Homily for the Feast of the Holy Family

It struck me recently that whenever the Holy Family, this micro-family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, is mentioned in the Gospels, they are almost always on the move. In today’s Gospel, obeying the Law of Moses, “the parents of Jesus took him up to Jerusalem”, presumably from Bethlehem – a short journey, but still a journey. Or there’s the famous trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be registered at a government command – some 90 miles, perhaps four days’ worth, and a child born at the end of it away from home. Again, there were the regular pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the great feasts (a similar distance), with a tale of losing and searching in the one  that’s recounted. The flight into Egypt, a journey of haunted refugees fleeing a tyrant, till called to return. It has been calculated that they would have covered some 1280 miles.

At Nazareth, of course, they did settle. Jesus of Nazareth he’d be called. But there too, as we just heard, there was another kind of movement:  “the child grew to maturity, and he was filled with wisdom, and God’s favour was with him.”

And when the Gospel speaks of Mary pondering events in her heart, seeking to understand, it hints at her spiritual journey too.

The Holy Family then, in several senses, is a family on the move. This might resonate with so many families now, with so many families here in Aberdeen. How many of us can say with certainty where we and our families will be in 10 years’ time? Change at many levels, not just change of home, but change of work, of health, of financial circumstances, changes in our children, changes of school, changes in society.  So little is secure. As creatures living in time, this is our fate. It’s especially our contemporary fate. Exciting? Sometimes. Or wearing? St. John Henry Newman described it some two hundred years ago: “[The world’s] changes are so many, so sudden, so silent, so continual. It never leaves changing; it goes on [from change] to change, till we are quite sick at heart.” Pope Francis often says that we are not just living in an era of change but in a change of era. We know what he means. We know that migration is the sign of the times.

So, the questions arises: how do we ride these changes? How not to be drowned by them? There must be comfort in the Gospel portraiture: this mobile micro-family with Jesus at its heart. Comfort in the first two readings too. There is something biblical in our situation. It goes back to Abraham “setting out without knowing where he was going”; it goes back to Sarah conceiving a child in her old age “because she believed that he who had made the promise would be faithful to it.” How ride the changes? The Bible suggests a one-word answer: faith, faith in the faithful One, the One who is faithful to each of us as individuals, and cherishes our families too. Faith gives us the strength not to be crushed by the turning wheel of fortune, not to fall into bitterness or hopelessness or run away.

Yes, think of the Church. Since Abraham was called to go out, she has sailed the waves. She has been on pilgrimage, pilgrimage to the Land the Lord will show her, pilgrimage to what the Letter to the Hebrews calls “the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb 11:10), “seeking a homeland” (Heb 11:14), “desiring a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb 11:16). This is why Pope Francis is advocating “synodality”, which means “walking together”, not lost in the wilderness, not going our own ways, but on the way – the hodos – who is Christ. And on this journey between the first coming of her Lord and the last, we, the Church, “walk by faith and not by sight”, as St Paul says (2 Cor 5:7). And so, he adds emphatically, “we are of good courage” (2 Cor 5: 6,8)

Yes, faith is our good courage. “This child is set for the falling and rising of many”, Simeon tells Mary. This Child will himself fall in death and rise in glory, living his Paschal mystery for us, “a light of revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of his people, Israel.” And by faith our own fallings and risings can be taken up from within by his all-embracing Cross and Resurrection. By faith, we rely on the faithfulness of God and the ever-flowing fountain of grace he has opened at the heart of our homes. Angels didn’t just guide St Joseph; they visit us too. By faith, we know that Jesus is with us “always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). By faith, we ride the waves, stronger than the storms. How many families prove it!  – think of refugees. In the world, change upon change, constant movement, security so elusive. In the world, so much that is not of God (cf. 1 Jn 2: 15-17). But, says St John who found rest on Christ’s heart, “everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith” (1 Jn 5:4).

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, make us families where faith is alive!

St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 31 December 2023


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