The following homily was delivered by Bishop Rhoades at a Vigil Mass for the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph Dec. 29:
When we think of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, we think of the ideal family. In fact, in the Collect of this Mass, we prayed that we may imitate the shining example of the Holy Family. Yes, it was an ideal family when it came to practicing the virtues of family life and being a family united in a beautiful love for one another.
Jesus certainly honored His father Joseph and revered His mother Mary, fulfilling the counsel we heard in our first reading from the Book of Sirach. The Holy Family certainly was filled with the virtues listed by St. Paul in the second reading from his letter to the Colossians: heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, … and, above all, love. Yes, we can speak of the family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph as ideal in the sense of being truly holy, a reflection of the holiness of God, the family of the Most Blessed Trinity.
At the same time, we should not idealize the Holy Family in the sense of it being immune from the trials and sufferings of life. It was not. The Holy Family experienced incredible hardships, beginning with their trip to Bethlehem with Mary pregnant and then finding no room in the inn when she was about to give birth. The Holy Family knew poverty and homelessness. And they experienced terrible danger, as we heard in the Gospel today.
The paranoid King Herod, who had already killed his own wife, his mother-in-law and his three eldest sons because he was suspicious of their supplanting him as ruler, sought to kill the child in Bethlehem, whom he had learned was the newborn king of the Jews. As you know, in his fury, Herod ordered the massacre of all the boys 2 years old and under in Bethlehem and its vicinity. We call them “the Holy Innocents” and celebrate their feast on this day, Dec. 28, every year.
As we heard in the Gospel, before the massacre, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, telling him to flee to Egypt with Jesus and Mary. With complete docility, Joseph immediately did so. He always acted in obedience to God. He faithfully lived his vocation as the guardian of the Redeemer. And so Jesus was saved. We can say that Joseph saved our Savior.
No, the life of the Holy Family was not easy. What is recounted in today’s Gospel was the first of the persecutions that Jesus would undergo on earth throughout history, whether against Himself or against members of His Mystical Body, the Church. Today is a good day to pray for persecuted Christians, our brothers and sisters who suffer for their faith in Jesus, who are imprisoned or forced into exile, and for all who have to flee from the murderous rage of modern-day Herods.
Just three days ago, we contemplated the Holy Family in the stable of Bethlehem and the adoration of the shepherds that first Christmas night. Today, we contemplate the Holy Family on the sorrowful road of exile, seeking refuge in Egypt.
A couple years ago, I visited Gaza on a trip with Catholic Relief Services. As you know, the Gaza Strip is a very dangerous place. It’s governed by Hamas and is blockaded from the world. There’s only one Catholic parish in Gaza, and it’s called Holy Family Parish. I was blessed to celebrate Mass and pray with the small Catholic community there, a community that includes Mother Teresa’s sisters, who care for disabled children in Gaza.
Even amid the not infrequent bombings of the city, the sisters remain. According to a reliable tradition, it was there in Gaza where the Holy Family stopped for food and rest on their way to Egypt. That’s why the parish is named for the Holy Family.
Pope Francis said the following: “Joseph, Mary and Jesus experienced the tragic fate of refugees, which is marked by fear, uncertainty and unease. Unfortunately, in our own time, millions of families can identify with this sad reality.” On this feast of the Holy Family, when we remember their flight into Egypt, let us pray for the many families fleeing today “from hunger, war and other grave dangers, in search of security and a dignified life for themselves and for their families” (Pope Francis).
We can only speculate about the time the Holy Family spent in Egypt. They probably stayed somewhere along the Nile Delta where there were many Jewish communities. Joseph likely got a job to support the family. It must have been difficult, but at least they were safe. Surely, like so many refugees today, they longed to return home. It’s thought that the Holy Family stayed in Egypt probably from one to three years. They knew it was safe to return home when an angel again appeared to Joseph to tell him that Herod had died and that he should take Mary and Jesus back home to Israel. Again, Joseph obeyed. Prudently, he went back not to Judea, where Herod’s cruel son Archelaus was ruling, but to Galilee, to the town of Nazareth.
It was in Nazareth, at that time a village of about 400 people, that Jesus grew up. The Holy Family lived a simple life there. We can say it was an ordinary family life. Their family home would have been like other family homes. They would have related together, talked, had fun, worked, eaten and dealt with the everyday problems that every family encounters. They were not exempt from daily toil or challenges that face most families — illnesses, trying to make ends meet, the death of loved ones, etc. The Son of God was born into a human family and experienced life within a family. Jesus did His daily chores, went to school and learned carpentry from His father. He enjoyed time with relatives, friends and neighbors. We can only speculate about these hidden years of Jesus’ life.
We know that it was in the family, from his parents, that Jesus was brought up in the faith of Israel. He learned the Jewish prayers and practiced the traditional rituals and customs of His human ancestors. He learned the commandments of the Law, including the great commandment to love God with all one’s heart, soul and mind. This love for God and for one another was the overriding characteristic of the home of the Holy Family. That’s what made it holy. The home of Jesus, Mary and Joseph was a sacred place and a dwelling of true peace and unity. I said that theirs was an ordinary family life, but it was extraordinary in its love and unity.
On this feast, let us pray for our own families. God desires to give us strength and virtue to live as the Holy Family. We ask the Lord to sanctify our families, making them holy in imitation of His family in Nazareth. May Mary Most Holy, the Queen of Families, intercede for our families, and may St. Joseph, her spouse, keep them under his powerful protection!
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