It is fitting that, on the Sunday after Christmas, we should commemorate the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. This feast day reminds us of an important reality: Jesus was born into a family. Our Lord, like every human person, was not merely an isolated individual. God has willed that new human life should enter this world in precisely this context of the family.
The fact that the family is the privileged place for new life to enter the world, for children to be reared, and the life of grace to be fostered, inspires the Church’s efforts to fight for the rights of the family in society. Our Lord’s birth into a family shows us that the family is the fundamental building block of society. This is different than the contemporary vision of society, which says that the individual, a subject of radical and individualistic rights, is the fundamental unit of society. Christ’s example, and the example of the Holy Family, show this to be backwards. Human persons enter the world through the family, and the quality of the families in a society is the essential determining factor of the moral and spiritual richness of that society. Even the vocabulary we tend to use for human persons can detract from the proper understanding of the value of the family. Human beings are not merely individuals. When we thinking of ourselves as individuals rather than men and women made in the likeness of God, then we can also easily lose sight of the fact that God willed each of to exist in the context of a family – not just as isolated individuals, but as persons in a communion of love.
The first and second readings for this Mass can seem out of place for this celebration of the Holy Family. What does the faith of Abraham – the focal point of these readings – have to do with the Holy Family? Within the story of the family of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac, though, there are a lot of insights to be made about family life that we can imitate.
The first part of Abraham’s story that can teach us about family life is that Abraham moves his family – at this time, just he and his wife Sarah – from his ancestral homeland of Ur of the Chaldees to a new land promised to him by God. This shows us that Abraham – the father and leader of his family – was attentive to God’s will for his family. In order to receive this communication of God’s will, Abraham must have been devoted to prayer and to actively discerning the Lord’s will for his family. Leaving his ancestral homeland was a step of great faith. They were going to a place where the people spoke a different language and had a different culture. Following God’s will for his family meant Abraham was taking a great risk, but he did so with faith and confidence in the Lord. So too fathers of families must be men of prayer who devote time to listening to the Lord in prayer in order to discern God’s will for their families. Christian wives should be like Sarah in supporting and encouraging this prayerful discernment on the part of their husbands.
Abraham’s trust in the Lord’s plan for his family is also seen in his willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham and Sarah were not able to have children, but God promised him that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. Abraham trusted in God’s promise, and Sarah – already advanced in years – conceived and bore a son, Isaac. God then asked Abraham to sacrifice this son to Him as a test of Abraham’s faith. Abraham knew that Isaac was a gift from God to him, and he knew that the Lord who had fulfilled this promise of a descendant to him was also – as St. Paul explains – able to work greater miracles yet, and would restore Isaac to him.
Isaac has always been seen as a type or a symbol of Christ – the father who is willing to give his son up for death is – in Abraham – a sign of the love of God the Father for all of us. Abraham knew that Isaac was a gift to him from God. So likewise Mary and Joseph knew that Jesus was a gift from God to them. Abraham was thankful to God for having received this great gift of his son. Unfortunately, many in our society regard children not as a gift from God, but as a right, as something that can even be manipulated and brought into being in a way not in accord with God’s plan. This happens when couples employ immoral reproductive technologies like in-vitro fertilization, or when governments allow children to be adopted by “parents” of the same sex. In both of these cases, the rights of children to be born into a family are violated by being conceived outside of a loving union of man and wife or by acquiescing to the demands of persons who see children as a right rather than a gift.
Seeing their child as a gift from God enabled Abraham and Sarah to be willing to give their child to the Lord. Mary and Joseph also recognized this by presenting Jesus in the temple on the 40th day after His birth, as we read in the Gospel today – in anticipation of the Feast of the Presentation that we will celebrate on February 2nd. Mary and Joseph went above and beyond what was necessary in presenting Christ in the Temple. As people of humble means, they could have made a much simpler sacrifice, but instead they chose to make the full offering of turtledoves. Parents who see their child as a gift from God should also encourage their children to consider whether God might be calling them to dedicate their lives to Him as a priest or religious. Just as the family is the critical element in the Christian formation of children, so too it is pivotal in the fostering of religious and priestly vocations. Parents, without badgering or pestering, please encourage your children on a regular basis to pray about their vocations, even from a young age. Knowing of your delight in them following their calling from the Lord will make them much more willing to consider a life of dedication and service to Him.
God promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, and He fulfilled that promise. Abraham became the father of a great people, of a great family into which would eventually be born the Christ, the Savior. Following God’s will for our families is not always easy. Enforcing discipline, maintaining the strict moral standards necessary to foster virtue, and accepting God’s plans for your family require strength and determination. The examples of Abraham and Sarah and of Joseph and Mary, though, remind us that God is always faithful to His promises. These holy parents are not only our guide and model; they are also our intercessors! They are in Heaven pleading for you with God the Father, serving as channels of grace for you.
Fathers: When being a father is difficult, when your sons and daughters seem like anything but a gift from God, turn to St. Joseph! Ask him to be with you and guide you, to help you instill Christian virtue in your children and to serve as a rock of stability and goodness in your family. Pray to St. Joseph every day for guidance and wisdom.
Mothers: When being a mother is difficult, when your sons and daughters seem like anything but a gift from God, turn to our blessed mother Mary! Do not let a day go by without asking Her to teach you in your heart how to be a good, Christian mother. Plead with Her for her prayers so that you might be a source of love and compassion in your family.
When families are devoted to prayer and to discerning God’s will for their lives, when they are open to the gift of new life in their children, and when they strive to instill Christian virtue in their children, even when that means pushing back against what seems like the whole world, God abundantly blesses the generosity of these families, just as He blessed Abraham and Sarah. With Mary and Joseph to help us, we can restore the family as the fundamental building block of society and build a new civilization of Christian love and peace.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
Feast of the Holy Family, A.D. MMXVII