Even the Holy Family Didn’t Have It Easy

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph – December 29, 2019

St. Margaret Mary – Wichita, KS

Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14; Psalm 128:1-5; Colossians 3:12-21; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

On the first Sunday after Christmas, the Church places before us the image of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. It’s really just a good moment to stop and realize that God really became man, even down to the most simple fact that he was part of a family. Jesus grew-up in a family, learned from his father and mother, was obedient to his father and mother, took care of his father and mother when he was old enough.

This Gospel we have today is rich with meaning. The magi departing, the angel appearing to Joseph in dreams several times, fleeing to Egypt, going to Nazareth. Prophecies are fulfilled, the Child and his mother are kept safe. Just a lot. But I want to focus on two characters: the role they play, what that means for us, and what that means for our families. Joseph and Herod.

Joseph—I guess you could call him the strong silent type. We don’t have one recorded word from Joseph. And it’s not like Joseph is silent “because [he has] nothing to say,” not at all. Really, it’s “because [he doesn’t] have to fill up the air with words. [He doesn’t] need to be looked at to dominate” (Peggy Noonan). But Joseph is also an obedient son, a son who knows who his Father is, who it is that generates him. When the angel of the Lord comes in a dream and tells him, “Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home,” he listens and obeys and receives Mary into his home. In today’s Gospel, the angel of the Lord tells him, “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you.” And so Joseph “rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt. He stayed there until the death of Herod.” It’s important, the fact that Joseph takes the child “by night” doesn’t mean he was trying to sneak away under cover of darkness (that just means we’ve watched a few too many movies). “By night” means that Joseph was immediate in his obedience, he didn’t wait. He literally woke up from that dream and went. He didn’t sit around for a day or two and debate whether he should listen, or whether that really was an angel of the Lord speaking to him, no. “Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night.”

Joseph is in an awkward position in this family. As a good Jewish family, the husband and father is the head of the family, the leader. But his wife is literally perfect, and his son is literally God. And so Joseph’s role in the family is a little different. He doesn’t need to be a lot of things or do a lot of things, simply because his family is perfect. But he does need to do a few things. He needs to listen, he needs to obey, he needs to protect.

Herod—well, Herod is a piece of work. Historically speaking, Herod is incredibly fascinating and did some incredible things. The incredible building projects he undertook while he was alive are still standing today in the Holy Land. I mean, for example, this guy literally built a mountain fortress—as in he built himself a mountain and then put a fort inside of it. Biblically, aside from all of that—biblically, Herod is a symbol of the powers of the world, he is a symbol of the power of worldly culture. More specifically, he is the figure of the powers of secular culture. And just like any worldly power, any threat to that power is met with resistance.

Yesterday, we celebrated the feast of the Holy Innocents, all of the children that Herod had killed in his attempt to eliminate any threat to his power. When the Wise Men show up and ask Herod (you know, Herod the king), “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” Herod is understandably a little distraught. Here is someone who is going to threaten his power, threaten his control. And so he does what the world does when something threatens its power and control. When the world’s power is threatened, it seeks, in subversive and clever ways, to destroy anything that threatens its power. And it’s not different when God himself shows up as a threat to this power. We read on Christmas Day from the Gospel of John, “He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him” (John 1:10-11). And before we start shaking our finger and listing off all of the things wrong with the world, we have to remember: this is us too, we often do not accept him. Herod, the figure of worldly power and worldly culture—Herod is each and every one of us when we have been less than perfect in allowing this newborn King to rule, when we have decided that things would be better if we were in charge and we did what we thought best.

What does that mean for us and our families?

The world attacking the family, the culture attacking the family, “Herod” attacking the family—this is nothing new. We always like to think we have it the worst and we face challenges no one else has ever had to face. And sure, there are new methods attacking the family. But even the Holy Family faced the threat of destruction. The world attacks anything that threatens its power. Don’t be discouraged by this, even the perfect family had to confront that. But also, don’t be naive about it. The Holy Family didn’t stay in Bethlehem and say, “Well, I mean, you really think God’s going to let anything happen to our family? Come on.” That’s not what Joseph did. Joseph took his family and fled to safety.

The family’s job is not to shelter their children and never let them go out into the big bad world. But the family’s job is to protect their children, and as they protect them, to prepare them to enter into a world ready to attack them. That’s one of the reasons why we call the family the “Domestic Church.” For instance, church buildings are reminiscent of a boat, of Noah’s ark protecting his family from destruction during the great flood. We come to our churches as a refuge from the attack of the outside world, and here are strengthened and nourished…but then we are sent back out into that same world from which we came. That’s why Joseph’s silence and obedience are so important for us. Joseph could have piped up and spoke his mind, but instead he listened and obeyed and immediately took his family to safety. And when the time was right, he was obedient again and returned…and his son was eventually killed by the world.  But that was precisely when his Son transformed the world.

Family’s are meant to protect their children—not shelter them from reality, but protect them, and prepare them to face the world, to suffer, to be persecuted—to enter the world and transform it. That’s exactly how it was for Jesus. Why should we expect it to be different for us?

There are a lot of different “Herods” that threaten the family today. Technology, social media, smartphones—they’re not bad in and of themselves, I know. But if you read about them, if you read the studies, if you watch interviews with people that develop this technology, you quickly realize that they are being used by the “world” and by “culture” in very negative and destructive ways. “Ideological colonization”—Pope Francis uses that phrase a lot to talk about how there is a battle for your child’s mind, how the “world” and “culture” has colonized the mind of your child, taken it over. I mean, talk to youth today: the majority think in a completely secular way. And the worst part is that they think they are being free, that they are thinking freely, but really they are just repeating the ideologies they have learned (most of which comes through all the time they spend on their smartphones). Even some of the most religious, some that go to mass every Sunday and go to confession and pray the Rosary and go to adoration—if you start talking with them you realize that, for the majority of them, the way they think is dominated by the way the world thinks. But Jesus Christ incessantly taught, and St. Paul backed him up on this, that even though we’re in the world we’re not meant to be of the world.

And while it’s easy to complain and analyze and watch people on the news complain and analyze; while we like to sit back and say, “Everything would be fine if people would just…We wouldn’t have problems if people just…”—even though that’s easy and fun, the answer is not global solutions and programs (that’s just you saying that if you were Herod, things would be better—and that’s a dangerous thing to say). The answer is really you and your family. The family. Being like Joseph and protecting and strengthening and caring for your family. Your children are going to go out into the world one day, they are going to suffer and be persecuted and tempted. That’s just life.

The real question is: were you like Joseph? Did you listen to God and obey God and protect your family? Did you sit around talking and trying to fix everything? Or did you imitate the silence of Joseph and promptly do what was right for your family? Because your children need you now, your children need you to step up and care for them now. They don’t need you to say, “Well, maybe things aren’t so bad.” Or, “My kids will be ok.” Or, “I’ll let my kids decide for themselves.” No. Your children need you, your family needs you.

And most of all, more than anything else, they need you, like Joseph, to place Jesus and Mary at the center of your life.

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