The Holy Family, Heinrich Meyring [Web Gallery of Art]
Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)
Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)
Gospel Luke 2:41-52 (New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised Catholic Edition)
Now every year the parents of Jesus went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover.
Today is the Feast of The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. On 19 March the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Today's gospel refers to Joseph and Mary as the parents of Jesus. Mary says reproachfully to her Son, Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety. To the puzzlement of both Mary and Joseph, Jesus replies, Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?
St Matthew shows clearly the role of St Joseph in the life of Jesus: An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21).
Joseph's first responsibility was to be the husband of Mary and, as such, was to name her Son, thereby becoming his legal father. In some paintings of the Nativity St Joseph is a background figure, or partly hidden in the dark, but clearly protective of Jesus and Mary, and in an attitude of worship towards the Infant.
The Nativity, El Greco [Web Gallery of Art]
But in depictions of the Flight into Egypt, of which there are many, we often find St Joseph leading the way, as in this woodcarving.
The Flight Into Egypt, Unknown Flemish Master [Web Gallery of Art]
The Greek-born Doménikos Theotokópoulos, (1541 – 1614) who settled in Toledo, Spain, as a young man was known as 'El Greco', 'The Greek'. In the painting below he captures the role of St Joseph as a protective parent.
St Joseph and the Christ Child, El Greco [Web GAllery of Art]
As a child I saw my parents as my father and mother. Now I remember them not only as that but as a married couple. And sometimes I think that the Church over-emphasises the importance of the family at the expense of marriage, which is the foundation of the family. St Joseph's primary responsibility was to be the husband of Mary and, as such, to be the one known as the father of Jesus, even though Mary's Son wasn't his.
And in today's gospel Mary painfully discovers that, in a sense, he isn't hers either, as he says, Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house? At the beginning of his adolescence Jesus was, in his humanity, coming in touch with his heavenly Father's will. The mystery of Jesus being both God and Man is something we cannot fathom. St Paul says that Jesus though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped (Philippians 2:6).
But this incident shows us that Mary and Joseph as parents suffered the same pain that every parent of an adolescent goes through. They were learning that they did not 'own' Jesus, that they would have to let him go at some stage.
I recall some incidents involving my father. One was when I was no more that three, possibly only two. Like St Joseph, he was a carpenter and made a little saddle that he put on the crossbar of his bicycle, on which he went to work every morning. I recall him taking me for a 'spin', probably on a Saturday afternoon, in the area where we lived at the time, I sitting joyfully on the little wooden saddle he had made. It's like a photo in my mind that captures a moment of delight between father and son.
Then when I was around ten he taught me how to ride a bicycle. I borrowed that of a cousin a little older than me. Dad held the back of the saddle tightly so that I wouldn't lose balance and stayed with me patiently. Then at a certain point I realised that he wasn't holding it anymore and that I was moving forward without falling. He knew when to let go.
He taught me how to swim around that same time, with the same approach. He gave me a sense of security - but didn't cling on when I didn't need that kind of security anymore.
My parents taught me what trust was by trusting me. In Ireland the symbol of adulthood was - and maybe still is, I don't know - the key to the house. I was given the key when I was only 13. None of my friends had that privilege. Even on one occasion three years later when I came home very late on my bicycle from a dance and they were waiting at the door sick with worry - nobody on our street had a telephone and mobile phones probably weren't even in the imaginations of science-fiction writers - all I got was a well-deserved scolding. They still trusted me to use my key responsibly.
I saw too that on occasions when there might be a combination of heat and coldness in their relationship for a few days, they still took care of each other. After attending a very early Mass Dad would come home, prepare my mother's breakfast and bring it to her in bed before heading off for work. And when he came home in the evening his dinner would be always ready. I remember his amusement on the only occasion in their married life when my mother didn't have it ready. She had been delayed by something unexpected and was really embarrassed. Dad just laughed.
In Worldwide Marriage Encounter one of the things we emphasise is that Love is a Decision. It's not a feeling, though feelings are related to it, of course. I saw that in my parents' lives and I also saw that they made important decisions together. One example was when I was 13. My father was asked to take on a job for six months in a town in the south of Ireland. This meant that he would be able to come home only one weekend per month. I know that my parents discussed this thoroughly and also spoke to us, their two sons, about it, before deciding that Dad should take on the job.
This cartoon, which I found on a friend's Facebook, captures in a humorous way what Love is a Decision means. (I think that the cartoon has been been to many places in cyberspace.)
As I look back now, I see clearly that my parents were husband and wife first, and father and mother second. That did not mean that they saw parenthood as being of lesser importance but that they saw it as being a consequence of being married. I think they had their priorities right.
The Feast of the Holy Family reminds us that marriage is the root of the family. Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21).
The liturgical Season of Christmas continues until the Feast of The Baptism of the Lord on Sunday 13 January. The Sussex Carol is a traditional English Christmas song but has an Irish connection in that the words were first published by Bishop Luke Wadding, who was Bishop of Ferns, Ireland, and who died in 1691.