The Holy Family and Happy New Year

1 Jan

As we inch toward the end of 2006 and the dawning of 2007, firstly I wish all who read this a Happy New Year. Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family, while tomorrow we mark the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, and the World Day of Peace.

This morning’s homily, given by the chaplain of St. Joseph’s College, was particularly fascinating for me because the priest delved into some basic biology. I work in a microbiology lab, where one of my primary responsibilities is to help in training students and new technical staff, so I often need to begin to teach at a basic level. The same is often true when teaching theology or any other discipline for that matter- most of us are at an amateur level.

In comparing basic biology to the notion of the Holy Family, our chaplain again showed his great teaching ability. He began by speaking about the biological terms “genus” and “species”. In taxonomy, the classification of biological organisms, life is grouped into seven levels of specificity*. Normally we hear of only the two most specific names given to an organism- the genus, which resembles the word “general”, and the species, which is a more narrow and “specific” grouping. For example, we belong to the genus Homo, in which we’re grouped with all human beings as well as our now-extinct ancestors. We’re then assembled in a smaller group, the species “sapiens”, which in Latin means “one who knows”. Much can be known about a living being from its taxonomy.

Likewise, much can be known about other areas of study by categorizing concepts. However, it becomes problematic to over-categorize when studying theology- literally, when examining the Word of God. When speaking of the Holy Family, people often focus too much on the characteristics that make the Holy Family unique. For example, Mary was the benefactor of God’s miracle when she conceived the Lord Jesus though she was a virgin. No word from Joseph is recorded in Scripture. The silence of Zechariah while he awaits the miraculous birth of his son John the Baptist is possibly a foreshadowing of the quiet obedience of Joseph to God. Little is known of Joseph, and he is not even mentioned in the Bible after he and Mary find the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple. The third member of the Holy Family is the Son of God. Thus, if we focus on the uniqueness of the members of the Holy Family, it becomes impossible to emulate them. Our families today are radically different from the Holy Family, which lived by the Jewish faith in the first century.

Our task, then, is to concentrate on how the Holy Family is similar to us, if not exactly like us. For instance, St. Luke tells of how Mary, Joseph, and Jesus lived according to their faith and the legal customs of their time. Joseph went to his ancestral hometown of Bethlehem to be registered in the Roman census. (cf. Luke 2:5) Customarily, Jesus was presented at the Temple, named, and circumcised when He was eight days old. (cf. Luke 2:21-38 ) Since he was the first-born boy, the ritual sacrifice of two turtle doves was carried out at this time: “As is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’” (Luke 2:23) Afterward, the Holy Family returned home when all that was required of them by the law of the Lord was completed. (Luke 2:39)

The next recorded example of the Holy Family’s compliance with religious custom was its yearly visits to Jerusalem for the Passover. Luke’s Gospel says that one especially important visit to the holy city took place when Jesus was twelve years old. This was the year of His Bar Mitzvah. At this age, Jewish boys are recognized as being capable of reasoning and of acting in accordance with their faith. In the Catholic Church, this tradition has been integrated into the celebration of the Sacrament of Confirmation, normally for children of about the same age.

During this particular Passover visit to Jerusalem, Jesus became lost in Jerusalem, and was found by his worried parents alongside the elders in the Temple. The religious leaders were amazed at Jesus’ knowledge. According to Luke, Jesus was listening and asking questions of the teachers. (cf. Luke 2:46) He was content to listen to the teachings of Jewish authorities, just as He honoured His heavenly Father followed by Mary and Joseph. His parents were nonetheless anxious at His becoming lost in the Temple, but Jesus already knew the details of the completion of His task of salvation. He was literally in His Father’s house- the Temple- at twelve years old, but He had to die on the Cross in order to ascend to Our Father’s house in Heaven and to open up the possibility for us to do the same. (cf. Luke 2:48-49) This Passover foreshadows our Passover from the throes of sin and death into the embrace of eternal life with God.

Of course, our salvation would be impossible had Jesus not taken on a fully human nature. He is fully divine as well, which is important, but we cannot be fully divine. It is then fruitless to focus more than is necessary on this difference; the only way for us to unite ourselves to Christ is by Jesus becoming fully human Himself. Our Lord lived, suffered died, and is risen for us as a human being. He comes to us in the Mass, in the Eucharist, and in each other as fully divine and also fully human. The Redeemer is like us in all things but sin. Coming back to the biological analogy I mentioned earlier, Jesus could be considered to be of the same “genus” as us. He is close enough to us in general to assure salvation for His followers. It is unnecessary to focus on an aspect of His “species”- His full divinity- which is unlike ours. We cannot understand all of this mystery of our faith, so a full comprehension of it is not needed for our salvation, although we should seek as much knowledge as is possible out of love of God “with all (our) mind”. (Mark 12:30)

In order to more fully express proper love and reverence for and obedience of God, we are called to co-operate in the divine will to bring peace. This is why we celebrate the World Day of Peace concurrently with the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, and with New Year’s Day.

We join as one Church with Our Lady, with St. Francis of Assisi, Patron Saint of Peace, as well as with the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI and all clergy and lay servants, in a prayer for peace as we begin 2007. May we better protect the natural world, God’s beautiful creation of which we are all stewards. May we work for better understanding of the particularities and strengths of each individual and of each culture. In a spirit of interdependence, may we always look for better solutions to existing conflicts in the world and for the prevention of new ones. As in Our Lord’s great high priestly prayer (cf. John 17), may we all work toward increasing unity in love for one another. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.

Happy New Year 2007!!!



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