On Sunday we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. For some, the Holy Family seems an inaccessible ideal. I get that. It’s true in many ways. But I also believe that the Holy Family was a real family, facing the same kinds of issues as other families. “Jesus was born and lived in a concrete family, accepting all its characteristic features ….” Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (Comp.) ¶ 210. So, a holy family, yes, but a human family as well.
The Boy Jesus in the Temple
Take, for example, the time when the 12-year old Jesus went missing. The Holy Family traveled to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. After the festival, Mary and Joseph set out for home with their neighbors. They thought Jesus was with relatives in the caravan. But a day into the return trip, they discovered he was not there.
Returning to Jerusalem, Mary and Josephfound the boy in the temple with the teachers. “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.'” Lk 2:48 (NAB) I’ve always imagined that the exact quote was something closer to, “Young man! What do you think you’re doing? Get yourself over here. We were worried sick!” And if Mary had him by ear as she said this, I would not be surprised.
The human family is the fundamental social unit
The family is, by nature, in the image of God
The Second Vatican Council recognized that humans, “by [their] innermost nature” are social beings. Without relationship to others, they “can neither live nor develop [their] potential.” And the marital bond between a couple “produces the primary form of interpersonal communion.” Gaudium et spes ¶ 12.
Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness.
God created mankind in his image;
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
Gn 1: 26a, 27. Significantly, in this passage John Paul sees “the Creator withdraw[ing] as it were into himself, in order to seek the pattern and inspiration in the mystery of his Being …. From this mystery the human being comes forth by an act of creation ….” Therefore, “human fatherhood and motherhood .. contain in an essential way a ‘likeness‘ to God”. This then “is the basis of the family as a community of human life, as a community of persons united in love.” Letter to Families ¶ 6 (emphasis in original).
The family is “the first and basic expression of man’s social nature.” Letter to Families ¶ 7 (emphasis in original). This is where humans receive their “first formative ideas about truth and goodness, and learn[ ] what it means to love and to be loved, and thus what it actually means to be a person.” Centesimus annus ¶ 39. John Paul II also described the family “as a community of persons,” and “thus the first human ‘society.'” Letter to Families ¶ 7.
The family is in solidarity with others in society
John Paul said that families have social duties to others. “Families therefore, either singly or in association, can and should devote themselves to manifold social service activities, especially in favor of the poor, or at any rate for the benefit of all people and situations that cannot be reached by the public authorities’ welfare organization.” Familiaris consortio (FC) ¶ 44.
This is a solidarity that can take on the features of service and attention to those who live in poverty and need, to orphans, the handicapped, the sick, the elderly, to those who are in mourning, to those with doubts, to those who live in loneliness or who have been abandoned.
Comp. ¶ 246.
Society likewise has duties to the family.
Finally, John Paul said: “Just as the intimate connection between the family and society demands that the family be open to and participate in society and its development, so also it requires that society should never fail in its fundamental task of respecting and fostering the family.” FC ¶ 45. “The family … is a society in its own original right”. Dignitatis humanae ¶ 5. Therefore, “society is under a grave obligation in its relations with the family to adhere to the principle of subsidiarity.” This principle requires that the State “not take away from families the functions that they can just as well perform on their own or in free associations ….” FC ¶ 45.
Our human families are welcome into the Holy Family
Yes, the Holy Family can sometimes seem unapproachable. Their perfect sanctity may lead us to view them as an idealized impossibility. But the truth is, we are invited to belong to the Holy Family.
Standing by the cross of Jesus [was] his mother. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold , your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.
Jn 19: 25a, 26-27. Mary is our mother. And we know that Jesus treats us as his brothers and sisters. As John Paul said: “The divine mystery of the Incarnation of the Word thus has an intimate connection with the human family. Not only with one family, that of Nazareth, but in some way with every family ….” Letter to Families ¶ 2 (emphasis in original).