Falling within the octave of Christmas, we may be reticent to turn our eyes away from the peace of the manger. Yet, the feast of the Holy Family is an occasion to ponder the way that God has saved men and women through the messiness of family life.
Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple on the 40th day for a purification rite generally performed upon the mother. They bring two turtledoves for an offering rather than a lamb, evidence that they were among the poor of Israel.
Such poverty was material and spiritual. The birth of Jesus occurs in a hidden place, not in a grand palace. It is “unseen” by the powers and principalities of the world. And it exemplifies the poverty of the one who longs to be filled with nothing but the Spirit of God: “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours” (Lk 6:20).
The Word becomes flesh in what seems like a normal family who obeys the Law. Mary knows the wonders that have accompanied his birth. Yet, she and Joseph give their wills over to the Law. The poverty of the Holy Family is expressed in total submission to God.
Simeon, a prophet, greets them in the atrium. He is filled with the Spirit of God, able to see the Holy Family for what it is: the source of the world’s salvation.
In this seemingly normal family, the Gentiles, those outside the chosen people of Israel, encounter the divine revelation for the first time. The Greek apokalupsis is the source of our word “apocalypse,” the ultimate unveiling that will reveal God’s power.
Likewise, those who are already sons and daughters of Israel will encounter in this child the glorious splendor (doxa) of God. This word in Greek already points to the identity of this child. For God’s doxa is the very presence of God.
And the only appropriate response to this presence is worship, the offering of one’s entire self to God. Anna, the prophetess, recognizes this, coming forward to give thanks to God that with the birth of the child the moment of redemption is at hand.
Yet, the word redemption should already give us pause. One only needs redemption (lutrosis) when one is not free. The word redemption is linked to a ransoming from slavery, deliverance from the powers of the age and liberation of the people from sin and death.
The Holy Family is the place where this redemption will unfold. But the powers of the age tend not to lose their power. And thus, the two-month infant held in the arms of his blessed Mother will not always be a source of comfort.
Her heart will be pierced with the sword of sorrow as the Father’s beloved Son, her beloved Son, dies upon the cross. Her heart will be filled with sorrow as she endures this without Joseph at her side, the righteous one who Tradition tells us passed away in the arms of Jesus and Mary.
To become like the Holy Family then is no saccharine task. It means becoming a space where the glory of the enfleshed Word is revealed to the world in the mundane. And it means manifesting to the powers of this age that divine love still dwells among us, not in the luxury of power and prestige, but in the sacrifice of love hidden from this age — in the love of those poor, hidden, silently loving families who have welcomed the Word of God into their midst.
Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is the managing director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.