It would not be surprising for many Catholics to hear in sermons this weekend that the Holy Family is a perfect model for our own families. It is rather hard to believe, isn’t it? Whose mother was immaculately conceived? Whose son is the Son of God? And whose father would be willing to accept that his pregnant fiancée was still a virgin? For models to work, there have to be some actual parallels. It turns out that there are extraordinary ones.
In our Gospel reading, we find the Holy Family going to the temple to celebrate Passover. They joined other pious Jews who went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as the Lord commanded (Dt 16:6). On the return trip, Mary and Joseph assumed Jesus was traveling among their friends and relatives, but to their alarm they could not locate him after the first day. Returning, they found him in the Temple in dialogue with the elders there. Mary admonishes him, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” Jesus replies, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (More literally: in the things of my Father.) Mary pondered all this in her heart, just as she did when the shepherds came to the stable (Lk 2:19).
The first reading aligns with this narrative as it involves Hannah, another mother who made a pilgrimage to the temple. There she dedicated her son, Samuel, to the Lord. Samuel will become the last and greatest judge in Israel. Though not in our reading, Hannah evens offers a hymn of praise to God (2:1–10) that sounds strikingly like Mary’s Magnificat (Lk 1:46–55).
The first reading clearly parallels the Gospel, but how do we? And in what way can the Holy Family be a model for us? One of the more obvious ways is that they lived a life dedicated to their faith. That the Holy Family, along with their friends, neighbors and relatives, were reported as making their pilgrimage to Jerusalem shows that Jesus grew up in a normal, devout home, where they embraced the duties of their faith. Even Mary and Joseph’s assumption that he was among the members of the caravan suggests the regularity of the event. It was not until the end of the first day of their return trip that they started to be concerned.
More penetrating, we see here the witness of ordinary family virtues, like patience and forgiveness, and an ongoing awareness of the wonder of the presence of grace within and around them. When we take seriously the profound lives around us, including those of our family members, friends and neighbors, we cannot help but ponder God’s mysterious presence and the gifts God brings daily. Our reading ends with Luke telling us that “Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.” Shouldn’t we strive to recognize this dynamic in those we know? And isn’t it a wonder?
Even Jesus’ explanation to his parents that he had to be about the things of his Father, which seems like a rebuke, ought to ring true in our own lives. Like Hannah, we must ultimately dedicate our children to God. They are ours only in one sense. In the end, they are God’s, and are indeed children of God.
This is the message of our second reading, from the First Letter of John: “Beloved: See what love the father has bestowed on us that we may be called children of God. And so we are.” Perhaps this can be our third parallel. By baptism, we really do know God as our very own Father. Of course, dedicating our children to God is not losing them to God. Rather, we find them all the more, as they embrace their deepest truth, their fullest flourishing.
Jesus’ response to his mother should be the response we all make: It is necessary to be about the things of our Father. Only in this wholehearted response do we realize our divine adoption. Together as a family we grow in wisdom and age and grace before God and one another.