Year C: Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph

The Boy Jesus in the Temple

Luke 2: 41-52

Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, and when he was twelve years old, they went up according to festival custom. After they had completed its days, as they were returning, the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Thinking that he was in the caravan, they journeyed for a day and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances, but not finding him, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus advanced [in] wisdom and age and favor before God and man.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever had to disappoint a loved one in order to follow your understanding of God’s will? Explain.
  2. In what ways do you think Mary suffered throughout her life? Is Mary a model for you in this regard? Explain.
  3. Where have you experienced having to “let go” of a child as they grow up and follow his or her own interests? Did you find this difficult? In what way might today’s Gospel help you as parent in such a situation?
  4. How are your thoughts about the meaning of “Holiness” for yourself and your family changing as your faith and trust in God deepens? Explain

Biblical Context

Luke 2: 41-52
Margaret Nutting Ralph, PHD

Today, on the feast of the Holy Family, we read a story about Jesus, Mary, and Joseph that appears only in Luke’s Gospel. As was true the story of the visitation that we read on the fourth Sunday of Advent, today’s story is written from a postresurrection point of view to teach what was understood only after the resurrection.

Luke tells us that “each year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for he feast of Passover.” This means that Mary and Joseph were faithful Jews who observed the pilgrimage feast of Passover by going up to the temple in Jerusalem to celebrate for seven days. Now that Jesus was twelve he’ accompanied his parents on the trip. “After they had completed its days, as they were returning, the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it.” Mary and Joseph did not realize that Jesus was missing for a whole day. On discovering his absence they returned to Jerusalem, but still did not find him for two more days. “After three days they found him in the temple.”

This detail of the story foreshadows the ending of Luke’s Gospel when Jesus will again go to Jerusalem and again will be “lost” for three days. This trip too will be at the time of Passover, which will be Jesus’ last meal with his disciples before they lose him. After three days they will find Jesus in his postresurrection appearances.

While Mary and Joseph have been looking for Jesus, Jesus has not been looking for them. Jesus was “sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers. “

Notice that Luke does not let us hear what Jesus said to the teachers in the temple. In fact, so far in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has not said a single word. We know Jesus’ identity because we have been told by an angel, by Elizabeth, and by Simeon. But we have yet to meet Jesus ourselves. Jesus’ first words will be in response to his mother’s question, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” Jesus replies, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Many people, on reading these words, think they sound rude. Why didn’t Jesus at least apologize for frightening his parents? Luke’s point rests on the word must. In both his Gospel and his Acts of the Apostles, Luke uses this word to describe actions that must be done in order to carry out God’s will. For instance, when Jesus describes his preaching mission he says, “To the other towns also I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God, because for this purpose I have been sent” (Luke 4:43). The same wording appears when Jesus talks about his suffering: “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be tilled and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22). Jesus’ response to his mother is revealing that Jesus’ main relationship in life is with his heavenly Father. He must do his heavenly Father’s will.

Notice that Luke tells us that Jesus’ parents “did not understand what he said to them.” This detail is surprising if one thinks of a Gospel as similar to a novel where one scene builds on another. Why wouldn’t Mary understand, given the annunciation and the visitation? This obvious “seam” between stories, a certain inconsistency from one story to another, is a sign that the stories grew up independently of each other. Luke is collecting stories that he has inherited from oral and written tradition. Luke tells us that this is what he is doing as he begins his Gospel (see Luke 1:1-4). Mary and Joseph’s lack of understanding is parallel to the lack of understanding that will occur at the end of Luke’s Gospel when the disciples do not understand why Jesus had to do his Father’s will and go through his passion and death.

Luke does not present Jesus as a son who had no regard for his parents’ wishes. Rather, Luke tells us that Jesus “went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.” Jesus advances in wisdom and age and favor before God and man” under Mary and Joseph’s care.

Mary, like Jesus, continues to be obedient to God’s will. Although she does not understand Jesus’ words, instead of arguing with him, Mary “kept all these things in her heart.” As we know from the annunciation, Mary’s posture before God is the same as her son’s: “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38V).

Growing in Age, Wisdom and Grace

Spiritual Reflection
John Shea

Many years ago I was having a drink with a preacher in mid-January. He was telling me about a gimmick he used for the recently past feast of the Holy Family. He entered the pulpit with a small trophy and told the congregation that he and the staff had an announcement to make. They scrutinized the families or the parish and decided to award a trophy to the family that most resembled the Holy Family. (Although I cannot remember any exact words, I will express the gist of the conversation in dialogue form.)

Well, Jack, the place went dead quiet. The people stared at me with a look that said, “You idiot! What have you done?’ “What were you after?” I asked.

“My people think holiness is perfection. No negative feelings, no hurtful words, no lying, kids always obedient to their parents and parents always understanding their kids. If there is friction, the Holy Family heals it in a half hour, like the nonsense family comedies that are on television. But real family life is far from this idealistic picture. There is always discord, lack of communication, imputation of bad motives, mistakes, grudges. When judged against the perfection model, no family is holy. Even Jesus spoke some harsh words to his parents.”

“So what were you after?” I asked a second time.

“I wanted to disabuse them of the holiness-perfection connection. I don’t know if I agreed with the trophy gimmick, but I did agree the holiness-perfection connection is inadequate to the actual give-and-take of family life, and in certain circumstances may even cause harm. But I did not pursue the issue because the conversation triggered a memory. Suddenly, my imagination was entertaining an event that I had not thought about in at least thirty years.”

I attended a lecture by a woman who was very well known in the Catholic Church of Chicago. The title of her lecture was: “Is This a Failed Family?” She told all the problems of her family of choice and some of the difficulties of her family of origin. They were considerable, and as she compiled negative after negative, the audience grew more and more quiet. But, as she talked, I became aware that even with more information I would not be able to answer the question of her title. There was something in me that would not move from catastrophe and tragedy to the pronouncement of failure. Whether this family was a failure or not seemed the wrong question.

But what was the right question?

During the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany season there is a raft of new and old stories about family gatherings at the holidays. The stories have predictable plots. Adult children from many parts of the country journey back to their childhood homes with spouses and children of their own. For the most part their aging parents are glad to see them. But the holidays stir up old antagonisms and push people to reveal the secrets and confess lies that have haunted the family for years. There is usually a loveable aunt or peculiar uncle who is too understanding for their own good. For good measure and to increase the drama, one of the parents may have a terminal disease. The family has gathered; expect fireworks.

Dublin Carol, a play by Conor McPherson, fits into this genre—but barely. The main character is John, an undertaker and an aging alcoholic who is trying to downshift from benders and lost weekends to steady but not overly destructive drinking. It is Christmas Eve and he interacts with Mark, a younger coworker who is showing signs of following in John’s drunken ways, and Mary, a daughter he has not seen in ten years. Mary arrives unexpectedly, confesses she has never stopped loving and hating him, and tells him her mother and his ex-wife is dying.

John is an acute observer of his own weaknesses, and he reminisces in excruciating detail about how his drinking has cost him his entire family—wife, son, and daughter. But the daughter has an offer: she will come back at 5:00 and collect him to go and see his ex-wife. At one point, John strips his office of the signs of Christmas—an Advent calendar, lights, a Christmas tree—saying that it is depressing to have Christmas stuff up after Christmas Eve. But as he waits for this daughter, he puts back the signs of Christmas, washes his face, combs his hair, puts on his coat and hat, sits in a chair, and waits. As a nearby church clock chimes five, the lights go down and the play ends.

The title, Dublin Carol, alludes to Dickens’ Christmas Carol. But John is not scared into the turnaround that Scrooge undergoes. There is no full-scale conversion. We do not even know if his daughter will show up. Or if she does come, will he take off his coat, drink and double-think, and refuse to visit his ex-wife in the hospital? He is man poised on the edge of possibility. Out of nowhere an opportunity has arrived to make amends and partially repair his broken family relationships. The play refuses to go beyond possibility into actuality. As I watched John waiting, listening to the chimes, stroking his mouth and beard, wrestling with his freedom, I sensed this was what family holiness was about. This was the right question.

The story of the boy Jesus who is lost and found ends with the simple observation that he grew in age, wisdom, and grace. These words have powerful connotations and explore features of the right question. Aging provides the shifting inner and outer changes for new possibilities to occur. What is impossible for the teenage child is possible for the adult child; what the young father could not abide, the older father can tolerate; what the mother always feared would happen has happened, and she has withstood it. As long as there is time and aging, there will be lures to redemption and celebration. Time may be linear, but our aging often provides opportunities to redo the past. As the saying goes, the past may determine the present, but the present may redetermine the past.

In the gospels, wisdom is not esoteric erudition or high-flying speculation. It is a street-smart skill to keep Spirit alive. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, the wise person is one who builds on rock to survive the storm. In the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, the wise virgins carry their own oil and so enter the feast. In the parable of the unjust steward, the steward is called wise because he found a way to survive his own destructive behavior. Wisdom is the mindset and behavior needed to keep our Spirits surviving. John, waiting among the restored signs of Christmas, is wise enough to know the possibility of spiritual survival has arrived. He smells hope and, no matter how heavy his past habits, he is building his courage to take a chance on reconciliation.

“Grace” points to a human dynamic that begins on the inside and comes to the outside with new vitality and action. People have spiritual centers that transcend their mental conditioning and inhibiting circumstances. Therefore, they can engage in more than quid-pro-quo exchanges. “If you love those who love you, what grace is there in that? If you do good to those who do good to you, what grace is there in that? … But love your enemies and do good not expecting return” (Luke 6:32; 35). The presence of grace in the center means that everyone is capable of surprising actions. Although families are notorious for putting one another in boxes, the graced center of each individual may break out of those boxes and bring forward words and actions of love.

Family holiness is not about perfection. Nor is it about premature judgments of failure or self-congratulatory judgments of success. It is about people living in close relationship to one another and discerning opportunities for their shared Spirits to flourish. There is a certain immediacy to this discernment, for time makes and unmakes possibilities. Therefore, family members must be alert to cooperate with each individual situation in terms of what it offers. They must also be confident that their spiritual center is capable of contributing whatever is needed to better the life they share. This is the right question of every holy family: are we ready to act on the call of the Spirit to better our life together?

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle C, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2006 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.