Archbishop DiNoia on the Holy Family: What do we know and what does it mean?…
(CUSA) – In the temple at age twelve we first hear Jesus speak. He was thinking of his Father in heaven and his family on earth. Recognizing his mission and being obedient at the same time.
We have the same duty to look to heaven and see how to fulfill our obligations with the people around us today, especially our family.
This homily is by Archbishop J. Augustine DiNoia, O.P., during his 2015 Christmas visit to the friars throughout Washington, D.C. —Ed.
HOMILY OF ARCHBISHOP AUGUSTINE DINOIA
Feast of the Holy Family
Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14 / 1 Jn 3:1-2, 21-24 / Luke 2:41-52
Brothers and sisters in Christ.
“See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called children of God…We are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn 3:1-2).
Here St. John is speaking of the divine desire that is at the heart of all the Christmas celebrations, including today’s feast of the Holy Family: nothing less than God’s desire to share the communion of Trinitarian life with us.
In the Incarnation Christ becomes one of us so that he can make us like himself, adopting us in the Holy Spirit as children—sons and daughters—of the Father.
Thus we sing at Christmas: “The Father’s Word on high doth take / A mortal form for mortals’ sake / … He took our flesh, to man akin / In all things like us, save in sin / That he might make our mortal race / Like God and like himself by grace” (“Puer Natus Est in Bethlehem”).
St. Athanasius puts it with characteristic directness: “the Son of God became man so that we might become God” (On the Incarnation, 54, 3)—always with the objective of making us sharers in the communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is what Christmas is all about.
How can we understand it? Well, we know that a shared human nature is basic to all our relationships with other people. We can’t have a relationship with human nature in the abstract, can we? It is only with particular human beings that we can have such relationships. There is no substitute for knowing and loving particular people whom we can see, hear, address, touch, hold, and kiss. These people have names, they have families, they live somewhere, they have ethnic and social backgrounds, and so on.
Something like this is also true of our relationship with the Triune God. To bring us into the communion of Trinitarian life, God the Son of God first enters into the round of human existence and thus begins to adapt his saving action to our nature. We come to know Christ as a fellow human, born of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, like us in all things but sin.
We can hear him and see him—or at least imagine what he might look like. He has a voice that we can listen to, and he has arms that can embrace us. The Gospel genealogy lays out his ancestry for us. We know that his grandparents were called Joachim and Ann, and that Mary and Joseph are his virgin mother and his foster father.
We know that he was born in Bethlehem and lived in Palestine under Roman rule. We know that he was Jewish and spoke Aramaic. There can be no doubt that Jesus is a fellow human being, and yet very God.
In order to draw us into his own divine life, Christ is among us as really and truly one of us. To be sure, we can’t deny that God could have accomplished our salvation in other ways, but given our human nature and given his purposes known to us only by faith, to make it possible for us to meet him and know him personally makes a lot of sense.
God adapts himself to us, always with the objective of making us his children and thus adapting our nature to his. For how could we share in the communion of Trinitarian life if we were not made sharers—“partakers”—of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4)? What the Son of God is by nature, we become by the grace of adoption.
We can see that Jesus’s social and family ties are among the circumstances of his life that significantly establish his humanity for us. He has a family just as we do. During these Christmas days, we have been spiritually and liturgically present with the Holy Family at his birth, gazing with love at the infant Jesus asleep in the hay, with Mary and Joseph at his side, with the ox and ass, with the shepherds below and the angels above.
Today the scene shifts. It’s twelve years on. Jesus has traveled with Mary and Joseph to the temple in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover—a momentous pilgrimage for him this year because the coming of adolescence initiates a period of more intense formation in the Jewish faith. It is on the return journey from Jerusalem to Nazareth that a very serious family crisis develops when Jesus appears to be lost: “The boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it.”
We can imagine their dismay.
“Thinking that he was in the caravan, they journeyed for a day and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances, but not finding him, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking him questions, and all who heard him were astounded as his understanding and his answers.”
After three days, during Passover, with the paschal mystery thus already on the horizon, Christ’s first words recorded in the Gospel express his divine sonship and his dedication to his Father’s will. We are deeply struck by what he has to say when for the first time we hear him speak.
The dramatic circumstances of his parents’ anguished search for him accentuate the absolute determination with which the twelve-year old Jesus embraces the divine plan for our salvation. Jesus replies to Mary and Joseph: “Why were you looking for me? Did you know not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
Notwithstanding the seemingly sharp tone of this reply, Venerable Bede is on the mark when he writes that Christ “does not upbraid them…for searching for their son, but he raises the eyes of their souls to appreciate what he owes him whose Eternal Father he is” (In Lucae Evangelium expositio, in loc.).
When for the first time we hear God the Son of God speak, we understand that he is clearly thinking of his Father and clearly thinking of us. What is it that he owes to his eternal Father other than to fulfill the work of our salvation by which we come to share the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity?
And, my dear friends in Christ, he did indeed humble himself. “He went down with [Mary and Joseph] and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.” For our sake, the Lord of the universe, just like an ordinary human child, was subject to his earthly parents, and thereby acknowledged their authority as sharing in the authority of his Father. “And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.”
During these years of his so-called hidden life before the start of his public ministry, Jesus worked with St. Joseph as a carpenter in Nazareth, living an ordinary life as a devoted son and, moreover, consecrating family life as a sign of the communion of Trinitarian love.
Christ’s human family is made holy by his presence in its midst. The primary lesson of the feast of the Holy Family, as celebrated within Christmastide, lies here. Just as the incarnate only begotten Son of God makes his family holy, so he wants to make our families holy as well.
This purpose fits with the whole economy of salvation by which he comes to share our humanity in order to accomplish something that is completely beyond our capacities, namely, that, sharing in his divinity, we become children of the Father.
The feast of the Holy Family is not simply intended to present an example to be imitated or a model to be reproduced, but the possibility of Christ’s transforming grace made actual in our own families.
When approving the feast of the Holy Family, Pope Leo XIII wrote: “When a merciful God determined to complete the work of human reparation which the world had awaited throughout long ages, He so established and designed the whole, that from its very inception, it would show to the world the sublime pattern of a divinely constituted family.
In this [Holy Family] all men should see the perfect example of domestic unity, and of all virtues and holiness” (Neminem Fugit, 14 June 1892, §1).
May our families be made holy by the eternal source of all created communion, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit dwelling with us. Amen.