Opening the Word: Familial obligations

In a recent interview with an actor in his mid-30s on NPR, the topic of fatherhood was raised. The young man noted that parenthood was something to consider after one was ready to settle down. The assumption of the interview is that a man or a woman must be done with the freedom of the 20s before it makes sense to take up the burdensome obligation of family life.

Among Catholics, there may be a certain discomfort in understanding family life as a series of obligations. We acknowledge that the relationship between spouses and siblings is an unfolding of divine life in the domestic church, an occasion to enter into the school of self-giving love. But, the readings for the feast of the Holy Family encourage us to see familial “obligation” as essential to the mercy of God manifest in the Word becoming flesh.

The finding of Jesus in the Temple is a narrative unfolding in the realm of familial obligations. Jesus, Mary and Joseph go up to Jerusalem to celebrate a festival according to Jewish custom. In the midst of this, Jesus (near adult age) stays in Jerusalem to teach the teachers of the Law, assuming his own vocation as the Messiah who enacts the fulfillment of the Scriptures in his very person (Lk 2:41). Mary and Joseph are obliged to acknowledge their son’s messianic vocation, expressing amazement at the teaching that Jesus offers “in my Father’s house” (Lk 2:49). And the beloved Son of the Father returns with his still-bewildered parents to Nazareth, where he resumes his obedience to Joseph and Mary alike.

The feast of the Holy Family is, thus, not simply a celebration of family life in general but a continued reflection upon the mercy of God made manifest on Christmas night. The Word made flesh empties himself in the context of family life. Although the text is silent in Luke, one could imagine that Jesus performs domestic chores, caring for his parents as a devoted son, all the while advancing “in wisdom and age and favor before God and man” (Lk 2:52).

On this feast, we see how our role within a family is transformed in light of Christ’s self-offering. The peace of Christ that has gathered all believers into one body, renewing humanity’s original posture of gratitude, must be the source of familial roles. Our identity as “children of God” (1 Jn 3:1) means that we are to love one another as Christ commanded (1 Jn 3:23), even unto death itself. St. Paul notes that wives are to be obedient to their husbands, husbands are to love their wives, and children to submit to the authority of their parents. But such submission, such obedience, is not an occasion to enact a reign of violence against one another. Rather, spouses and children oblige themselves to become sacraments of God’s peace for the world.

Thus, the feast of the Holy Family matters to the Church and world alike because it is on this day that we remember God’s merciful love made manifest in Jesus becoming infant, in his becoming the son of Mary and Joseph, in his becoming part of a family. And as we contemplate this mystery of love, we are to renew our commitment to our familial obligations to one another, not simply established by biology, but in God’s adoption of us as beloved children of the beloved Son.

Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.