In the Gospel on the last Sunday in Advent, Joseph was to welcome Mary and her Child into his home and name the Boy. Today, we see he did much more than that.
Gospel (Read Mt 2:13-15)
St. Matthew tells us that after the wise men, who had come from the east to worship the newborn king of the Jews, departed from his home, Joseph had another angelic visit. In a dream, an angel warned him to “rise, take the Child and His Mother, flee to Egypt … Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.” Imagine these parents getting a warning like this after what must have been an utterly remarkable visit from those wise men. When Joseph and Mary saw the lavish gifts and the deep reverence from strangers who had traveled so far to find them, did they fill with sweet joy over this Child’s future? The visitors had been aided all along their journey by a bright star in heaven. Earlier, angels had appeared in the sky directing shepherds to find and adore the Child, too. They must have been so confident of God’s involvement in this drama. Nothing seemed impossible for Him!
Now, Joseph gets this dire word of great, immediate danger. He had to awaken Mary and give her the grim news in the middle of the night: “Joseph rose and took the Child and His Mother by night and departed for Egypt.” How heavy was the weight Joseph felt on his shoulders that night? How many questions did he have to leave unanswered? Did he wonder, if God could move the stars in the sky and fill it with angels, why couldn’t He protect this miracle Child from a murderous king? Did he question why he should bother to believe in miracles if, when he really needed one, he didn’t get it? Did Joseph and Mary talk about these things in the darkness as they quickly, stealthily slipped out of town?
We don’t know all that we would like to, but we do know that Joseph listened to the angel’s command. Why did the angel appear to Joseph rather than Mary? It was because Joseph was the true head of this tiny family, not a mere figurehead. The responsibility for their well-being was given directly to him. We find that, unbeknownst to Joseph, this escape to Egypt was actually all part of God’s mysterious plan. It’s not that God directed Herod to try to kill Jesus. God knew he would do so out of jealous rivalry (as the Serpent tried to do to Adam and Eve in the Garden; as the Jews later did to Jesus on the Cross). The family would, for now, find safety in Egypt, a frequent place of refuge for Israel in the Old Testament (see Gn 12:10; 46:4; 1 Kings 11:40; Jer 26:21). There were also, at this time, large colonies of Jews living there (i.e., in Alexandria, Elephantine).
When the time came for the family to return, that would fulfill an ancient prophecy of God’s Son being called “out of Egypt” (see Hos 11:1; Ex4:22). It referred first to the nation of Israel, whom God called out of the darkness of slavery there under Moses’ leadership. It refers now to Jesus, Who will lead His people out of the darkness of sin and death to the new Promised Land of heaven.
See that the angel continued to direct Joseph about how to care for his family. When the threat from Herod was over, “He rose, took the Child and His Mother, and went back to the land of Israel.” When they returned, Joseph got further angelic direction about how to keep his family safe. He obeyed every word. The “dwelt in a town called Nazareth,” and even that was part of God’s plan already “spoken through the prophets.” God had a plan for this family, through all the upheaval and events that must have seemed strange and even unwelcome when they were unfolding. That plan was communicated to Joseph, and, because he obeyed, the family was safe; God’s desires for them could be fulfilled
This is a striking lesson about the nature of fatherhood, one that seems particularly important in a time like our own. The Church’s call to observe the Feast of the Holy Family is a constant reminder of the order God has created for families. Fathers are important! We have such rampant fatherlessness all around us that we can’t hear this message often enough. Many of the cultural taboos that once kept the notion of family structure in place are now gone. Even in families with both parents, fathers can, for a variety of reasons, forget that the responsibility for keeping their families in God’s plan falls to them.
What better way for the Church to begin a new liturgical year than to hear afresh how healthy families function. The future of the Church and of society begins in the family—yours and mine. This is the first great fruit of the Incarnation. It should give all of us hope.
Possible response: Heavenly Father, thank You for all earthly fathers who willingly embrace the work You have given them in their families. Give them Your grace today.
First Reading (Read Sir 3:2-7, 12-14)
This reading enables us to see that the family—its structure of parental authority and its potential for harmony and long-lasting joy—is God’s idea. “God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority He confirms over her sons.” This ordering of family life by God Himself is why the Fourth Commandment requires us to honor our fathers and mothers. Our relationship with God is not unaffected by our treatment of our parents, because, in a sense, they are standing-in for God, having cooperated with Him in our conception and birth. Obedience and reverence for our parents grows into obedience and reverence for God.
Possible response: Heavenly Father, thank You for creating families. Please strengthen us all in an age that is losing respect for strong family life.
Psalm (Read Ps 128:1-5)
God’s first commandment to man and woman, at the dawn of Creation, was to “be fruitful.” All through Scripture, blessedness is described in terms of fruitfulness. In the psalm, we see that “Blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in His ways.” Reverence for and obedience to the Lord are the essence of blessedness. See how they are rewarded—by fruitfulness. First, the blessed will be able to literally “eat the fruit” of their handiwork. Their crops will yield great bounty. Then, “your wife shall be like a fruitful vine…your children like olive plants around your table.” Here is a beautiful picture of the blessing of family life, God’s great gift to His faithful people. What a wonderful corrective this is for a culture like ours that so often counts its blessings in possessions, not people.
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings. Read it again prayerfully to make it your own.
Second Reading (Read Col 3:12-21)
In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul directs the Christians to treat each other as fellow members of God’s household. He exhorts them to live in the Church the way we ought first to live in our families: with “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” Life in God’s family requires us to forgive others as He has forgiven us. Love is the “bond of perfection” that holds the community together. The family is the best place to begin learning these virtues. St. Paul has specific instructions for families to enable them to be a place where this kind of life is a reality. He tells wives to “be subordinate” to their husbands, which means showing the respect he is due as head of the home. Husbands are to love and cherish their wives, not allowing “bitterness toward them” to fester. Children, not surprisingly, are to obey their parents. Fathers are exhorted not to “provoke” their children, because that discourages them.
In other words, all the virtues mentioned in the first part of this passage and given to the Christian community at large need to be vigorously practiced in the home, our most intimate Christian community. The result of this discipline (and it takes discipline to live this way!) will be “the peace of Christ,” our true place of rest.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, family life takes work. On this Feast of the Holy Family, please give us grace to practice the virtues St. Paul describes as the ones that lead to Your peace in our midst.