What is a “family”? A few decades ago, most Americans would have agreed on the nature of a family, taking it for granted that it involved a married man and woman and children. Such consensus seems to have disappeared or, better, has been undermined and eroded by decades of indirect and direct attacks on what is now often called “the traditional family.”
This current crisis about such fundamental truths is worth pondering in light of the Holy Family. But we can take a step back even further, to the very root and source of the family, the Holy Trinity. In St. John’s first epistle, the mystery of the Trinity is presented in the context of the life-giving love.
The key criteria for being a child of God is faithful obedience, which is revealed in charity: “And his commandment is this: we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us.” We are called, then, to enter into the family of the Church, which is “the household of God … the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tm 3:15).
While the truth and life of the Trinity is only known through divine revelation, the basic fact of the natural family can be known through reason and experience. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “A man and a woman united in marriage, together with their children, form a family” (No. 2202). Joseph, Mary and Jesus appeared to many as just another ordinary Jewish family. But the Holy Family was the perfect revelation of the human family.
As such, it is also the model of the Christian family, which is itself intimately related to the Church. “The Christian family constitutes a specific revelation and realization of ecclesial communion, and for this reason it can and should be called a domestic church” (No. 2204).
Which brings us back to faithful obedience. The 12-year-old Jesus had been apart from Mary and Joseph for three days. As Pope Benedict XVI notes in Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives">“Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives” (Image, $20), this absence “points toward the particular mission of the Son.”
There was a practical explanation for the separation, as it was not unusual that Jesus would be part of a larger group of family and friends, and so Mary and Joseph would not be initially concerned about his whereabouts. But there is also, in the three days, “a silent reference to the three days between the Cross and resurrection.” The anxiety that finally settled on Mary and Joseph pointed toward the Cross, which would bring to realization the sword of sorrow foretold by Simeon (see Lk 2:35).
Jesus was at the Temple, not out of rebellion or curiosity, but out of obedience to the Father’s will — the same obedience that led to his passion, the Cross, and the Resurrection. Years later, when told that his family was waiting to see him, Jesus replied, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”
That statement was an affirmation of Mary’s faith, for it was Mary, the Mother of the Church, who received God’s word and responded to it in perfect faith: “May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).
It is also a challenge to the Christian family today to hear the word and respond in faithful obedience.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.