The Holy Family and natural/supernatural tension

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The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Year C: Dec. 30, 2012
Sir 3:2-6, 12-14; Ps 128:1-5; 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24; Luke 2:41-52

Five days ago, we celebrated Christmas Day. And we remembered, with love and gratitude and wonder, that 2000 years ago, in the Holy Land, God the Son became incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary and then was born in Bethlehem. God from God, light from light, true God from true God, born of the Father before all ages: he took on our human nature, and was born, one with us, in Bethlehem.

And how interesting that, in choosing to lower himself, to empty himself, to become man, our Lord Jesus did not begin as a full-grown adult man, did not immediately begin his years of public ministry; but rather he began as a baby—indeed, as an embryo, a fetus, who, like us, would grow within his mother and be born, and continue to grow as an infant, a toddler, a boy, a teenager, a young man—continually advancing in wisdom and age and favor before God and man. All of this he shared with us; and all of this he shared within the life of a family. And so how fitting that each year we celebrate Holy Family Sunday within the Octave of Christmas—taking a moment to focus in upon the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

Indeed, from all eternity, God the Son had existed within the perfect communion of the Holy Trinity: begotten of the Father, with the Holy Spirit proceeding from them both; these three Divine Persons existing in perfect, eternal love and mutual self-giving. And being sent forth from the family of the Trinity, he was then born into a human family, in which we, created in the Image and Likeness of God, are called to resemble in many ways the family of the Trinity.

Each year in the three-year lectionary cycle, we gain a different window into the mostly silent, hidden life of the Holy Family. And in this year’s Gospel reading—about the finding of the child Jesus in the Temple—we gain a window into the tension that existed within the Holy Family as they grappled with the fact that they were two things at once: that they were natural and yet also supernatural; and how were those two aspects going to coexist and work themselves out?

On the one hand, they were a natural, human family: built upon the lifelong marriage of a husband and wife; that then forms a community of a mother and father and their children which is the original cell of social life (CCC 2207); a community that is instituted by God and carries with it the rights and responsibilities of its own members, one to another, and toward the rest of society (2203).

Within the Holy Family, our Lord Jesus, like children in other families, owed his parents obedience while he lived with them as a minor (2216-17), which we heard that he gave them faithfully; respect and gratitude throughout their lives; and care and support when they were in need (2215, 2218, 2220); all of which we heard commanded of us in the first reading, from the Book of Sirach.

And Joseph and Mary owed to him as parents the creation of a home characterized by love, respect, faithfulness, and mutual service (2223); providing for his physical and spiritual needs (2228); and his education, including forming him in personal virtue and in the faith (2223, 2226, 2229). And all of this we see at work in their bringing him to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, and taking care of him, and seeking to discuss and understand and teach regarding all the things that happened.

So they lived out these aspects of being a natural family. But we see that this was complicated by the fact that they were not only a natural family. Jesus was not truly the son of Joseph, even though they lived out the day-to-day relationship of father and son; he was the Son of God. This affected his identity, his calling, his duties, and his mission. And so we see that this prompted him to the surprising action of not traveling back home with the caravan in the usual way, but of staying behind in the Temple, speaking with the teachers there. And he explained: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

There was no sin involved here on any of their parts—neither the divine Son of God, nor the sinless Virgin Mary, nor St. Joseph. And yet clearly the tension between the natural and supernatural aspects of their family identity and life caused confusion and anxiety that they had to work out.

Well, what a relief that our own families here at St. Bart’s don’t have such a natural/supernatural tension! How fortunate that there are no Sons of God in our families!

Or—don’t they? Aren’t there? Indeed, there is a natural/supernatural tension within your families, if you have been baptized!

  • For at this font (or one like it) in your baptism you were united to Christ and adopted in his Sonship as an adopted son or daughter of God the Father. And so from that moment this has affected your identity, your calling, your duties, and your mission. A communion was established between you and the Father that your parents then had the duty to foster and support—but not to supplant.
  • And if you are a parent, when you brought your children to the baptismal font, the one you received back into your arms was not merely your child in the natural sense, but first and foremost the adopted child of God in the supernatural sense.

And so it is that the Christian family is not merely natural parents and children, though it is that. It is a community of disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ, all striving to follow and grow in him together; brothers and sisters in the Lord—older and younger brothers and sisters, to be sure—all working out together that natural/supernatural tension as they seek to follow him and not be conformed to a world and a culture that is so often headed the wrong way.

Thus the Second Vatican Council called the family “the domestic church,” and the Catechism presents a beautiful picture of the family as a “center of living, radiant faith.” For in the family, it tells us,

parents are “by word and example . . . the first heralds of the faith with regard to their children… encourag[ing] them in the vocation which is proper to each child, fostering with special care any religious vocation.”… Here one learns endurance and the joy of work, fraternal love, generous—even repeated—forgiveness, and above all divine worship in prayer and the offering of one’s life. (1656-57)

May each of our families, like the Holy Family in Nazareth, truly be a school for human enrichment and the first school of the Christian life.


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