The Feast of the Holy Family
A Christmas Gospel Reflection
(First Sunday after Christmas Day)
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
St. Luke 2: 41 — 52
The Church Year is laid out in seasons as shown in the Lectionary, which is the order of Bible readings for each three year period. This offers a sequential unfolding of events in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. It therefore helps us keep our focus on Jesus and grow in our understanding of Him. The Church Year, goes even further and provides a symbol of the Church’s long pilgrimage here on earth and points to the Return of the Messiah in glory at the end of time.
The Feast of the Holy Family is celebrated in the middle of the Christmas period, a little out of the chronological sequence, but beautifully timed just the same. It is, in fact, a festival we could celebrate at any stage of the year: it is always a treasure to “unpack”. It is the only incident we are permitted to “look in on”, in the hidden life of the Lord. It is therefore of enormous significance, and has been chosen by St. Luke from all he learnt directly from the Mother of Jesus, as holding special value for the followers of her son.
We can only scratch the surface, but let’s allow the passage to give us a glimpse of this awesome moment in Salvation History as presented in the Bible.
Some Reflections on Our Text
Verses 41 and 42
Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover,
and when he was twelve years old, they went up according to
St. Luke here declares Mary and Joseph to be devout followers of the Torah ― the instructions given by God through Moses for the sanctification of His People (Exodus 23: 14. 34: 23. Deuteronomy 16: 16).
All men, i.e. males 13 years and older, were bound to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem ― to the temple ― and offer sacrifice three times each year: at the festivals of Pasch (Passover), Pentecost and Tabernacles (Shavuot).
Women were not obliged, yet frequently made the pilgrimage if able. In our text we see the whole family in devout compliance to the Law, making this pilgrimage together. They are indeed models of religious devotion. Pilgrimages, as the Bible demonstrates, are a powerfully significant way followers of Jesus demonstrate an inner yearning to respond to His call to “come to me”.
Jesus, or Yeshua as His parents called Him, was only 12 years old and was not bound to attend. Interestingly, He was at the age a boy was expected to demonstrate His willingness to take up a trade and pursue it with devotion. In a devout family, He was also expected to attend the three main pilgrimages and offerings of sacrifice for at least one year in preparation for turning 13 years of age ― becoming a “son of Torah” (the Law) the following year.
Our reading manifests Jesus to us dutifully attending to both of these expectations (i.e. to be enthusiastic to take up His father’s work, and to obey the Law). St. Luke understates the situation and gives a hint ― we are about to witness something very special: but to take care or we will walk over the top of it and miss the whole point.
Verses 43 ― 45
After they had completed its days, as they were returning,
the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, but his parents
did not know it.
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.
The Pasch (Passover) was celebrated for an octave, i.e. for eight days, just as Christmas, Easter and Pentecost are, in our times, celebrated for an octave. That is the Biblical model ordained by God for His People to celebrate, meditate on, and respond in the heart to His particularly special interventions in our daily lives.
The celebration in Jerusalem on this occasion had been exciting and so very enjoyable: relaxing, worshipping, socialising and just simply having a good time. It was a foretaste of the Messianic Age with which God blessed His People. In high spirits, after eight days, everyone heads home ― still in party mode, as a matter of fact ― except for one person.
The village caravan party Joseph and Mary are travelling with have been on their way home for a day before they realise young Yeshua isn’t with any of the separate men’s and women’s groups which are all heading north. (See map) They spend a whole day double-checking with all the groups and, sure enough, He is nowhere to be found.
Although a young man of that age, strictly speaking, would not be thought of as “lost”, nevertheless His parents experienced more than a little panic, and head back to Jerusalem. What else could they do!
Verses 46 and 47
After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the
midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions,
and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding
and his answers.
Joseph and Mary had spent the first day homeward, looking for Jesus. The second day was spent returning to the Holy City. It is now the third day when they find Jesus “in the Temple”, that is, in the “Court”, or that part of the Temple in which the Doctors were accustomed to assemble for public instruction and disputation. (Callan, OP)
It was the custom for the Rabbis, especially at the great feasts, to give sermons and lessons on the Torah (Law) and Tradition, # in the surroundings of the Temple ― a custom which later (as a matter of interest) passed into the culture of Islam. It was among the listeners who readily joined in discussion with the Rabbis, that Yeshua was located. (Callan, OP)
# (Torah is better understood (rather than Law) as Teaching or
Instruction, spoken by God, and later recorded on parchment for
reading to the assemblies of people.
Tradition is a body of Teaching or Instruction of God not committed
to writing, but carefully preserved in oral teaching and passed on
from one generation to the next.
Closely associated with this Oral Tradition is the collection of stories,
decisions and practical applications of the Torah which, likewise,
were carefully preserved and passed down through the generations
to help people live according to God’s pattern for His people.
We know Jesus loved learning about Torah as well as supporting
oral instruction of the rabbis. He actually added to it, as they
understood His teaching later in His ministry.
What Jesus deplored regarding the Oral Law was when rabbis used
it to cover the truth and use it to their personal advantage. But that
was done only by a minority of unscrupulous teachers.)
We sometimes read comments suggesting that Jesus was outshining the scribes and rabbis in His extensive knowledge of the Scriptures. This is a misinterpretation of the text.
First we note that our Lord was, “sitting in the midst of the teachers” (scribes and rabbis). This always indicates a formal positioning in the group with an intention to join in the learning. The rabbi sat on a chair and his students sat on the ground. This was no casual “dropping in” by Jesus to see if there was “anything worthwhile going on”. He was there for one purpose, and He found exactly what He was looking for!
Secondly, as noted previously, “in the Temple” meant in the courts and porches of the Temple where the rabbis, (later including Jesus) taught the people.
Thirdly, our Lord’s parents found Him with the rabbis, “listening to them and asking them questions”. This indicates, again, that it was a formal rabbinical period of instruction. (Steinmueller)
Our Lord was most probably speaking to the venerable Doctors about the Messiah and the prophecies which concerned His mission and life. (Callan, OP)
Everything He did and said whilst sitting at the feet of His learned teachers was entirely normal Jewish custom. His teachers let it be seen how “astounded” they were by their enthusiastic young student. The text suggests they were literally “out of themselves” ― and were loving every moment of the experience
Verses 48 to 50
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.”
And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not
know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
But they did not understand what he said to them.
We approach now, in these three verses, one of the finest Messianic moments in all of Sacred Scripture: a moment of unsurpassed mystery, beauty, and tender lovingkindness shown by parents and son, one to another. It must be observed in a context of Hebrew culture.
First, we note the parents of Jesus “were astonished” at what they saw: Jesus in the company of some of the most learned sages of Israel. He was sitting on the ground, as were the other students ― but He was indeed, the centre of attention.
Secondly, Mother simply could not hold back her loving concern. Her opening words were not some selfish reference to what she and Joseph had been dragged through; nor are they any reproof on the part of Mary. It is more like: “Please explain your behaviour. This is not like you!” Then Mary imparts to Jesus the “great anxiety” they had experienced. This phrase is so very meaningful and important to understand.
Both Mary and Joseph were very deeply aware of the sacred duty they had in bringing up Jesus and preparing Him for what they only partially understood as His divinely appointed role. This did not, however, prevent them from having to confront a sudden onset of change ― the first glimpse of a new era they would come to understand only later.
Thirdly, in replying to Mary’s “We were looking for you,” Jesus replies, “Why were you looking for me?” Our Lord is perfectly aware that, at a human level, responsible parents would be out of their minds with worry. And He loves his parents dearly, for their total pushing aside their own comfort and convenience to ensure His safety. But He has, in a manner of speaking, staged a new beginning in the unfolding of the coming of the Messiah. It could not have been more dramatic.
At the moment of deepest anxiety, Joseph and Mary find Jesus surrounded by the wise and holy Teachers of Israel ― “out of themselves”, astounded at the words of Jesus. They have found Jesus “at work”. Their 12 year old boy has chosen to give His earthly parents a little snapshot of His Messianic commission. Only they would see any significance in it, at this stage. He is not simply their son, but the Heavenly Father’s Son; sent on a mission in which they suddenly behold Him totally involved. It moves them profoundly and Jesus knows they have within them, the seed of spiritual perception, though, still restricted at this time. Mary’s reaction is not that of a mother angry at a naughty child. She senses the sacredness of the moment; and at this she sorrows, for it means separation. (Steinmueller)
Jesus then goes on to imply, “You did know, didn’t you, that I must be in my Father’s House?” This 12 year old boy thus replies to His mother, almost certainly with an affectionate smile for her. (Ginns, OP) After all, “Where would you expect a child to be but in his father’s house”?
This is the first recorded indication of the awareness Jesus had that, in a unique way, He was the Son of God. (Liefeld)
We can sense the mystery surrounding the double-dimensional imagery of the earthly and heavenly; of Father and House. The reply of Jesus to His mother was enigmatic (i.e. not immediately clear to her), inviting her to treasure His words and meditate on them. (Kleist, S.J.)
Here our Lord pays His mother the greatest respect: she is invited through prayer and meditation, and by waiting upon the Lord, to enter a whole new world of understanding, impossible to convey in everyday language: she would come to see her own role, also, as part of the unfolding prophecy to be fulfilled in her Son.
In Mary’s recounting all this for St. Luke to write his Gospel account (his only source for intimate family matters), she confessed she and Joseph, simply did not understand immediately what Jesus had meant. But it did not stop there, for St. Luke (as we read in the next verse) recorded that Mary rose to the challenge and kept pondering # in her heart all that this incident had disclosed. In due time, this bore fruit, when Mary, at the foot of the cross, observed the whole of her son’s crucifixion, without flinching for even a moment.
# Pondering ― in this context means reflecting deeply on the matter
and waiting upon God to grant enlightenment according
to His most gracious Will.
Verses 51 and 52
He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient
to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart.
And Jesus advanced (in) wisdom and age and favour before God
This last reference to Joseph in the Gospels is a beautiful tribute to him. Obedient to his guidance, Jesus grew to perfect manhood. (Steinmueller).
Jesus took up His earthly foster-father’s trade and carried on the family business, even after St. Joseph died.
Our reading closes with a simple statement that:
● Jesus grew in wisdom: His human mind advanced in wisdom,
because as a man He acquired knowledge by experience, as is
proper for any human to do so.
● Jesus grew in physical stature as any boy would.
● Jesus grew in “favour before God and man”: lovableness in the
sight of God and men, including not only spiritual holiness but
also graciousness, tact, charm and attractiveness. (Steinmueller)
Jesus grew in all ways ― physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually ― for the work that lay ahead of Him. (Ginns, O.P.)
Many of us grow up with the idea that Jesus stunned all the Teachers of Torah — the rabbis and scribes — with the brilliance of His intellect. This was conveyed to us with virtually all of the Jewish cultural background dismissed. This is tragic. St. Luke has recorded, 25, to 30 years later, the early Church’s understanding of the event.
The infant Church treasured this God-given glimpse into the early education of Jesus for His Divine role. He was not magically endowed with knowledge which instantly outshone the reverend sages of Israel. He always acknowledged that He learnt from them and insisted on passing on to others the Treasury of the Faith. He Himself was part of that venerable Tradition, and was betrayed only by a minority of senior officials who had fallen into corruption and power-seeking.
In our reading from St. Luke, we see our Lord humbly submitting Himself to the Teaching Authority of the Jewish Faith. He sought knowledge and shared knowledge in the very best of Hebrew Tradition. God granted His earthly parents to encounter a brief glimpse into the preparation of their son for His appointed role, as well as their part in it all. It remains a unique and truly wonderful manifestation of the reverence, enlightenment, and devotion of Jesus in His Father’s House.
“Blessed be Ha Shem (the name of the Lord), both now and
forever.” (Psalm 113: 2)
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The Feast of the Holy Family
First Sunday After Christmas Day St. Luke 2: 41 — 52
1. “Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover.”
The Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, gives plenty of examples of the faithful making pilgrimage to Jerusalem to honour God’s Commandments. This was always an opportunity to show outwardly their joy and enthusiasm in belonging to the Household of God. Christians carried on this custom and evolved a similar culture of bearing witness to being grateful to God, and letting the world see it. There are those who consider this practice in Christianity to be pagan, even satanic, but that is due to their lack of knowledge about things Biblical.
Making pilgrimage, whether at home or abroad, remains a holy pursuit among faithful Christians.
2. Joseph and Mary found Jesus, “in the Temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.”
Many of us tend to dismiss this incident as too unusual in which to see Jesus as a role model: perhaps too Jewish, too distant in time and culture. In fact, we may look upon it as quite unsuitable for our young people to follow Jesus in this case as a model. But unless we pass on to our young a lively and dynamic perspective of our Faith, there is every chance we will see it disappear altogether from our culture. It requires formal teaching and discipline, which must be accompanied by a practical spirituality engaged in by all members of the Church. It needs to equip young people with the knowledge and skills to deal with anti-theistic movements and educational philosophies together with attempts to ridicule or demean the Faith. The Jews had to take on this challenge as they came under dire threat. Now it is the turn of Christians to face the disintegration, collapse and aftermath of a hijacked educational system — once the pride of Christian civilisation.
Our Lord demonstrated that the young are to be enthusiastic about learning the Faith. So, where do we start? Some groups immerse their so-called education programme in a sea of pop-culture — “to make it relevant” — “to give it appeal”. It might work for a short time, but the majority of success stories relating to passing on our Christian culture come from those who challenged all age groups to study the Faith seriously and take pride in their culture — and constantly look for opportunities to pass it on. If we do not know where to start to rebuild our embattled structures, we need to examine why we are so unsure, so “at a loss” to begin. We have to overcome this without burdening ourselves or others with guilt trips. Our own religious practice will, of course, be significant if we are to make progress.
3. The great climax of our reading from St, Luke is when Joseph and Mary find Jesus deeply involved in His “work” — the “trade” He is to learn from His Heavenly Father. It turns out to be the pursuit He also expects His followers to undertake with enthusiasm and a degree of urgency like His own.
We can rebuild our Christian culture, but never as a casual, spare time recreational activity. It requires us to do our utmost to focus on Jesus and His Teaching, and to support those whose ministry it is to pass it on vigorously to our young.
Luke 2: 41 — 52
First Sunday After Christmas Day Year C
41 12 Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the feast
42 and when he was twelve years old, they went up
43 After they had completed its days, as they were returning,
44 Thinking that he was in the caravan, they journeyed for a
45 but not finding him, they returned to Jerusalem to look
46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in
47 and all who heard him were astounded at his
48 When his parents saw him, they were astonished, and his
49 And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did
50 But they did not understand what he said to them.
51 He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was
52 And Jesus advanced (in) wisdom and age and favour before
12 [41-52] This story’s concern with an incident from Jesus’ youth is unique in the canonical gospel tradition. It presents Jesus in the role of the faithful Jewish boy, raised in the traditions of Israel, and fulfilling all that the law requires. With this episode, the infancy narrative ends just as it began, in the setting of the Jerusalem temple.
13  I must be in my Father’s house: this phrase can also be translated, “I must be about my Father’s work.” In either translation, Jesus refers to God as his Father. His divine sonship, and his obedience to his heavenly Father’s will, take precedence over his ties to his family.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition