You may have noticed, or you will notice as you compare this Sunday’s gospel account with next Sunday’s, that the readings do not follow one another chronologically. In fact, they are in reverse. This Sunday’s gospel begins with “After the wise men left…” (Mt. 2:13 and following), but next Sunday’s gospel is about the arrival of the wise men (Mt. 2:1-12). I don’t know the entire reason historically or liturgically for this cart-before-the-horse reordering except to offer the following.
Copts (Coptic Christians primarily of Egypt) are proud of their land that protected the Child Jesus and Holy Family and equally proud of how they fostered the growth of the Church from the earliest days. Legend has it that the Holy Family spent three to four years in Egypt waiting out the death of wicked King Herod before returning to Palestine. The flight of the Holy Family into Egypt and the feast of the Holy Family has always been observed by the Copts from earliest time. Western Christianity, of which we as Roman Catholics belong, has a long history of venerating Jesus, Mary and Joseph individually but not so long a history of venerating the Holy Family as a group. As Western Christians, the Church informally venerated the Holy Family beginning in the 17th century, but it only became a formal feast in 1921 under Pope Benedict XV. Originally it was celebrated on the Sunday after Epiphany, but in 1969 the Feast of Holy Family was moved to the Sunday immediately after Christmas, bringing it within the Christmas Season.
I like this feast for the humanness that is portrayed. There was nothing glamorous about pulling up stakes because your child’s head was on a wanted poster, “dead or alive but preferably dead.” Pope Francis wrote in Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) in 2016, “…no family drops down from heaven perfectly formed.” His words remind me of a family therapist who when asked by the host, at the end of a radio talk show, whether there is such a thing as a “normal” family. The psychologist, after answering call-in questions for two hours pertaining to dysfunctional families said, “Oh, yes. There is such a thing as a normal family; the normal family is the family that is able to talk about its dysfunctions.” I suspect the Holy Family itself knew firsthand how dysfunctional, displacing, and downright cruel this world can be. Unfortunately, after 2000 years, families are still on the run. They are the refugees, the victims of human trafficking and slave labour. Sometimes the “exiles” are within our own family. A few years ago, on the Feast of the Holy Family, Pope Francis said, “I frequently think that a sign of exactly how a family is doing is exactly how the children and old individuals in the family are dealt with.” He went on to say that God always finds a way to be with the little, the powerless, and the vulnerable. Upheld by that truth, I entrust all families to God. Egypt was just a stopover. Only in God do we find our true home.
Fr. Phil Mulligan