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Reflection on the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph

Posted on December 31, 2023, by Sue Rogers SL

In my own life this feast of the Holy Family has always been a challenge. As a child it was the feast of the perfect family. It was the measure of a family – the perfect child with the perfect parents. It was what God expected of all children and all families. But neither I, nor my siblings, nor our parents, ever measured up. Each year we failed the “perfect family test.” And, come to think of it, the Holy Family didn’t quite measure up either. We forget that. And it never made it into the homilies I heard as a child. But certainly social services would have been called for a child left alone in Jerusalem for three days.

These days, the Feast of the Holy Family is more a feast of God’s great love and boundless mercy as children, parents, families struggle in a real and too often harsh world. And that makes it a challenge of a different sort. Measuring up, being perfect, has no part of it. Staying in the struggle does. Being open to love does. Making mistakes and creating reconciliation does. Having one’s heart broken open does. That was, I think, what the Holy Family did.

Where it was once a feast I wanted to hide from, it is, today, a feast calling me, us, to break open our hearts. To allow grace and mercy to flow over the brokenness of human life and the real-world struggles of families, sometimes our own, and to plant promise and hope knowing that God is faithful.  It’s not a story of the perfect family living a happy-ever-after life. It is a feast celebrating the daily victories of hope and compassion and love where there is pain, suffering, fear, violence, poverty, sin and uncertainty. It’s about the families of Gaza and Ukraine. Families living the harsh reality of food insecurity and gun violence. Families where babies are born and old people die. It is about employees’ families and the family next door. It’s about the hard work of love — even as swords pierce your heart. 

Today’s feast, and indeed, the entire feast bundle that makes up the Christmas season is a deeply human feast — and one that spills over to all of creation – offering the hope and the promise of God with us to everyone always. It’s a feast of incredible courage. Its gift is the courage to keep on keeping on.

The feasts of Christmas are timeless. Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus are the timeless consistent characters of Christmas — the core family. But over the last week top billing has been shared by other families — and fragments of families – to innkeeper families – the ones who couldn’t/didn’t open their doors to a desperate husband and a pregnant woman in labor and the one who did manage to at least open the stable door. Where, I wonder, do women at our southern border go to deliver their babies? Or the pregnant women of Gaza?  How do the women in Ukraine, or on the streets of Chicago or Juarez, keep their infants from freezing? This is the feast of both those women and of the innkeepers.  

Top billing is shared with shepherds, who, as Pope Francis has reminded us, smell like the sheep and are outcast because of it. The billing of those forced to sleep under the stars in the cold of winter.  Where are the women and children of shepherd families?

We’ve been re-introduced this week to the tyranny of Roman occupation, where even infants are not safe from brutal execution. How many dead infants have we witnessed on television news? How many infant refugees? Starving infants? And soon we will have the three kings, wealthy but different  – foreign — tolerated and used for their information but not respected for their culture — or their faith.  The ones who present gifts. All the products of families.  

And today, with Abraham and Sarah, Simeon and Anna, this feast of the Holy Family could be billed as old folks Sunday. The feast of the elderly. For sure Christmas is a feast, as Flannery O’Conner might tell us, of here comes everyone. Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us from the moment of his birth is embraced, held, rejected, loved, feared by all kinds of people. He becomes not just the child of Mary and Joseph but the child of all families for all times.

I’ve found myself thinking a lot about Abraham and Sarah and Simeon and Anna and asking myself how are they speaking to my heart, breaking it open on this Feast of the Holy Family? The older I get, the more their concerns, dreams and issues become my own. I’m just beginning to experience my growing old, learning to number my days from that new vantage point. 

As I become an old woman, I ask, with Abraham, to whom do I leave the richness of my life, the fruit of my struggles, the joys that have flooded my heart? How do I become generative in my old age? How do I pour life into the future? How does the fruit flowing from my life become more numerous than the stars? I ask that for myself, for each of us, and for Loretto. Abraham is concerned that he has no heirs. Am I? So what does generativity mean at the end of my life? How is it that my descendants can be as numerous as the stars? Do I believe with Paul and with Abraham that the One who makes that promise is faithful? How do I live boldly and give birth to mercy, justice, peace, hope? Fill the skies with kindness and generosity?

The temptation, as Sarah knew, is to give into barrenness. Despair. The embarrassment of failure. The fear of not being enough. Instead, in her advanced age, Sarah chose to unite her heart to God’s heart. She births hospitality in the barren desert. She cares for the stranger — gives welcome, food and drink. Life in the desert. And finally, at an age beyond hope, life, in Isaac, was birthed into the world through her. Isaac — the symbol of promise kept and promise held. She did what Mary was to do centuries later as she births Jesus into the world. As we are invited to do today. We see Sarah in the people of Poland embracing families and fragments of families fleeing Ukraine in the face of brutal Russian invasion. We see Sarah at the Egyptian border with Gaza letting desperate refugees in to safety. We see her in those carrying life-giving water into our own desert to refugees fleeing poverty and violence. We see her here at Loretto in the way we choose to live, in the welcome we give. Descendants flow from those actions — descendants more numerous than even the stars.

In the Gospel we come to Simeon and Anna, and the Feast of the Holy Family becomes the feast of the end of life. I remember Sister Anthony Mary once saying to this Community that you could practice hospitality and kindness even if all you could do was lie in your infirmary bed and wiggle your big toe. In today’s Gospel we see the very old, folks my great nephew Josh would fondly call the ancient ones, welcome Joseph and Mary with their first-born son – a generosity of heart that allows Simeon to recognize this tiny baby as God’s own, the one promised, Emmanuel, and to speak the reality that a sword would pierce his mother’s heart. Now Lord, he prays, let your servant depart in peace. He had witnessed the faithfulness of God. The promise fulfilled. The coming of the Kingdom of God. May that witness of fulfillment await each of us at the end of our lives. May Simeon’s prayer be our final prayer — let your servant depart in peace for I have seen salvation by our God.


Sue Rogers SL

A Denver native, Sue resides at Loretto Motherhouse in Nerinx, Ky. She has served in many capacities for the Loretto Community, including as the congregation’s formation director, in health care, as a member of the St. Louis Staff Office and as liaison with the Community’s Special Needs Committee.