Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Agnes Church, Manhattan
The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Extraordinary Form
January 8, 2017
Col 3:12-17, Lk 2:42-52
To listen to an audio recording to today’s homily, please click below:
The following text guided the homily:
The familial dimension of the Incarnation
We celebrate today in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. We mark the fundamental fact that when the Son of God became man, when the Word became flesh, he became flesh as a little child within a family. That was a divine choice, for Jesus did not have to come into our world in that way. He could have come as a 33-year-old adult and immediately begun his public ministry of preaching, teaching, healing and saving. He could have come as an 80-year-old sage or at least at the age of 12 dazzling the scribes and priests in the Temple like we see in today’s Gospel. But he was conceived and began his existence as a one-celled human zygote in Mary’s womb, progressed to a blastocyst, then an embryo, then a fetus until finally he was born as a baby in a family, where he was nourished according to his human nature and grew, as we see in today’s Gospel, in “wisdom and favor before God and man.” Why did he do this? He didn’t tell us the reason, but one doesn’t need to be a great theologian to see why it made sense: the eternal Son of God wanted to redeem all of human life in its totality, from its very beginning, which meant redeeming the family from its very beginning.
A loving communion of persons
All of existence is meant to be familial. Saint John Paul II used to call the Blessed Trinity a family, because it is a structured communion of persons in love, with a Father, a Son and the love between them. The human person was made in the image and likeness of God as a communion of persons, “male and female he made them” (Gen 1:27-28), and hence the image of God is familial: a husband and a wife can love each so much that, like the Trinity, their love can generate a third person. They can literally “make love” and then name, raise and live in joyful communion with the love they make.
Sin and the Division of the Family
But we know that man, woman and children didn’t live up to their being in the image of God. Right from the beginning, sin invaded the family. It began with Adam and Eve and the first sin, in which Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent, with neither taking responsibility and with both thereafter hiding the most vulnerable aspects of their humanity from each other and God. The sinfulness quickly harmed their children. Cain killed his brother Abel. There was jealousy between Abraham’s sons Isaac and Ishmael, enmity between Isaac’s sons Jacob and Esau, envy between Jacob’s 12 sons, ten of whom ganged up to try to kill their brother Joseph. There was deadly jealousy in King David’s family. Jesus’ family tree is a chronicle of generations of infidelity to each other and to God. Polygamy and concubinage became rampant. Divorce was introduced because of the hardness of people’s hearts to keeping their promises of life. God would sum up the relationship with his people through the Prophet Hosea under the idea of adultery, because adultery, rather than fidelity, had almost become the rule in the relationships between spouses and family members and between individual families and the family of Israel with God. Simply put, the family had become a mess. As the human family “increased and multiplied,” so did sin.
Jesus was born of a family in order to redeem the family, to reconcile all of family life to God, because the family has a crucial role in the world God created. The family based on the marriage between man and woman is the primordial sacrament because it is meant to be an efficacious sign of the love of God in the world, of the loving communion of persons who God is. When the family is thriving as God intended, everything else can find its proper order. But when the family becomes a den of sin instead of a school of sanctification, the wounds cut the deepest. That’s why the devil always goes after the family, from Adam’s and Eve’s, to the families we grew up in, to religious families and to the family Jesus himself founded with his Bride and Body the Church.
Jesus and the Family
Jesus’ whole work can be looked at as restoring the family to its proper place “in the beginning” by helping it to become a place of redemption and a house of holiness. We see that restoration in the Holy Family of Nazareth, where their life was centered on God in prayer, where they sacrificed for each other out of love, where they helped and strengthened each other to fulfill the vocations God had given them, even at great personal cost. When Jesus inaugurated his public ministry, he continued to give great witness to the importance of the family in God’s plan of redemption. He began the public manifestation of his work with the miracle at the wedding feast of Cana, changing the “water” of the good of marriage from the beginning with Adam and Eve to the “wine” of a Sacrament that communicates his own divine life. Jesus taught about marriage in God’s original plan and sought to purify people’s hardened hearts to accept that God would make fruitful, faithful, indissoluble love, modeled on divine love, possible. He shared in the moments of familial life with Lazarus, Martha and Mary, and even in the family of Peter with his mother-in-law. He responded with haste to the cries of parents for their children, as he did with the Centurion whose son was dying, the Synagogue official whose little girl was moribund, the widow in Nain whose only Son had breathed his last, and Martha and Mary after the brother Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days.
His work of redeeming the family was a work of profound mercy, trying to reconcile people to God’s plans for marital and familial love. And mercy always involves a call to conversion. Jesus tenderly told the adulterous woman that she wasn’t condemned but called her to go and sin no more. He compassionately exposed for the Samaritan woman that the man she was with was not her husband. He praised St. John the Baptist, who was in prison because he had reminded Herod that it was not right for him to marry his brother Philip’s wife.
Sin and the Family
But Jesus knew that, just like with Adam and Eve in the beginning, the family would continue to be the setting for a battle between receiving and refusing God’s grace, between holiness and sin, between love and lust, between conversion and moral putrefaction. Jesus once said, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in- law.” The family would be divided not by Jesus but because of Jesus. When he would come, he would provoke the decision to put God first or to try to retain sinful, earthly hegemonies. The various divisions that happen in families still today occur, at their deepest level, with regard to whether the members of the family choose to center their whole life on God, whether they recognize God-with-us is with them in the midst of struggles, strengthening them in the midst of suffering, seeking to bring good even out of evil.
The Church as Efficacious Sign of Familial Redemption
The Church has the mission not only to give witness to the truth about the family, to announce God’s mercy and call to conversion — something that we do and must do in an age that is so confused about human sexuality, love, marriage and family and so morally wounded — but the Church is also called to model for the families of the world the type of familial love and virtues that will help families become holy families. These are the virtues St. Paul describes in today’s epistle: heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, love, peace, thanksgiving, wisdom, loving correction, and joy. The Church is a family of Christian families through which these Christ-like virtues are meant to reign. And as a mother, the Church seeks to help all her children learn how to live these virtues.
Jesus said he came down from heaven to earth to found a family and declared that his mother, and brothers and sisters are those who “hear the word of God and act on it” (Lk 8:21). Hearing and lovingly putting God’s word into practice is what the Church as God’s family seeks to embody, proclaim, live and train others to embody, proclaim and live. The Church is meant to be extension of the Holy Family of Bethlehem and Nazareth: God is the Father of the family in heaven. Mary is the mother. Joseph is the foster-father and protector. We are the children through baptism. Every Christian family, as a domestic Church, is supposed to draw nourishment from this reality and contribute to it.
In the early Church, the Christians treated each other as family members and that beauty drew multitudes toward Christianity. They pooled all their possessions in common to make sure that the most vulnerable had what they needed. They prayed together. They ate meals together. They went on pilgrimages together. They allowed the Holy Spirit to unite them. Our fractured world needs this familial witness of the Church today as much as ever. Our dysfunctional families need the Church to help them find in Christ the medicine of love that can help the family, through all its ups and downs, function as it ought: as a school of Christian love that prepares people not necessarily for earthly careers and greatness but for heaven. The Church is a setting that is meant to help us, like the child Jesus, learn how to be about God the Father’s business so that with Jesus, Mary and Joseph, we might come to dwell forever in the Father’s house. But all of us in this family must take up our role in strengthening it, so that the strengthened family of the Church can strengthen every family.
The setting for familial redemption
Jesus came into the world to redeem the family. He has done so by entering the human family as a whole, by entering the particular family of Joseph and Mary, by entering through the Sacraments and prayer each family. He has done so by instituting the Sacrament of Baptism that makes us true children of God and family members of each other and has continually renewed the family through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which brings us back to our baptismal graces and gives us the strength to forgive each other.
But the greatest familial Sacrament of all, by which Jesus continues his redeeming work, is the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, whereby he incorporates us into his family — as his Bride, as his Body — and strengthens the bond of unity with each other. For his saving work to be accomplished here, however, there’s a prerequisite. Jesus described it in the Sermon on the Mount: “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” To celebrate the Eucharist well, we need to be in communion with others, to recognize that this is meant to be the great familial feast, and therefore we need to be reconciled with those who have something against us before we’re able to participate fully in this feast. That’s why responding to God’s gift of mercy and extending it to our family members and to our spiritual brothers and sisters is so important for us to live if we’re going to be prepared really to live the source and the summit of our life in the Eucharist — and what it leads to, the eternal familial feast of heaven. Jesus has come to redeem the family, to redeem our families, to redeem the family of the Church and it’s here that he wants to continue that great work begun in the Holy Family of Bethlehem and Nazareth.
Today, together, imitating the faithful obedience of the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph, we say, together as a family, “Thy will be done!,” as we ask their intercession so that our families, this parish and the Church may become truly holy, centered on Jesus whom we are so privileged to be able to adore and receive.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
A reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Colossians.
Brothers and Sisters: Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
The continuation of the Gospel according to St. Luke
When Jesus 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.