Wed, December 22, 202110 mins readFather Hans Buob

Feast of the Holy Family

Biblical Homilies on the Sunday Gospels in Reading Year C

The Holy Family with a Bird, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (ca. 1650).

Bible passages


Luke 2, 41-52

Each year his parents went into Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, and when he was twelve years old, they went up according to the festival custom. After they had completed its days, as they were returning, the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Thinking that he was in the caravan, they journeyed for a day and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances, but not finding him, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. He went down with them and came to Nazareth and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.

Biblical Homilies


“Each year his parents went into Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, and when he was twelve years old, they went up according to the festival custom” (cf. verse 41-42)

Joseph and Mary went up to Jerusalem for the Passover every year according to the law, and Jesus also went up before he was twelve years old, although the obligation to do so according to the law did not actually begin until he was twelve. 

“After they had completed its days, as they were returning, the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Thinking that he was in the caravan, they journeyed for a day and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances, but not finding him, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him” (cf. verse 43-45)

The festival pilgrims from Galilee usually traveled in large groups to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, since it was quite a long distance to walk. Luke reports here relatively detailed about how Jesus gets lost and his parents search for him everywhere. This broad account is meant to prepare Mary’s question that she will then ask Jesus after they find him, “Child, why have you done this against us?” (Luke 2,48). Against the background of this long and probably also very fearful search, it becomes clear from what depth this question of Mary comes. 

“After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers.” (cf. verse 46-47)

The teaching of the scribes usually took place in the halls of the outer court of the temple, and it is in this place that his parents eventually find Jesus. In this scene, the point is not that Jesus sits among the teachers, but that he exhibits before them his knowledge and understanding of the Father and of the Scriptures. 

This is not about a naturally spiritual gift of Jesus that everyone marvels at. It is not amazement at an exceedingly gifted young man who already knows the law so well. Rather, what is astonishing is his knowledge of the will of God and how that will of God is revealed in the law. This is the crucial thing: God wants to make his will known in his word. But how quickly the law is too often objectified, and this becomes a dead letter. And how the listeners in the temple experience something completely new: Jesus can make the will of God clear to us in this law. This is expressed in an almost horrified surprise, by the scholars, the disciples, and the listeners. 

So, it is not a matter of knowledge in the common sense, of mere knowledge of the law, that would not have surprised the listeners. For there were certainly many scribes who even knew the law by heart. But Jesus reveled to them, as it were, something completely new from the law, namely the actual will of God. So, it is related to a deeper looking, a recognition of the will of God in the law of the Old Covenant. Here he already flashes this teaching in authority, of which we will hear later from the adult Jesus. And already here it shines through that God’s wisdom is in him. 

“When his parents saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” (cf. verse 48)

In Mary’s reproachful question, her pain and fear become clear. Mary uses the expression “Father” here meaning Saint Joseph. On this background, however, Jesus’ obedience to the Father in heaven becomes even clearer: it is not about a contradiction or opposition to his earthly parents- because later he is obedient to Mary and Joseph – but about his obedience to the Father in heaven. This is completely different, his absolute obedience to the will of the Father, is to be clarified in this apparent contrast. 

“And he said to them, ‘Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’. (cf. verse 49)

In Jesus’ answer, the whole radicalness of the Son’s obedience to the Father in heaven is expressed. At the same time, this is the first word of Jesus that has been handed down to us, and it therefore deserves special attention. Jesus’ question indicates that his obedience to the Father is a matter of importance for him as well as being with his Father. With the word “in the … that which belongs to my Father” it is clearly meant to be the temple, because there, God was present in the Holy of Holies. And the temple here is not the place of sacrifice, but the place of instruction, because in it, Jesus listened to the teachers and gave them answers. To be “in the father … of the Father” means to be there for the Word of God with total dedication and exclusivity. This is also decisive for Jesus’ later behavior as an adult. 

On the background of the pain of Joseph, his foster father, the must of Jesus’ son obedience is made clear: “Did you not know that I must be in what belongs to my Father?” This is self-evident and does not exclude obedience to Joseph, but the emphasis is on the self-evidence of the serving entirely the Father’s word. Nevertheless, this son obedience separates Jesus himself from his parents and forces him into exclusive bondage and closeness to his Father – exclusiveness. But “to separate” is not meant here in a negative sense, but this “must” refers to a special intimacy. Later Jesus will proclaim: “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work.” (John 4,34) These words reveal His personal – religious relationship with the Father in heaven. He did not stay here in the temple as Messiah, as it were “ex-officio”, but it was about his very personal religious relationship to the Father in heaven. It follows from Jesus’ being a son that he does the will of God, and his teaching authority is ultimately rooted in this. 

“But they did not understand what he said to them. He went down with them and came to Nazareth and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart.” (cf. verse 50-51)

The non-understanding of the parents is not a superficial non-understanding, but it expresses that the word of Jesus spoken to them, “Did you not know that I must be in what belongs to my Father?” (cf. verse 49), is a mystery word of great depth. This word wants to inspire contemplation and that is why Mary also keeps it in her heart and reflects on it. 

This preservation of the word in Mary’s heart reveals that here this not understanding Him is meant in the sense of a mysterious word, and not as an expression of disobedience against his parents. It was from Mary and from Joseph, as it were, a questioning non-understanding, a non-understanding open to God. It is something so profound that they could not see through it immediately. So again, in today’s Gospel, the Word of God expresses a much deeper dimension, behind which it is necessary to listen when we read and contemplate it.

And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man. 

At the end, Jesus’ growth, his inner wisdom and the grace of God working in him are expressed, but explicitly also his external growth, his age is emphasized. For he was fully human. He increased both before God and before men. He was respected before God and before men. 

This text is already to be understood christologically, i.e. as a preparatory understanding of the following texts. Everything that now follow in Luke’s gospel is understandable from here. Jesus is both: Son of God and Son of man. And he is the one who explains the word of the Father to men from the Father. ∎