A Commentary and Reflection on the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. The Liturgical Sense of the Scriptures Podcast, by Catholic Author and Theologian David L. Gray.
The Liturgical Life of Saint Joseph, Father of the Holy Family
The veneration of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph has a long and rich history in the Catholic Church. It can be traced back to 14th-century art depicting the three together. However, it gained more prominence in the 17th century when Saint François de Laval, the first bishop of New France, founded the Confraternity of the Holy Family, which helped to spread and promote the devotion of the Holy Family throughout the world. The liturgical celebration of the Feast of the Holy Family was established by Pope Leo XIII in 1893, and it was initially set on the Sunday after Epiphany. However, in 1969, it was moved to the first Sunday following Christmas to be part of the Octave of Christmas. The veneration and feast inspire us to view the Holy Family of Nazareth as the ideal model of Christian family life and obedience to God. Within this same period of the veneration’s development, Catholics also started to use the initials “JMJ” to refer to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, following the example of holy people like Saint Therese of Lisieux and Venerable Fulton J. Sheen, who used this custom in their correspondences.
I am amazed by how this tradition has grown in our faith, from a local veneration of art to a global celebration of the Church and the inspiration for many parish names. This tradition is more predominant in the fabric of the life of the Church than it is in the actual presence of the Holy Family in the sacred Scriptures. Indeed, apart from the stories of Jesus’ birth and childhood, we do not see Jesus, Mary, and Joseph together anywhere else in the Bible. Due to the lack of testimony and stories about the daily life of the Holy Family in the scriptures, we have no choice but to engage our imagination to contemplate this mystery. One mystery is why we consider Joseph to have been holy during his life on earth, given that the sacred Scripture does not imply that he was born immaculately or incarnate. How is it that we call the Holy Family to consist of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, in light of Joseph’s being neither found by the Angel Gabriel being full of grace nor conceived by the Holy Spirit? How is Joseph of Bethlehem holy?
We answer the question by affirming the fact that God is the one who makes persons, places, and objects sacred or holy by a better name. The process by which God makes a person, place, or thing holy is by setting it apart for a specific work that is dedicated to demonstrating His divine and perfect goodness. In the case of Joseph, we have the evidence that God chose and set Joseph apart for the work of being father to Jesus and husband of Mary. Being that the three duties of a husband and father are to protect, provide, and guide, Joseph stands above men born of women for having been assigned and set apart by God for the most sacred work of all. He is rightly called Joseph, Head of the Holy Family, Husband of the Mother of God, and the Father of the Son of God on Earth. Therefore, Joseph is called holy through the association of work that he was set apart to do as the husband of a holy wife and the father to a holy son. Moreover, because the principle of work of husband and father is to sacrifice for those he has been set apart to protect, provide, and guide, and only holy sacrifices are acceptable to God, we believe that in sacrificing himself for his holy wife and holy son, Joseph of Bethlehem is also rightly called Joseph the Holy Sacrifice.
Few men would sacrifice the life that they thought they would have, the type of wife they thought that they would marry, and the type of children they thought they might have had with her, and, instead, take up a woman who was pregnant with a child that was not his. A man who was merely righteous before God would have divorced her quietly to avoid exposing her to shame (Cf. Mt. 1:19) or accusations of adultery that could have led to her receiving the death penalty. However, when the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Yoseph, son of Daviyd, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Yeshua because he will save his people from their sins,” Joseph responded by making a sacrifice of obedience to God, proving that he loves and fears God. For, as 1 John 5:3 says, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome,” but it is not by love alone that we are obedient to God, but also by faith for His name’s sake. (Cf. Romans 1:5). Therefore, Joseph is rightly called holy because of the faith and love he had of God that compelled him to put obedience to God above all things, even for a demand placed on him that no other man had been asked to do.
In the liturgy’s birthing, nurturing, contemplative, pedagogical, anagogical, prayerful, attentive, and rhythmic ways, it is terribly easy to understand what she has in common with the Holy Mother and why we rightly call Mary Mother of the Church. However, it is in the liturgy’s call to interior silence and obedient action through the dismissal – Ite missa, est, that we rightly call Joseph the Father of the Church. Indeed, silence and obedience are the most profound calls of the liturgy, and it is there that we find Saint Joseph as our model of excellence.
Joseph the Silent and Contemplative, who spoke no words in the sacred Scripture but testified loudly of his obedient faith through his actions, shows us how to be in the world who the liturgy has been forming us to be. We do not see Joseph pray or hear him speaking with words about his wife or son. On the contrary, we only hear about a dream he had been given. However, no man can be called to do what Joseph of Bethlehem did or even do what he was called to do without having a deeply prayerful and contemplative life so close to God that allows a man to sacrifice his dreams only so that he can provide for, protect, and guide the desire of God’s heart.
This is just one way the readings at Mass this Sunday connect to the liturgy and how the liturgy is forming us in how to live our lives in the world. Be in the world what you have received through the liturgy.