The Feast of the Holy Family


by John Dalla Costa

My favourite image of the Holy Family is by the 14th century painter Giotto. In the flat style that preceded the Renaissance innovations with perspective, Giotto shows the prone Holy Mother reaching to lay the newly swaddled Jesus in a manger. While a mid-wife extends helping hands to settle the child, Joseph sits alone in the foreground. For decorum’s sake he has his back to the birthing drama that just unfolded, but what is most striking about Joseph is his almost abject detachment.

Against his better judgment, this devout Jew heeded God’s call in a dream. Now Giotto shows Joseph with the weary, wary, and worried look of a man about to assume the responsibilities of incarnating human fatherhood to the Son of God. It would take the keenest intellects and most creative theologians centuries to set the credal recipe for the Incarnation. By taking this child of Mary into his care, Joseph was already showing that bloodlines were no longer what defined family.

Of course our horizontal relationships as mother, father, child, sister, brother, matter profoundly. But as Joseph showed by his actions, the vertical descent of God into history, and into human form, means that our family genes now bear the healing and inclusive mutation of Messiah. Henceforth, family would be wherever Jesus is made at home.

Today’s scriptures highlight this spiritual basis for family. Once her pleading prayers were granted by God, Hannah consecrates her precious Samuel to be at home in the house of the Lord forever. In his letter, John explains that the coming of Christ entitles each of us all to be called children of God. And in Luke’s gospel, we read about Jesus slipping away from Mary and Joseph as a pre-teen to make himself at home in the Temple. Once we belong to God, we belong to everyone, and everyone belongs to us.

Joseph would be made the patron of the universal church precisely for this reason. By receiving Jesus, naming Jesus, raising Jesus, and binding his life to Jesus, his Holy Family includes the whole human family.

Today’s readings: 1 Samuel 1:20-22/24-28; Psalm 84; 1 John 3:1-2/21-24; Luke 2:41-52

Image Credit:  The Nativity by Giotto (1306).  Located in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua