The Holy Family

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The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—Feast
Sunday within the Octave of Christmas
(or, if there is no such Sunday, December 30)

Liturgical Color: White

How I would like to return to my childhood and attend the simple yet profound school that is Nazareth! How wonderful to be close to Mary, learning again the lesson of the true meaning of life, learning again God’s truths…First, we learn from its silence…The silence of Nazareth should teach us how to meditate in peace and quiet, to reflect on the deeply spiritual, and to be open to the voice of God’s inner wisdom and the counsel of his true teachers…Second, we learn about family life…May it show us the family’s holy and enduring character and exemplify its basic function in society: a community of love and sharing, beautiful for the problems it poses and the rewards it brings, in sum, the perfect setting for rearing children—and for this there is no substitute. ~Pope Paul VI, Address from Nazareth

Reflection: It is amazing that God chose to enter our fallen human condition by becoming Incarnate in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He was born of her, raised by her and Saint Joseph, acquired human knowledge through their teaching, worked with His hands, experienced the fullness of human society, and did so within the context of an earthly family. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph made up a sacred family, the Holy Family. Today’s feast continues our Christmas Day celebration. This feast falls within the octave of Christmas that culminates January 1 with the Solemnity of the Mother of God.

Though the earthly life shared by Jesus, Mary, and Joseph has always been a source of prayer and inspiration, the feast we celebrate today is relatively new. In 1890, Pope Leo XIII issued his encyclical Sapientiae Christianae (On Christians as Citizens) in which he emphasized the duties of Christians as citizens in a changing world. At that time, the holy father was concerned about the negative impact that the Industrial Revolution, secularism, and new political ideologies—such as communism—were having upon Christian citizens and the family in particular. He feared that the desire for economic advancement and the communistic separation of God from the political structures would result in the breakdown of the family, the fundamental building block of society. In that encyclical, the Holy Father stated:

This is a suitable moment for us to exhort especially heads of families to govern their households according to these precepts, and to be solicitous without failing for the right training of their children. The family may be regarded as the cradle of civil society, and it is in great measure within the circle of family life that the destiny of the States Is fostered. Whence it is that they who would break away from Christian Discipline are working to corrupt family life, and to destroy it utterly, root and branch.

In 1892, Pope Leo XIII issued an apostolic letter, Breve Neminem Fugit, in which he highlighted the importance of the Holy Family for the world as a model for every virtue necessary for human growth.

To all fathers of families, Joseph is verily the best model of paternal vigilance and care. In the most holy Virgin Mother of God, mothers may find an excellent example of love, modesty, resignation of spirit, and the perfecting of faith. And in Jesus, who was subject to his parents, the children of the family have a divine pattern of obedience which they can admire, reverence, and imitate.

In 1893, Pope Leo XIII instituted the Feast of the Holy Family as a liturgical celebration to be celebrated in any diocese that requested it. The feast continued to spread, bringing about a renewed appreciation for the sacredness of family life. In 1921, three years after the end of World War I, Pope Benedict XV, sharing the concerns of his predecessor Pope Leo XIII, added the Feast of the Holy Family to the universal Church calendar. 

In 1964, while making an apostolic visit to the Holy Land, Pope Paul VI gave a beautiful speech in Nazareth on the Holy Family. This speech is now included in the Office of Readings for the Feast of the Holy Family. He begins by saying, “Nazareth is a kind of school where we may begin to discover what Christ’s life was like and even to understand his Gospel. Here we can observe and ponder the simple appeal of the way God’s Son came to be known, profound yet full of hidden meaning.” In that speech, the Holy Father wanted to help make Jesus’ family life, culture, and daily interactions as a child tangible and relatable to all so that His childhood, along with the role of His parents, would be a source of reflection for the strengthening of the family.

In 1981, Pope John Paul II, in his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World), reinforced the concept of the family as the “domestic church” with its role in fostering prayer, teaching the faith, and nurturing Christian virtues. He highlighted that in the family, the Christian faith is first proclaimed to children, making the family vital to the mission of the Church, and the most fundamental institution in the world.

As we honor the Holy Family, one of the best ways to do so is to prayerfully ponder the daily life that the Holy Family shared. Because Scripture does not record many of their family interactions in Nazareth, much is left to our prayerful imagination. What we do know is that human familial virtue within the Holy Family, especially between mother and Son, was at a level of perfection. The kindness, respect, obedience, unity, charity, and every other Christian virtue that they lived must become the model for Christian living and for family life.

The Holy Family began with apparent scandal when Mary became pregnant while betrothed to Joseph. Mary and Joseph suffered through the gossip and misunderstandings this miraculous pregnancy brought with it. Though Joseph learned of this conception from an angel in a dream, it was his faith and righteousness that empowered him to remain faithful to Mary and love her with a pure heart. Their family began in Bethlehem, in poverty and rejection. They then fled to Egypt to protect their Child from the paranoia and cruelty of Herod. They later returned to Nazareth and lived faithfully with family and friends. Jesus learned the trade of woodworking from Joseph, grew in wisdom and knowledge, spoke with the elders in the Temple at the age of twelve, and remained obedient to his earthly parents. Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches us that Jesus had direct knowledge of the Beatific Vision from the moment of His conception and had the fullness of infused knowledge. But He also grew in acquired knowledge, learning with a human mind through sensory experience and conceptual understanding. Mary and Joseph watched this growth, participated in it, grew from it themselves, and Mary “pondered all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51).

As you ponder their inner family dynamics, relationships, and charity, use them as a model of how best to relate to your own family. Some families more fully imitate those sacred virtues; others fall gravely short. Look into your own heart and ask the Holy Family to teach you how to show greater love to those in your family. Though you will never arrive at perfection, you can receive inspiration from their lives, leading to greater growth and unity, making your own family a greater source of strength for your Christian living.

Prayer: Most Holy Family of Nazareth, you were a true school of love in which the perfection of family love grew strong. Please bestow upon me, my family, and families everywhere the grace needed to more fully imitate the love you shared, so that families everywhere will continue to be the fundamental building block of the world. Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, pray for us and have mercy on all. Jesus, I trust in You.

Saints and Feasts of the Liturgical Year
Volumes One–Four

Further Reading:

Vatican News

Saints & Feasts of the Catholic Calendar

New Liturgical Movement


Catholic Culture


All Saints for the Liturgical Year

Saints A–Z>>>

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