“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph” — Belated Thoughts on the Feast of the Holy Family

I, for one, am glad that the Feast of the Holy Family is behind us, for another year.  It is the feast I like least in the liturgical calendar.  In fact, it may be the only feast that sees me drag my feet to church, all the while muttering non-pleasantries about the emergence of ideological feasts and the absurdities of sermons on “traditional family values” on this day.  I was spared such a sermon yesterday, yet in the space that opened up, it occurred to me to distinguish between devotion to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph on the one hand, and the notion of these three being a family that models family life, on the other.  Jesus, Mary, and Joseph seem so far removed from a model (or even simply: a normal) family that dragging them into service for traditional family values has long struck me as ludicrous.  Yet when contemplating my (non-)devotion to this peculiar holy family, it struck me that if I devoted myself to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as a communion of persons, this strange human trinity did indeed have something to model: namely, how to live in communion in all the ambiguity and messiness of life; how to think of family beyond all  traditional constructions (Mary’s pregnancy was quite hard to explain after all; Jesus was born out of wedlock; Joseph wasn’t his biological father, etc.); and how to encounter God’s presence in human communities and commitments that look nothing like traditional families.

And with that, I may not have to drag my feet to church at all next year, on the Feast of the Holy Family.



  1. Thanks for this. Holy Family is about my least favorite Sunday, and I must say that I did not make it to mass this weekend; a rarity for me. I can’t blame fear of bad preaching, I’m sure that I would have heard an excellent homily from our pastor. There is just something that makes me hang back.

    All that and I just now remember that I wrote a homily, oops, make that a reflection, in the book, Naked and You Clothed Me: Homilies and Reflections for Cycle A (Clear Faith Publishing) for this past Sunday! It was written almost a year ago, I better go see what the Holy spirit inspired!

    And your words have inspired me, to see a little bit differently – thank you.

    1. @Fran Rossi Szpylczyn – comment #1:
      I’d love it if you would post some or all of what you wrote last year! I, too, struggle to go to Church on this feast–as a single middle-aged woman who is often feeling a little battered after the annual encounter with my family of origin, I find this feast is only bearable if I remember the messiness of Jesus’s early years. I was not offended by the homily I heard yesterday but that’s mostly because it didn’t seem to have much of a point.

      1. @Ellen Joyce – comment #3:
        Late though it may be, keep an eye out for my blog, which I think clicking on my name in the comments leads to, Ellen.The homily was actually for this past Sunday, but because of the publisher’s deadline, I wrote it long ago! I will try to post it when I get home tonight. It begins, “Family. Now there’s a loaded word for you.”

    1. @Bruce Tereski – comment #2:
      Really? Let’s see:
      – Paul’s letters; the gospels of Mark and John say nothing about the first christmas or even the family
      – Comparing the infant narratives of Matthew and Luke, we find striking differences
      – So, do we read the infancy narratives and the scant holy family information as literal and factual?
      – Or, rather, don’t we as catholic christians understand that we read the gospels and the infancy narratives not literally but contextually – Matthew and Luke each used these narratives for different purposes. They convey insights and truths that go way beyond just a list of facts – in reality, this misses the point. The infancy narratives are more like parables – the Jewish-Christian-Gentile community going back and reconstructing these stories.Thus, the point of the stories about Mary, the virgin birth, Jospeh, betrothal,etc. are not about *virginity*; not about *wedlock* – they are about the meanings – responses in love and faith by Mary and Joseph as they begin to understand who Jesus is. These other *markers* are symbols of that time that Matthew and Luke used to highlight the Risen Christ they were writing about. So, we use the term *histoical* not as *factual* but as setting these events in their 1st century context.

      Excellent resource – “The First Christmas” by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan

    2. @Bruce Tereski – comment #2:
      Since at that time only Mary and Joseph are aware of the true origins of the child, how would others have been able to use supernatural faith to understand the situation?

      1. @Lee Bacchi – comment #9:
        The betrothal would have been publicly known. How public Mary’s condition was known is not clearly addressed in the Gospels; one could reasonably interpret them in a way where her condition was known to Joseph and maybe few if anyone else (it would have been difficult for him to divorce her quietly if it was widely known). It’s not the only possible interpretation, but it’s one of many reasonable possibilities. So, Joseph taking her into his house and thereby completing the public dimension of marriage would possibly have elided public scandal (particularly if Mary’s coming to term occurred elsewhere). The point is, if one is dispassionately reading the given texts, one has to accept the silences don’t dictate many of the more modern interpretations given to them. They might permit them, but they certainly don’t dictate them, and we should refrain from spinning them as if they did.

  2. Our associate pastor on the Feast of the Holy Family DID preach on aspiring to make the Holy Family the model for families. He also told us that the devil hates families and has caused the degeneration of the traditional family unit in our society (along with feminism). In fact, he told us that the problems in Detroit, MI all stem from the breakdown of the traditional family.

    So if you were wondering . . .

  3. Feast of the Holy Family — Jesus is truly human
    Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God — Jesus is truly divine
    The Holy Family is very much NOT a traditional family, so a homily exhorting all to “traditional family values” seems to miss the point of the feast and the season.
    The mention in Mt 1:18-25 about Joseph deciding to divorce Mary quietly indicates that something was not quite “traditional” about her pregnancy, so again, traditional family values are not a focus of the feast.

  4. First, an aside to preachers at this time of year (after having heard one preacher do his best to try to de-mythologize the Incarnation on two successive Sundays): I think preachers must at the very least be extraordinarily careful about proposing non-customary interpretations of the infancy narratives to their flocks without making expressly clear they do so entirely on their own personal initiative – citing scholars doesn’t endow those interpretations with any binding authority whatseover. It’s a subtle point, but an important one. Preachers have both express and implied authority, and must not unduly rely on one to push another agenda; they would otherwise be taking advantage of the credulity of their flock, even if they do not intend to do so. I’ve witnessed this occurring with some regularity with some preachers (not only progressive, but also the more traditionally minded, which might surprise some readers but it shouldn’t), and I’ve had to resist the urge to take them aside some time to ask “by what right do you do this in that way?”

    Also, attempts to drain scripture pericopes of anything smacking of particular miraculousness (directly or impliedly) for the sake of keeping them relevant often betray more about the needs of the preacher than of the flock. Preachers aren’t liberating their flocks by doing this. (The other thing is that preachers who took biblical criticism in, say, the 1970s and 1980s have typically missed out on a lot of countervailing scholarship since then; that becomes glaringly obvious on occasion…)

  5. Let me join those who find this 20th century idea feast one of the less welcome on the calendar. But I would not unduly underscore the deviance of Jesus’ family from human idealization as a way to make the feast more relevant. Catholic Christianity has a rich tradition of enlarging the family beyond the biologically typical that should more than suffice.

    As more and more First World people live alone, by circumstance or choice, how might that tradition be brought more inventively to bear to complement biologically typical family life? Do we see this as necessarily a problem? That itself would be a problem meriting reflection.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #11:

      Karl: As more and more First World people live alone, by circumstance or choice, how might that tradition be brought more inventively to bear to complement biologically typical family life? Do we see this as necessarily a problem? That itself would be a problem meriting reflection.

      Speaking as someone who Will Never Marry, except perhaps before a magistrate (if that should happen, I’m not coming back to church. Why care then?), I don’t find Holy Family feast intrinsically problematic. If one thinks of the theological implications of the holy family in both the eternal and moral spheres, then the familial imagery can be recast as not entirely biological and human familial in tone, especially since the holy family is not biological. Is this really possible?

      Perhaps not. Then again, almost every Holy Family sermon I’ve heard across the liturgical spectrum focuses on the human aspect of Christ’s upbringing. Theological abstraction and contemplation are usually absent. Even a brief reference to the metaphysical-theological relationship between Christ and the Theotokos is often ignored entirely. Instead the priest or deacon will deliver an extended metaphor about the joys of rearing children. At these points I feel as if I’m doing simul translation in my head, as when listening to Nuntii Latini.

      I agree that edgy theology might be inappropriate for a Holy Family homily. Then again however, a shift from the surface level of Christ’s immediate human relationships also requires a good amount of reflection and verbal precision.

  6. Curious – can you please provide examples of *countervailing* scriptural authorities that diverge from the 1970-80s?

    #12 – an example of focusing on a fact (betrothal) that may or may not have much to do with why Matthew or Luke have the infancy narratives in their gospels. The key point of the engagement is that the conception is from the Holy Spirit (found in both gospels and thus may be from one shared source). Would suggest that your *reasonable interpretation with various possible routes of explanation* are just spinning. It isn’t the central meaning nor is it the purpose of the infancy narratives. It would be sort of like wondering what village the sheperds came from; or did Matthew put the manger in a cave or a barn? Ultimately, what difference does this make?

    Would agree that homilists need to be careful about *non-customary* incarnation stories but to just repeat year after year the same incarnation story is always a preaching failure. Preaching needs to extract from whatever gospel a meaning that can be applied to the community gathered.

    BTW – in #7, cited a 2007 scriptural book about the infancy narratives. (not 1970-80s) And can’t think of a better resource than Raymond Brown’s, “The Birth of the Messiah*

    Here is another interesting link by Martens in 2013: http://americamagazine.org/content/the-word/love-first-sight-0

  7. I have also been struck by the peculiarities raised by this feast: an immaculately conceived mother, the incarnate son, and the foster father who has wondrous dreams. Each year we must subliminally contend with the paradox of these parents who don’t engage in conjugal love and thus are just a one very special child family. Hard to make them role models for a fruitful family. Of course, the preacher who wishes to respect the tradition can point out individual traits in each of them that any family member would do well to pray for and incarnate in their own lives. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, pray for us that we become a church that is a truly holy family.

  8. This Feast Day has so many opportunities for the good preacher! The Holy Family is so different from each of ours, with Joseph living with two perfect people. But they faced the same problems we do.
    Let’s not forget Mary suffers losing her child in the largest city of her country, a child who is incredulous that she would be concerned about him. She understands our struggles with raising our children.

    But most on this day, I reflect on when I was a child and my dad would point out the lines around …grieve him not as long as he lives… Not that his mind would ever fail, of course, but just in case……….
    He’s 83 now.

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