Feast of the Holy Family

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

This feast day is a rather recent addition to the Roman calendar. While veneration of the Holy Family began in the 17th century, it wasn't until the late 19th century that a liturgical feast was created. From 1893 to 1969, it was celebrated on the Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany. Today it is celebrated on the Sunday after Christmas unless Christmas falls on a Sunday when it is celebrated on Friday, December 30.

The Holy Family refers to St. Joseph, the Blessed Mother, and Jesus. Catholics became fond of placing the initials J.M.J. on papers and letters as a pious practice as membership in the Confraternity of the Holy Family, founded by a French-Canadian bishop, grew. This devotion reflects family life in our own time rather than family life as it was lived at the time of Jesus. Family life at the time of Jesus would have found the three living among the extended family of Joseph. The Scriptures attest to this when they refer to the brothers of Jesus a little later on. When a man took a wife, he brought her into the house of his father and lived with his brothers and their wives until his father died. The leadership of the family would have then fallen to the eldest son. Any children that were born into the family were considered brothers and sisters even if they did not share the same parents. Male children lived with the women of the family until they reached puberty when they moved into the male quarters of the household and were taught the essence of manhood by their fathers and uncles.

Tradition has always held that St. Joseph died long before Jesus' public ministry began at the age of about thirty. Because she had a male child, Mary would have been guaranteed a place in this extended family. If she had been childless, she would have returned to the household of her closest male relative. Male children were required by Jewish Law to care for their widowed mothers until they were thirty years old.

The idealized version of the Holy Family as a nuclear family was promoted by Catholic bishops in Europe and North America as a means to strengthen the family bond in our own time. The Church recognized the family unit as the best way to teach the faith and to inculcate the ideals of Christian discipleship. Joseph, Mary and Jesus were held up as a model for those who were interested in the sanctification of family life. The traditional readings for this feast draw from the texts that reflect the household codes of that time.

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