Opening the Word: An exemplary family

“The family,” wrote Pope John Paul II in his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (“The Family in the Modern World”), “finds in the plan of God the Creator and Redeemer not only its identity, what it is, but also its mission, what it can and should do.” The feast of the Holy Family helps us to contemplate more deeply the most unusual family in the history of the world: Jesus Christ, Mary and Joseph. 

The Holy Family is at the heart of the salvific plan of God, and it had a most unique mission. But that did not end when Joseph died, or when Jesus ascended to heaven, or when Mary was assumed into heaven. No, that mission continues today. How so? Pope John Paul provided a big clue in writing that “the family has the mission to become more and more what it is, that is to say, a community of life and love, in an effort that will find fulfillment, as will everything created and redeemed, in the kingdom of God.” 

Both the concept and the concrete reality of “the family” are gifts from God. The natural family is a reflection of divine love, of the inner life of God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit in an eternal and perfect exchange of love. It finds its meaning and fulfillment in the supernatural family of God, as Pope John Paul explained: “Hence the family has the mission to guard, reveal and communicate love, and this is a living reflection of and a real sharing in God’s love for humanity and the love of Christ the Lord for the Church his bride” (No. 17). 

Today’s Gospel shows that self-giving love in action. Last Sunday’s Gospel described Joseph’s first encounter with an angel, which revealed God’s plan of salvation and Joseph’s faithful obedience in response. In today’s reading, Jesus had been born and the family had just said farewell to the Magi. Joseph was again addressed by an angel, and told, “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt.” Once again, Joseph obeyed the word of the Lord. His obedience was rooted in his faith in God and his love for Mary and Jesus. And this love rested upon his confident hope in the power of God’s word. The silent Joseph tells us volumes about the virtues of faith, hope and love by his faithful, loving and hope-filled actions.  

Although Egypt is usually portrayed negatively in Scripture, it had been a place of refuge for many of God’s chosen people, including Abram (see Gn 12:10) and Jacob and his sons (Gn 37-47). During the first century there were large Jewish colonies, and it is quite likely the Holy Family led a relatively quiet, comfortable life there. They grew in love, the “bond of perfection” that St. Paul reflects upon in today’s reading from his Letter to the Colossians. Mary, the Mother of God, was being prepared to also be the Mother of the Church, for she is “the Mother of ‘the Church of the home’” (Familiaris Consortio, No. 86). 

After Herod died, the same pattern followed: The angel appeared to Joseph; the message to “rise” was given; and the words spoken through the prophets were fulfilled. Returning to the land of Israel, the Holy Family continued its mission, which eventually included Christ’s proclamation of the Kingdom and the establishment of his Church. Today, it reminds us, in the words of Pope Pius XI in Casti Connubii, that “the family is more sacred than the state and that men are begotten not for the earth and for time, but for heaven and eternity.” 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of