What We Often Forget about the Holy Family

By Scott Hahn 

Dr. Scott Hahn is president of the St. Paul Center and author of over forty books on theology and biblical studies. He is the host of The Road to Emmaus podcast. 

The Holy Family, flight into Egypt, learning from the holy family
La Fuga in Egitto, Jacopo Bassana

It’s easy to take a romantic view of the Holy Family, as if they were angels rather than human beings. But even though Mary and Jesus never sinned, that doesn’t mean there were no parental mistakes. And it doesn’t mean Jesus never frustrated His earthly parents.  

Jesus was twelve years old when He stayed behind in Jerusalem after the Passover observances. St. Luke records that Mary and Joseph had traveled an entire day before they realized their boy was missing. Any parent can relate to the fear, anxiety, and embarrassment Jesus’ parents must have felt as they turned back toward Jerusalem (Luke 2:41–51).  

But just imagine: Mary and Joseph felt like they had lost not just any teenager but the Son of God. This story is often used as an analogy for the experience of the Dark Night of the Soul, when one suddenly loses the confidence and consolation of the presence of the Lord. We wonder, as Jesus’ parents must have wondered, if we have lost God or, more distressingly, if He has abandoned us. Even knowing in an intellectual way that God never abandons us often isn’t enough to calm the anxiety that comes with feeling His absence so acutely.  

And so we should not be surprised that the Blessed Mother’s first words to her precious son, whom she has found only after three full days of searching, are ones of exasperation: “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” But the twelve-year-old Christ gently rebukes His mother with a rhetorical question: “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:48–49).  

Jesus’ rebuke should sting us as it surely stung His parents, but it should also give us consolation for two reasons. First, even the sinless Blessed Mother did not always understand the ways of the Lord, and she felt the anxiety that comes with His apparent absence. How much more so should we sinners, therefore, expect to feel the pangs of abandonment when the Lord feels far away from us? Second, and more importantly, Jesus’ response reminds us that we can always find Him in the temple—the temple of the Church where He rests in the tabernacle and the temple of our hearts where He rests, waiting patiently for us to seek Him out.  

This is the key to understanding the Holy Family: studying Mary and Joseph always has a way of turning our focus to Jesus Christ. The primary community of which Jesus was a member—His family—didn’t subsume or dilute His identity. Rather, His family accentuated His nature, both human and divine.  

The Holy Family should serve as a reminder that our families should not become excuses for ignoring Jesus, but rather showcases that display His grace and love and truth more brilliantly than any individual can on his or her own. Jesus, like all of us, finds His fullness in community.

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