|Mary and Joseph confront 12-year-old Jesus after searching 3 days for him. From Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth|
The Gospel this weekend is about the time the child Jesus got away from his parents and they found him in the temple after a three-day search. Here's what I'm preaching for this weekend's Feast of the Holy Family (you can find the readings here). If you're coming to this on the main page, the first half is below, so look for the "read more" link to continue:
When I was a kid I loved this Gospel story for what it said, because it is the only place in Scripture where we get to see Jesus as a kid. But these days I love it for what it doesn't say. So many details quite clearly left out. And now, as a parent, a Catholic, someone who loves Jesus, those missing details spark my imagination in ways that make me smile and even laugh. I think God loves humor, and the missing details of this story point to it. Along the way, it also gives some hints about what makes for a holy family.
First, that conversation in the temple. Mary and Joseph finally find Jesus after three days of searching. There’s no way Mary was as calm as Luke presents her: “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” She probably would have been shrieking something about grounding him until his Bar Mitzvah! Joseph, meanwhile, probably was glaring. Joseph never speaks in Scripture—did you ever notice that? So I’m guessing he was glaring, until Jesus gives his response. Jesus says, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
At this point, Joseph’s glare might have turned into a confused look, and he would have said something like, “What do you mean? My house is in Nazare….oh.” Ouch! That had to hurt!
So then Luke tells us that Jesus went back with them to Nazareth, and he was obedient to them. In other words, he was grounded until his Bar Mitzvah! And Luke says that Mary kept all these things in her heart. Well, I’m sure she did. Who could she possibly talk to about any of this except Joseph? I mean, you can’t just go up to your rabbi and say, “Guess what? On our last trip to Jerusalem I lost the Messiah for three days! We found him, though, so it’s all good.” No, of course she kept these things in her heart!
Well, this story presents some good things for us to keep in our hearts, too. First and foremost is this: a holy family is not a perfect family. We use Mary, Joseph and Jesus as the premier example of a holy family, and it is clear that they had misunderstandings that even led to anxiety and hurt feelings. There’s no such thing as a perfect family, but an imperfect family can be a holy family.
This raises a question: what does it mean to be holy? I think we’re often tempted to think that to be holy means to be perfect, to never sin, but that’s not at all what it is. We all sin, and yet we can be holy. Holiness simply means becoming the person God made us to be. Holiness means becoming our true self. And so a holy family, then, is one that is especially good at helping everyone in the family to discover their God-given gifts, find their God-given calling, and become their true self.
From our Catholic perspective there’s a natural religious dimension to this, and it is made clear in the context of today’s Gospel story: Mary, Joseph and Jesus grew as a holy family in part because of their family’s participation in the rituals of their Jewish religion. This certainly remains true for us today. Practicing the faith as a family can help the whole family grow in holiness, and yet of course we all know of examples, often even within our own families, in which religion has become a source of division rather than holiness. And so I want to highlight three other qualities of a holy family that underlie everything else, and that are implied in today’s Gospel.
First, a spirit of forgiveness. In our Gospel, Jesus didn't intend to hurt his parents, but even so, he did. When Luke tells us Jesus went home and was obedient to them, it implies that Jesus recognized he had hurt them and wanted to make up for it. Mary and Joseph also had to be willing to forgive. There’s nothing more destructive than a lack of forgiveness—this could be an unwillingness to ask for forgiveness, to offer forgiveness, or to receive forgiveness. There’s no question that deep hurt makes forgiveness tremendously difficult, but the one that will be hurt the most is the one who refuses to participate in it. To withhold forgiveness is like taking poison, and hoping the other person gets sick. To offer it, though, and to accept it, is to let the healing touch of the Holy Spirit flow through you and the other person. The more a family develops a spirit of forgiveness, the holier it will be.
Second, a spirit of patience. Mary and Joseph found Jesus in the Temple, engaged in deep conversation with Jewish teachers. Jesus seemed surprised that they didn't know where he would be. From his perspective, he was simply trying to follow his God-given calling. In any family, there is going to be tension at times as children grow and try to figure out what to do with their lives. This tension can occur between spouses, too, perhaps especially when one spouse wants to change careers. Mary and Joseph did not try to push their own career ideas onto Jesus; they didn't understand him at times, but they let him become the person God intended, rather than the person they intended. The more a family develops a spirit of patience that gives people the breathing room they need to discover their true selves, the holier it will be.
Third, a sense of humor. Humor can break the tension in a difficult situation; it can eliminate the barriers to forgiveness; and it can build an awareness of our lack of control over life. And that awareness of our lack of control is key to growing in humility and gratitude, which are necessary for holiness. Holy people always find it easy to laugh, so Mary and Joseph, raising the future Messiah, must have laughed a lot. I’ll bet that eventually they even laughed about the time they lost Jesus in Jerusalem. Eventually. After they were finished grounding him. And one of the things they would have laughed about was how long it took them to figure out where he might be. Three days! They had looked everywhere! But think about it. If you had a 12-year-old boy, and he disappeared, I’ll bet the last place you’d think of looking for him would be a church!
Forgiveness, patience, and a sense of humor. The missing details of Luke’s Gospel point to their importance in the lives of Mary, Joseph and Jesus. They weren't a perfect family, but they were a holy one. And while we cannot control how the others in our family act, if we as individuals try to make forgiveness, patience, and a sense of humor central to who we are, we will at least make it easier for the others to become who they are meant to be. Then our imperfect families will make some progress in becoming holy families.