A Dominican novice once wrote home to his father, complaining of his many duties and the demands of the divine office, even rising in the early hours to pray. His father was not impressed, and replied:
'My boy, your mother and I have to get up three or four times a night to calm a crying baby [they had just had their fourteenth child], and that is less romantic than your night office.'
Many of the capacities and abilities we take for granted as adults and probably never even think of are the fruit of our parent's unromantic sacrifice. Brushing teeth, tying laces, riding bikes: nobody is born with these abilities - someone has had to endure boredom of the highest degree, repeating the same old thing again and again for our sake. How bored my mother must have been spending night after night throwing me in the air whenever I managed to read a word correctly (I had stubbornly refused to start reading), but it worked and I was soon reading without any encouragement.
Each one of us all the time carries the fruit of countless acts of generosity and sacrifice. That is what it means to belong to a family, to be part of a context where people give themselves freely so others can grow and develop. I exist against a hidden backdrop of generation after generation, a story of formation in human living of which I am a link in the chain.
Jesus, as the genealogies in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke remind us, is himself part of a family story, he exists against a backdrop of generation forming generation, of sacrifice and generosity. In the Gospel we see Jesus's immediate family context stretched to the limit through anxiety and fear of loss.
Mary and Joseph have searched for three days and three nights for Jesus, and when they find him in the Temple his words must have cast a shadow over the life they lived together: 'Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house.' The child given to them to raise, to sacrifice for, is destined to be the sacrifice of liberation for the whole human race. Jesus's destiny is to hand everything back to the source of creation, so that it may be renewed and recreated. He reveals to us that the backdrop of all things is the patient generosity of the Father, who will sacrifice even his own Son that we may have life.
So the holy family is a family learning to live backwards. The child is often the image of the parents, but in this family Mary is in the image of her Son: without sin she is a mirror for the newness of what God is doing in Christ, and Joseph - like us a sinner - is called to let that image be formed in him patiently, through the graces of the Holy Spirit working within him.
This family, called to form and raise a boy, is a school where the adults are formed through knowing and loving the child. The Gospel contrast the scribes in the Temple, amazed at the wisdom of the boy Jesus, as so many will be amazed at his words in his earthly ministry - an amazement so compatible with taking offence, rejecting Jesus, putting him to death. Those entrusted with teaching Israel will not want to learn, will not be able to see.
But Mary, we are told, 'kept all these things in her heart.' Mary's humility lets her be schooled by her own child, and so she can be formed ever more deeply in the image of the one who is the true image of the Father. Going back to Nazareth Jesus is obedient to Mary and Joseph, and grows in stature. The holy family is a place of passing on the story of human life, of the old shaping the young. But even more this family is a place where the young shape the old, where the heart must grow younger as it contemplates the face of Christ.
So much of what we do is passing on, passing on the goods of human life and human living to those who will come after us. Whether it is our savings, the future good of the planet, or a love of great literature, human beings seek to pass it on to others. But not everything is passing away into the future. The child born of Mary has come to renew the human race, to make it young again in the freshness of God's Holy Spirit through the merciful patience of the Father.