The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Homily: Feast of the Holy Family

Readings: Sir 3:2-6,12-14; Ps 128; Col 3:12-21; Mt 2:13-15,19-23

As a deacon, husband, father and grandfather, there are two days in the liturgical year that have special meaning for me.

One is St. Stephen's Day, when we honor St. Stephen, the first deacon and the first martyr. The other is the feast of the Holy Family. And this year they both fall on the same day…today.

Like most of you whose children are grown, coming together as a family is increasingly rare. What Diane and I once took for granted are now special times, moments to anticipate and cherish.

Family relationships are certainly different, aren’t they? We’re drawn to each when crises arise. And for most of us, it’s wonderful to be surrounded by one's family. I’d like to be able to say our family is the ideal, populated by perfect people, but you’d know I was lying. We’ve had our share of problems and crises and arguments and slammed doors and tears. But, you know, the problems are eventually solved, just as each crisis is invariably overcome. And the arguments and slammed doors? Well, they always seemed to end in apologies and forgiveness and hugs, with the tears wiped away.

I’d like to take the credit, for even a small piece of it, for all the good things, but again I’d be lying. Despite 42 years of crises, large and small, Diane and I realize we’ve been blessed when it comes to our children and the love we have for each other and for our family. We’ve come to realize that it’s God who works His Will through us and through our weaknesses. And so we continue to struggle to discern His Will in the life of our family.

Now I know that many of today’s families have very serious problems, indeed. And many households are really not families at all, but simply groups of individuals who happen to share the same accommodations.
The Holy Family (Raphael)
Oh, how we need the example of the Holy Family in today's world, a world openly hostile to marriage and the family. By most statistical measures, the family is an institution in sharp decline. The symptoms are all around us in a profound shift in cultural values away from family commitment and toward self-fulfillment, away from self-sacrifice and toward self-gratification. The divorce rate is well over 50%. 40% of today’s children are born outside of marriage. The plague of abortion has devalued not only the child, but human life itself. Large numbers of fathers abdicate their parental responsibility and abandon both mother and child.

Some few years ago our elder daughter was teaching 2nd grade in an inner city school in California. The fathers of 40% of the children in her class were in prison. But even in affluent families, mothers and fathers spend increasingly less time with their children, or devote themselves to their children’s material well-being and success at the expense of their spiritual well-being and moral character.

Single parenthood is a fact of life today, and it carries with it a whole set of financial, emotional, and psychological burdens. If raising a child today is a challenge for a two-parent family, just imagine what’s it’s like to do it alone. Most single parents love and care for their children admirably, but can we really expect them to be both mother and father? What have we lost when the beneficial effects of a loving, caring father are lacking? When masculine role models are found only outside the family, too often in objectionable ways?

Now I’m no sociologist, so I won’t even attempt to explain these problems and their causes. But today, on the Feast of the Holy Family, we might do well to consider an often overlooked figure in the Gospels. As Matthew relates the story of the conception, birth and childhood of Jesus, there emerges a quiet, modest figure, the perfect model for fathers today, St. Joseph.

Just consider the sort of man he must have been. Out of all the men who ever lived, God the Father chose Joseph as the guardian, teacher, and guide of His only Son. And He chose Joseph to love and protect Mary, the virgin Mother of the Son of God. Yes, Joseph must have been a very special man indeed.

* a courageous man of honor determined to protect Mary’s reputation. Why? Because he’s a righteous man and this is what God would want.

* a man who then takes Mary as his wife even though the child she carries is not his. Why? Because God told him to take the Child and His Mother to himself. And so Joseph obeys.

* a man who, to protect his young family, leads them into exile, into an unknown future. Why? Because God told him to do so.

Joseph doesn’t stop to think it over; he doesn’t even spend a day planning the trip. No, he leaves immediately in obedience to God’s command. He “rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt.”

What a mystery! That God, to protect His Son, the uncreated Word of God, should choose to do so through the mediation of a humble carpenter. It’s all part of the greater mystery of the Incarnation, in which the Father and the Holy Spirit now relate to the Son not only as Divine Word but also as incarnate Man.
Flight into Egypt

Matthew glosses over the flight to Egypt in a few words, but the reality was surely a nightmare. Traveling by night and hiding by day, the Holy Family would have required several weeks to travel the 300 miles through an inhospitable desert from Jerusalem to Egypt. Then, as homeless refugees, the family would rely solely on Joseph to earn a living during their exile. And just when Joseph had probably established himself in this foreign land, God tells him to return to Israel. Once again he obeys.

The murderous Herod is dead, but in Judea and Samaria, Herod's son, Archelaus now rules, and Joseph fears him. And rightly so, since Archelaus began his rule by slaughtering 3,000 of Judea’s most influential citizens. And so Joseph, again in obedience to God’s command, guides Mary and Jesus far to the north, to the safety of a small town nestled in the hills of Galilee, to Nazareth. It’s through the obedience of Joseph that the prophecies are fulfilled. “Out of Egypt I called my Son.” And “He shall be called a Nazorean.”

Notice how, throughout Matthew’s brief narrative, God doesn’t reveal everything to Joseph at once. No, Joseph remains continually dependent on God’s next word. For Joseph, the just man, is nevertheless fully human, and like all of us must learn to grow in God’s love and grace. He must experience, as we all must, the trial of faithfulness, the trial of perseverance in seeking out the will of God in our lives. And so Joseph waits patiently for God to speak, just as God waits patiently for Joseph to grow in fidelity to His will.

It’s in Nazareth, in the home of this family, that Jesus grows to maturity. It’s here that Joseph, according to Jewish custom, teaches Jesus to recite his prayers, to sing the age old Psalms of David, and to read from the Torah, the Law of Moses. It’s from Joseph that Jesus learns to appreciate, first hand, the importance of following the laws and customs of His people. In Nazareth, working alongside Joseph in his carpenter's shop, Jesus comes to recognize the value and dignity of work. Here, in the home of Joseph, Jesus encounters daily a man happy to be poor in spirit, happy to be meek, happy to be just and merciful, happy to be pure of heart, to be singlehearted.

Later, when Jesus begins His public ministry, he often speaks of God the Father as “Abba” or Daddy. And it was from the loving and caring Joseph that in his humanity Jesus first learned what a daddy was. At the very heart of Joseph’s sanctity is obedience, an unquestioning obedience to accept the will of God in his life…and to act on it. And because he obeys, God comes to him again and again. God walks in Joseph’s soul just as He walked with Adam in the Garden. Is it any wonder He entrusts to Joseph what is most precious to Him?

Mary and the child Jesus remain almost hidden in this Gospel narrative, contained in the decisions and actions of Joseph. Joseph leads, but doesn’t dominate. He leads by serving – by serving His God and by serving His family. Then, his task complete, Joseph seemingly disappears from view. His work is finished. Jesus, whom he has loved, taught, and protected, must now step forward into the light of history. Joseph, like John the Baptist, like you and me: "He must increase. I must decrease."

On March 19th, in the Preface of the Mass of the Solemnity of St. Joseph, the celebrant honors Joseph with these words:
He is that just man, that wise and loyal servant, whom you placed at the head of your family. With a husband’s love he cherished Mary, the virgin Mother of God. With fatherly care he watched over Jesus Christ your Son, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.
We Catholics have always prided ourselves on our devotion to Mary, the Mother of God. How it would please her to see us, and especially those of us who are fathers, deepen our devotion to her husband. With Jesus we owe honor to Joseph, and honored indeed would Joseph be if fathers today would accept him as their model. And if single mothers would turn to him, asking for his fatherly intercession in the lives of their children.

Today, on this beautiful feast of the Holy Family, let us pray for our families, and especially for fathers. Would that all fathers were just men like Joseph -- wise and loyal servants of the Lord who cherish their wives and watch over their children with fatherly care.

St. Joseph, pray for us.


  1. Hi Deacon. Love the site. You do a great service. I'm wondering if it would be possible for me to use the image of the Holy Family for a religious pamphlet I am attempting to get published?
    Thanking you in anticipation.

  2. Richard...Certainly. The image is public access. It is a photo of a print of a painting made centuries ago. Use it at will. - Dcn Dana