From the very beginning the Church has consistently taught that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, that the Incarnation is God coming into the world as one of us. In His humanity, the Church teaches, Jesus is like us in all things except sin.
And yet, over the centuries, many have tried to make Jesus into someone or something He isn’t. Indeed, most of the heresies that plagued the early Church focused on the identity of Jesus, as the world tried to answer the question Jesus asked His disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” [Mk 8:27] And now, 2,000 years later, people are still giving the wrong answers.
I once heard a television preacher say that Jesus possessed complete knowledge of all the sciences. “Jesus, the man,” he said, “was Einstein, Newton, Pasteur, Curie, Hawking…all the great scientists of the world rolled into one, and then multiplied by a thousand.” He went on to state that “Jesus was the most knowledgeable of doctors, for how else could He have cured all those people? How else could He raise the dead to life?”
I couldn’t help but think: well, if that’s the case, he could hardly be human, like us in all things.
And then, moving toward the other extreme, one of my theology professors once stated that the humanity of Jesus prevented Him from grasping that He was divine. Indeed this theologian taught that Jesus didn’t realize He was the Son of God until the Resurrection. What a surprise that must have been! And, the professor taught, because Jesus, in His humanity, was unaware of His divinity, none of those Gospel miracles really happened.
The real problem for the preacher and professor is that the Incarnation is a mystery, something beyond human understanding, and that just bothers the heck out of them. They can’t accept that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. They can’t understand how Jesus can be truly the Son of God and yet became a man and our brother.
That they’re unable to grasp the mind of God is unacceptable to them, so they manufacture a Jesus they can accept…one, of course, that conflicts with everything the Church teaches.
As the Second Vatican Council stated: “The Son of God…worked with human hands; He thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will, and with a human heart He loved” [Gaudium et Spes, 22.2]. And yet that human will, “does not resist or oppose but rather submits to His divine and almighty will” [Council of Constantinople III: DS 556].
The Church gives us today’s feast of the Holy Family to remind us of Jesus’ humanity, to remind us that the family is the first church, the domestic church. Yes, Jesus chose to enter into the world as an infant, just as helpless as you and I once were. He didn’t place Himself above us. He didn’t reject the human story but entered directly into it, sharing our humanity, our flesh and blood, our physical mortality.
In today’s gospel passage Luke relates the events surrounding the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. According to Jewish law, a firstborn son belonged to God. And so, 40 days after his birth, parents would present their son in the Temple, in effect, buying him back with a sacrifice. And for poor Jews, like Joseph and Mary, it would be a sacrifice of turtledoves or pigeons. On that same day the new mother would also be ritually purified. Indeed, the feast was originally known as the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin.
Here we see the Holy Family, a Jewish family, living under God’s Law, doing as the Law prescribed. Yes, Jesus, the Son of God, accepts that His mission is rooted in God’s revelation, expressed in the Law and the Prophets. It’s there, in the Old Testament, that God’s plan of salvation is first revealed; a plan fulfilled and brought to completion by the Incarnation.
And so Mary and Joseph enter the Temple to fulfil the law. There they are greeted by old Simeon who amazes them with what he reveals. Simeon welcomes the infant Jesus with open arms and in Him sees redemption of the entire world: “…my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel” [Lk 2:30-32]. He then gives Mary a taste of the sorrows she will experience, for a sword will pierce her heart.
Mary and Joseph then encounter Anna, a prophetess who lived in the Temple, who goes on to reveal more about their child. And just as Jesus advances in wisdom and age and favor, so too does the Holy Family advance in holiness.
But we should also realize that the message of Simeon and Anna is a message for every family. Holiness is nurtured first in the family. In the midst of all the chaos that surrounds any family there are glimpses of God’s presence, moments of grace when God reaches deep into the clutter of our lives and hands us a present that we never expected.
When my mother died, our elder daughter, 6-years-old at the time, told her mother, “Don’t cry, Mommy. Grandma is with Jesus now, happy in heaven.”
In moments like this God ignores all the barriers and debris that we place between ourselves and our redemption and reminds us that we are called to holiness. In those moments, sticky hands are transformed into instruments of grace and stories of the playground and classroom, or the words of a child to her mother become words of wisdom. In those moments, ordinary events take on new meaning and the dinner table can become like an altar.
In my family, those moments didn’t come when the six of us were kneeling piously in church. They were never captured on film or video. No, they were elusive -- sudden and unexpected. And sometimes, as with Mary and Joseph, they came in the form of words that amaze.
Yes, Mary knew her Son was special. What had the angel said? “He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High… the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” [Lk 1:32, 35]. But to hear this and more in the Temple from these two holy ones…this too was something she would long ponder and cherish.
This visit to the Temple is a story that strikes a chord in every new parent who has wondered and worried about the future of their child.
It’s a story for every mother who has looked into the face of her newborn, the face of innocence, and prayed that God would help her raise that child to holiness.
It’s a story to remind us that as parents we will experience disappointment, sorrow, and sometimes great tragedy…but in the midst of it all we will encounter Emmanuel, God with us.
It’s a story to remind each of us of the depth of God’s love for us, that He calls us to His open arms with forgiveness and mercy.
It’s a reminder to parents that holy moments of discovery and growth are often sudden and unpredictable.
It’s a reminder that God calls us into families — not just to protect us physically, but to nurture us in faith and love, to prepare us for a journey that leads only to Him.
It’s no accident that Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor, and did so in the midst of a family.
It’s no accident that God used that Holy Family — as he uses our families — to reach deep into other people’s lives, to bring them the light of Christ.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us; and He came as a child born into a family. By doing so, He sanctified the family, making it an instrument of holiness, and reminding us of the awesome obligation we have to protect it.
For the family today is under attack from virtually every quarter. We seem to have stopped investing in children, and now just invest in things. This is the great temptation for us who live in our affluent Western societies with their contraceptive mentality, societies that see children not as our future, but as competitors who threaten future affluence, as things that take something from us.
This is the same mentality that, 45 years ago, Pope Paul VI predicted would lead to increased marital infidelity, a general decrease in morality, especially among our youth, a lack of respect for women, and the continued erosion of respect for human life at all stages. How right he was!
Today, on this beautiful feast of the Holy Family, let us pray for our families, that we may grow together in holiness, love and mutual respect.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph – pray for us.