A few days ago I wrote about our celebration of Christmas and how we might be tempted to simply sit back and contemplate the mystery of the Incarnation. The Feast of the Nativity, coming as it does in the middle of winter when we tend to wrap ourselves in afghans and sit before a fireplace (real or digital), can be a passive celebration. The Gospel, however, challenges us to be active, to proclaim the mystery of God among us.
The Sunday after Christmas almost always brings with it another sentimental feast, the Feast of the Holy Family. The missal identifies this family as composed of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Yet we know from our study of the culture of the Middle East as well as from hints in the Gospel that Jesus, Mary and Joseph almost certainly did not live along in a “nuclear family” as is the case in our culture and our social setting.
Middle Eastern families were composed of a patriarch, usually the oldest male, his brothers, their wives and children all living together in a house or tent that was divided into two groups. One group would be composed of the women, their daughters, and male children who had not reached puberty. The other group would be the men and their teenage sons. When a man was ready to enter into marriage, he would bring his bride into the house of his father or older brother. They would live there and raise their children in this setting. The girls of a family would eventually leave and go to live in the homes of their husbands. The children would grow up together as brothers and sisters (we would call them cousins).
So it is most probable that Jesus grew up in such a setting. The Gospel actually hints at this probability in two passages, one of which we read today. We are told that when Jesus was twelve years old, he and his family went to Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover as was their custom. However, after the celebration, Joseph thought Jesus was with the women while Mary thought Jesus was with the men. The Gospel states it this way: “Thinking that he was in the caravan, they journeyed for a day and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances, (Luke 2:44).” Rather than be astonished at what might seem to us as a rather careless attitude toward the safely of their child, this resumption on their part fits right into the cultural context of the day.
A little later in the Gospel, we will hear of how Mary comes to speak to Jesus accompanied by his brothers. This always raises questions about whether Mary was really a virgin and whether she had other children. However, once again, we must remember that the term “brother” or “sister” would refer to all the children of a household – all of the cousins. Women did not travel alone, even in their daily walk to the village well. They always were accompanied. So it is again natural for us to find Mary in this situation.
Finally, the Gospel goes out of its way to tell us that this happened when Jesus was twelve years old. Anyone who pauses to remember what it was like to become a teenager will remember the experience of not quite fitting in to one group or the other. Teenagers are no longer children, but they are not adults either. In Jewish culture this would mean that Jesus could probably travel with the women or with the men, leading to the confusion which Joseph and Mary experience.
Having laid out this “cultural” context, how does this knowledge help us to come to faith in the Gospel? Here we rely on the genius of Luke the evangelist. The story we hear today comes at the end of chapter two of the Gospel, the end of the infancy narrative. The story, therefore, begins and ends in the same place. The opening verses of the Gospel, chapter one, find Zechariah in the Temple being told of the birth of a son, John. The closing verses of chapter two find us once again in the Temple, this time with Jesus teaching the elders of the Temple, being about his Father’s business.
In this respect, Jesus is simply following the lessons he has been taught by his mother and father, by Mary and Joseph, who throughout the infancy narrative are doing the work of their Father. Luke portrays them as people who are obedient to God’s will, who place God’s “business” over their own. Mary and Joseph both accepted the message of the Incarnation from an angel. No doubt they have spent the early years of Jesus’ life teaching him to do the same. Jesus has learned this lesson well. So it is that on the brink of manhood, at the age of twelve, he too is found to be doing the will of his Father. He is found in the Temple, the place where the mystery of the Incarnation was first introduced by the angel messenger.
Today, families are composed differently. However, it can be said that the role of the family is still the same as that which we read of in the Gospel. Father and mother teach their children to obey the will of God, raising their children to be people of faith, to do the work of our Father in heaven. In this respect, even though our families live in completely different circumstances, the work of the family is the same. The Holy Father’s recent emphasis on the family unit testifies to this fact and reminds us that the work of being a father and a mother is truly God’s work.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator