesus Christ merely a distant, historical figure whose teachings we basically agree with? Or is he truly and really a living, divine presence in our lives? Is our relationship with Christ personal or is it merely a cultural expectation? Have to come here to today because you want to know Christ and be with him, or has your presence here become merely a habit, something forced out of custom or obligation? If someone asked you who Jesus Christ is for you, whom or what would you describe- someone whom you know as a friend, or merely an idea or a feeling? Would you speak about those truths that Christ himself gives you in the Scriptures and in the Sacraments or in the lives of the Saints, or would you contrive something from opinions that you heard about from CNN or FOX news or that you cobbled together from a “world religions” lecture you heard long ago?
You see, the challenge for today’s celebration of the Holy Family goes further than the imitation of virtue. The challenge for today’s celebration is to consider how God in Christ relates to you and how you relate to him.
God in Christ relates to you Divine Person to Human Person, Body and Blood and Face to Face. God in Christ wants to relate himself to you friend to friend.
The challenge for today’s celebration is to ask yourself whether or not the relationship you have to God in Christ can even be vaguely described as something like being his friend.