Conveniently located near the Galleria Termini, the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, built in the 5th C to commemorate the Council of Ephesus’ (431 AD) proclamation of Mary as the Mother of God, sat gracefully like an affable old lady, greeting every pilgrim who came east from Vatican City to admire her ancient and imperial Roman architecture, magnificent art works and mosaics, and rich collection of ancient burials (source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Maria_Maggiore#Architecture).
Visiting this largest Marian church in Rome was one of the highlights of our family’s pilgrimage to Rome in 2007. A bitter chill greeted us as we got off the bus at the Termini. Armed with Mediterranean humidity and swirling winds, the Roman winter had its way of eating into your bones to cause you great discomfort. Snow was falling - an unusual sight at this time of the year - but accumulation was negligible. Christmas was in the air everywhere we turned. After a short and brisk walk in the cold, our family arrived at the Basilica to celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family.
Fourteen years had passed us by since our family’s visit at Saint Mary Major. In between, we managed to return to Rome together as a family for one more visit in 2012, on the last leg of a cruise trip. Celebrating the Feast of the Holy Family this Sunday brings to mind once again our first experience of the “Eternal City”, especially our trip to Saint Mary Major as a family.
As parents, we owe it to our children to guide them to become the best persons that they can be. For the parents’ guidance to be effective in achieving its lofty goal, the children also owe it to their parents to respect and obey their instructions and orders. This reciprocal filial relationship, built on love, mutual understanding and trust, is crucial for establishing a loving and happy family. On this Feast of the Holy Family, the gospel reading might have left some people wondering if this foundational filial relationship was lacking in the Holy Family.
It’s hard to believe that people would doubt even the Holy Family! But their doubt is not without reason. They are puzzled by the behavior of the adolescent Jesus, which might be fitting for a self-seeking, freedom-craving teenage rebel, but not quite for the Son of God, who in his own teaching demands righteousness and perfection from all children of God because “your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48).
Obviously, this cannot be the case. If this accusation against the adolescent Jesus had been true, then he would have violated his own divine commandment, i.e., honor your father and your mother. What really happened is that Mary tells her son he should have stayed close to his father, Joseph; to which Jesus replies: “I must be in my Father’s house” (Luke 2:49). What Jesus is saying to his mother is that his Father is not Joseph. Like all fathers on earth, Joseph’s fatherhood is only a pointer, pointing us to God, our Heavenly Father. It is even more so for Jesus, who is God the Father’s only Son. Also, the Temple is the Father’s house, which is where Jesus has been the whole time when his parents went looking for him. In other words, what seems like Jesus’ filial disobedience is in fact his expression of a higher filial obedience to the Father.
The main message that Jesus wants us to learn from this story is that ultimately the human family is only a transient pointer, pointing us to the Family of God, which already is present in the Church. This is why the church faithful must love each other as brothers and sisters. Like all the good things in this world that God gives us, our family is important and necessary for our good, both physically and spiritually. But we must not allow ourselves to become attached to it, and make the mistake of seeing it as the be-all and end-all. Such a mistake will cause us to overlook the real reason why family exists in the first place, which is to point and bring us to the Family of God. This is why Jesus says, “For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother…Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:35-37).
Let’s conclude this reflection with a few more words on Jesus’ mother, the person in the story who took the blunt of Jesus’ seemingly offensive behavior. From this story, we see one more reason why we should love the Blessed Virgin Mary and honor her as the model and exemplar - her strong faith. Imagine living with God day-in-and-day-out, doing what you can as His mother to help Him accomplish His divine plan, which is just too profound for you to fathom! Not only does it take a strong faith, the experience also can be very painful, as has become evident in this childhood story of Jesus. Now we can understand better the words of Simeon who, moved by the Spirit, told Mary “a sword will pierce your own soul” (Luke 2:35). Piercing indeed is the pain of not understanding your own child. But that was only one of many piercing pains she had to suffer in order to help him accomplish the Father’s plan of salvation.