My first pastor told me that my shortest homily of the year should be the Sunday after Christmas.
A priest friend said his first pastor told him his shortest homily should be on January 1.
I’m not sure who was right, so I try to preach as briefly as possible on both days!
It’s easy enough to be brief on the feast of the Holy Family. This day has many lessons to teach us, but they are simple and straightforward.
The first lesson comes from the Gospel, which tells us that even the best of families meets both joy and sorrow.
What a good time Mary and Joseph must have had in Jerusalem! They had celebrated Passover with relatives and friends, and their trip home would be much like the drives back from Christmas at my grandmother’s—weary but happy and contented by the festivities.
Then suddenly fear and anxiety interrupt this happy holiday. Even today there is no greater panic than a lost child, but imagine three days of that terror in a society much more dangerous than our own.
When that’s over, Mary and Joseph suffer something most families know very well—a breakdown in communications. What they say to Jesus is perfectly reasonable, but his truthful reply is impossible for them to understand.
St. Luke wants us to know the story does not end with that standoff. He adds quickly that Jesus returned home and obeyed his parents. It’s a happy ending, at least. But the story reminds us that it’s not possible to avoid all conflict in any family.
Expecting a perfect family, free of misunderstanding and pain, is a recipe for bitterness; accepting the realities of family life, and seeking always more to understand than to be understood, is the realistic path that leads to the reasonable level of happiness that is all we can expect in an imperfect world.
A second lesson comes from the first reading, which reminds parents that children are not their own. Hannah surrenders her son Samuel to the Lord because she knows the Lord has given him to her in the first place.
As a general attitude, this is important—because claiming ownership of any human being is asking for trouble. We don’t even own ourselves, as St. Paul taught when he told the Romans that no-one lives for himself and no-one dies for himself because we are the Lord’s (cf. Rm 14:7-8).
So if we don’t own ourselves, we certainly don’t own others, even our children. Parents have enormous rights and duties in regard to their children, but there are firm limits. Hannah offers Samuel to the service of the prophet Eli not only to pay a vow to God, but because she knows her son is called to this—he has, we would say today, a vocation.
Parents can learn from Hannah that God has the first claim to their children, which sometimes means being willing to surrender our plans for them so that they can follow God’s call.
Finally, we learn a great lesson from the second reading when St. John says “We are children of God.” We have all the same Father so we’re all part of two families—the one into which we were born and the family of God.
It’s interesting to see where St. John goes with this. He doesn’t emphasize the prestige or the benefits of being children of God—he goes straight to the place where this morning’s Gospel ends: obedience.
Children have a natural and supernatural duty to obey their parents. This homily might be over the heads of the younger members of the congregation, but they all understand they need to do what their parents tell them to do. So it is with each member of the family of God, since through his Son, Jesus Christ, the Father has clearly taught us what he expects.
We obey God’s commandments for a number of good reasons, but today’s second reading gives the best reason of all: because it pleases him. What a simple a lesson that is! Children also obey their parents for a number of reasons, even fear of punishment, but the best reason is because it brings joy to their mothers and fathers.
Celebrating the Holy Family of Nazareth comes naturally at Christmastime. But today’s feast invites us also to think supernaturally about our own families, praying not for perfect families but for holy ones, created in God’s image and following his laws amidst the joys and sorrows of daily life.
The image above is purloined from the website of the artist, iconographer and author Michael O'Brien, who has devoted much of his talent and time to promotion of the family. Judging by its title, "The Family - 2," it represents not the Holy Family but a holy family, blessed by the loving hands of Christ.