Sanctæ Familiæ [Feast of the Most Holy Family]: January 12, 2020
Delivered by Most Reverend Roger LaRade, O.F.A.
Beloved Disciple Eucharistic Catholic Church, Toronto
© 2020 Roger LaRade
Colossians 3: 12-17, Luke 2: 42-52.
Today, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family, doing so on the Sunday within the Octave of the Epiphany. Jesus is twelve years old. Tomorrow, the Octave Day of Epiphany we will be with Jesus at thirty years of age for His Baptism. Liturgical time moves quickly.
I think that we need to consider the Feast of the Holy Family within this context of God become human, that which we celebrate and immerse ourselves in at this time; after all, the family is an institution both human and divine.
The Feast of the Holy Family is a Canadian feast. It goes back to the year 1663, to the founding at Montreal of the Association of the Holy Family by Barbara d’Ailleboust, a native of Boulogne. This new devotion to the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph soon spread across Canada, and Mgr. Laval, the Bishop of Québec, established in his diocese a feast of the Holy Family with its own Mass and Office. It was in 1893 that Pope Leo XIII expressed his approval of this celebration for certain dioceses. But only after the First World War did devotion to the Holy Family become important, and, in 1921, Pope Benedict XV extended it to the whole Church. He did so because family life “had suffered greatly because of the first World War.” The purpose for this feast “was to improve family life” and contribute to “the spiritual restoration of the family”, as it’s put.
It doesn’t take much probing in older missals and books of piety to discover how this devotion has been used in an extremely sentimentalized and moralistic manner to support what many of us know from our own experience to be an unrealistic – no, rather an unreal – notion of the family. There is no doubt that the family is a foundational component of society, and that our faith speaks to family life. Most of us are born into families. I say ‘most of us’, for immediately we confront the many limitations imposed on the ideal family by real life. Indeed, many children who are adopted were not born into a family and have memories of being in an orphanage for a time or of being shuttled from foster family to foster family. From our experience, and our sharing the experience of others, we know that some family stories are stories of supportive and encouraging love. We also know that some family stories are horror stories of neglectful and abusive selfishness. In-between, there exists the multiplicity of human interactions, mixed experiences composed of good, bad and indifferent relationships coexisting in our memories and our present. And so, the very idea of the Feast of the Holy Family has the potential of conjuring unpleasant, disconcerting, troubling, alienating memories.
This is exacerbated for many of us who don’t fit the heterosexual married normative mindset imposed onto the notion of the Holy Family. Here is a pious description of the family:
Of the family body the father is the head, even as Christ is the Head of the Mystical Body. The mother is the Church, and the children are members…The daily bread is provided by the father and distributed by the mother; from father and mother, children receive their blood and life…You children, look up to your father, he is Christ…And you, wife and mother, you too must see Christ in your partner. As father, it is your duty to live like Christ and to rule your family as He would.
This was written in 1957. But, it doesn’t take long in listening to conservative commentators, both Catholic and Protestant, to find this thinking alive and well in our day.
I believe that this thinking is wrong and I recognize in it a perversion of the readings chosen for this Mass of the Holy Family; a perversion in the sense that the readings chosen are made to fit an ideological perspective rather than being allowed to reveal their mystery as guided by the message of Christ. This perversion is not in the presentation of the Holy Family as a model guiding us to a family life marked by love, selflessness and peace – all things to which we can aspire. No. The perversion comes in presenting the Holy Family as a divine institution modeling ‘family’ as being composed of father, mother and child to the exclusion of all others. In this view, no other model has legitimacy since it does not – indeed cannot – replicate the Holy Family. To hold this view is to do an injustice to the message of Christ. This occurs every time biblical passages are chosen to support the status quo, to keep in their place those who don’t fit the norms of the ruling collective.
The English writer on Mysticism, Evelyn Underhill writes about Epiphany in the following words:
The Epiphany means the free pouring out of a limitless light – the Light of the World – not its careful communication to those whom we hold worthy to receive it.
The Feast of the Holy Family may speak to us through the words of today’s epistle and gospel readings and through our meditation on Jesus, Mary and Joseph. But it will not as long as it is restricted to being a sentimentalized, moralizing, and heterosexist shaft of light. It needs, rather, be opened to the multiple possibilities of family lives made possible and enlightened by the Light of the World manifested among us.
 Dom F. Cabrol, O.S.B., The Roman Missal in Latin and English (Tours: A. Mame and Sons, 1921), p. 80.
 Dr. Pius Parsch, The Church’s Year of Grace, Volume 1: Advent to Candlemas (Collegeville, MN.: The Liturgical Press, 1957), p. 289.
 Ibid., p. 290.
 Ibid., p. 294.
 R. P. J. Feder, S.J., Missel Quotidien des Fidèles (Tours : Maison Mame, 1961), p. 105.
 Evelyn Underhill, The School of Charity: Meditations on the Christian Creed (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1934), p. 44.
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