Sermon on the Feast of the Holy Family

by a Dominican friar

“When they returned, the child Jesus remained in Jerusalem; and his parents knew it not.” (Lk 2:43)

This gospel of the losing and the finding of the Child Jesus raises several questions, but I shall consider only two. First of all, why did Our Lord, when He remained in Jerusalem after the seven days of the Pasch, not tell Our Lady and St Joseph about His intention? Secondly, why did they not understand the word which He spoke to them, when they were reunited in the temple?

Firstly, why did He not tell His parents what He was about to do? No doubt, there is more reason for this than we can understand, but it seems possible to give some explanation of it. First of all, it is part of the natural order of things, willed by God, that every child, when he comes of age, may choose his path in life independently of the will of his parents. For example, parents should not tell their child to marry or not to marry, or to marry this person rather than that; nor can they forbid a child from following a religious vocation. This is an important truth, but it was not understood by the pagans. Christ therefore wished to manifest it by His own life: but it was not possible for Him to manifest it by following a way of life that would be contrary to the will of Our Lady and St Joseph, since their wishes always would have been conformed to His. Hence, He could best manifest the God-given independence of each child when he comes of age by beginning His public work as Messiah, not indeed contrary to their wishes, but nevertheless without their knowledge.

Secondly, the time which Our Lady and St Joseph spent in searching for Jesus was an occasion for them to increase in virtue. Of course, they were already increasing in virtue daily, because of the time they were spending in Christ’s presence. But the Father in His providence wanted to bring about in them a new kind of abandonment to His will, and an ever-deeper appreciation of what the Holy Ghost said through the prophet Isaiah: My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways, my ways (Is. 55:8). Certainly, the Blessed Virgin knew this already, far better than Isaiah or anyone else; and yet, as long as she was a pilgrim on earth, it was always possible for her to grow in faith. During three days, in her heroic abandonment to the will of God, she imitated and surpassed her ancestor, Abraham, when he surrendered his beloved son Isaac to God, to receive him again on the third day (Gen. 22:4).

This suggests yet another reason why Christ acted in this way. He wished to foreshadow what would happen to Him in the same city of Jerusalem twenty years later. For then also, Mary would have to surrender her Son to God, this time with an even greater sorrow, in order to find Him again, with an even greater joy, after three days. Jesus was preparing her for that greater trial by means of this lesser one. He was also helping us, who would believe in Him, to meditate on His Death and Resurrection by giving us, so to speak, a picture of it in this losing and finding; thus also showing us how His Father’s providence governs all things wisely.

We can turn now to the other question: why did Our Lady and St Joseph not understand the words which He spoke to them, once they had been re-united? The first difficulty is to know precisely what those words are. The Greek phrase recorded by St Luke is quite “compressed”, and so it can be translated in different ways. Often, as by the Vulgate, it is rendered: “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” Another possible version of the same phrase is: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” It seems to me – although I have never found this translation in any bible – that the Greek could also be rendered: “Did you not know that I must be among those (people) who are my Father’s?” But perhaps we should understand all these meanings at the same time, since they are all aspects of the same reality: Our Lord is about His Father’s business, in His Father’s house and among those who, at least by their office, belong to God in a particular way; namely, the doctors of the law. The prophet Isaiah said: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return no more thither, but soak the earth, and water it, and make it to spring, and give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater, so shall my word be, which shall go forth from my mouth: it shall not return to me void, but it shall do whatsoever I please, and shall prosper in the things for which I send it.” (Is. 55:10-11). Thus, with modesty becoming a boy among the doctors of the law in the sacred precincts of the temple, the very Word of the Father began to water their hearts with His teaching; planting the seeds that would grow into the confession of faith in Him as the Messiah. Furthermore, according to some authors, the doctors had come together in the temple that day, at the end of the feast of the Passover, to discuss the prophecies of the scriptures concerning the time of the Messiah’s coming and what he would do when he came. If this is correct, then the Boy Jesus, by His wise questions, which stupefied the doctors, was turning their minds away from their hopes of an earthly king and temporal victory; revealing to them that the Messiah must suffer many things to defeat, not the Romans, but the devil; revealing also that He would manifest His glory before mankind, not at His first coming, but at His second.

It could not have escaped Our Lady and St Joseph that He was referring to God as His Father: words which, the gospel says, they did not understand: “Did you know not that I must be in what is my Father’s?” They also must have known that He had come from heaven to bring His Father’s message of salvation to the world. Why then did they not understand His words? Perhaps it was simply because their hearts were so full of joy to see Him again; they had feared, no doubt, that Herod’s son Archelaus had seized Him, and that the time of His passion had come upon Him while He was still a boy; what a relief for them to find Him once more, safe and sound! One can well understand that a more than human joy must have filled them both, and left them unable for the moment to reflect on the meaning of His words. 

Perhaps, also, they are said not to have understood because the symbolic nature of His action was hidden from them at that time. For “that which is His Father’s” means also the Father’s plan of salvation, according to which His Son would die and rise again and ascend into heaven. It is as if Christ is saying to the Blessed Virgin and St Joseph: “Why be surprised if I am doing now in a symbol that which I will do in all truth when the time comes?” If He was taken from their sight, to be found again in His Father’s house, we should not be surprised, for that is the message of the prophets: that the Christ must suffer and die, and be removed from human sight, and so enter into glory, and into the Father’s house. There, all who see Him will be “astonished at his wisdom and his answers” to all the questions of their lives.