Yesterday was the feast of St. Stephen, a special day for deacons because St. Stephen was one of the first deacons, and the first Christian mentioned in scripture to be stoned—and by that, I mean martyred. So whatever connections you make between deacons and St. Stephen's being stoned I will leave on your conscience.
Today is the feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, and it's a day on which the Church reflects on foremost on the Holy Family, but also on the gift of family in our lives and the role that family plays in the formation of our character.
In the first reading, Hannah names her son Shmuel (שמואל), which we pronounce Samuel in English. The name has no precise meaning but has been translated variously as—heard of God, asked of God, His name is God, or namesake of God. What we get in this passage is essentially a folk etymology. His name is Samuel because Hannah asked the Lord for him. Hannah takes Samuel to the temple and dedicates him to God's service. It's important to note here her motivation. Out of gratitude to God for His gift of a child to her, a child she had longed for and whose birth removed the stigma of barrenness from her, she gives Samuel back to God.
Now, if you've studied this book before, you already know that Samuel is literally called by God, and he becomes a great prophet and judge of Israel. It is he who anoints first Saul and later David as kings of Israel. But imagine how different his life had been had he not been in the temple. Would he have heard the call to his vocation if he were not in a context where he was constantly exposed to God?
In our Gospel reading, Jesus is left behind in Jerusalem, and Mary and Joseph search for him for three days only to find him in the temple. To us, this story sounds a bit like the family that left the kid at the rest area, and our parental judgment apparatus springs into action. But keep in mind that in that time, extended families and neighbors would travel together to and from Jerusalem for the three major festivals. Mary's presence on the journey indicates her personal dedication to her faith, since the journey was only required for Jewish men. They assumed that Jesus was traveling with the other members of their large contingent from Nazareth, which was a completely legitimate assumption for them in their time. So let's not take this as a sign that Joseph and Mary were anything other than exceptional parents. They were devoted in the observance of their faith, and if anything, it is Jesus who has done something unexpected and out of character for their culture.
When they find Jesus, he is sitting in the temple asking questions and responding to the teachers, and the teachers are astounded by his wisdom. You see, at that time, a Jewish boy's religious education did not culminate in a bar Mitzvah at age 13. They didn't start until they were 12. So Jesus' understanding is so completely out of the norm for the time and place. At the age when most of us started junior high, he is teaching the teachers.
Mary questions Jesus. She has a legitimate grievance: "Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety."
And Jesus answers, "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" And this, likewise, is a legitimate question.
Now why do I make that claim? Because Jesus does here what we are all called to do: to respond to the vocation to which God calls us. He recognizes his vocation and sets out to practice it. That sounds a little odd to us in our secular culture—a 12-year old disregarding his parents' concerns and embarking on a vocation. How many of us would stand for something that radical? But this is in a culture where parents regularly committed their children at an early age. In fact, one explanation for Mary's marriage to Joseph was that she had been dedicated for service to the temple until she was of age and then needed a patron after she was no longer qualified to serve. Samuel's call likewise came at an early age. It is simply something that is foreign to our modern sensibilities and context.
So how do these two stories touch on the meaning and purpose of family? Our Church, of course, has something to say about that.
The Church calls the family, in paragraph 1656 of the Catechism, the ecclesia domestica—the domestic church. It is the primary place of faith formation for children—the primary place of faith formation. As I said in last year's homily for this feast, family is the oven in which the bricks of civilization are cured. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, and many popes prior to him have stressed the foundational importance of the family not only to civilization but also to the transmission of the faith.
In this context, children see whether or not the faith makes a difference in family life and in all life. If our faith isn't taught and demonstrated in the home, it will not find a home in the human heart. Both of our readings show that faith begins at home, and then the children take it out to serve God in the greater society. What would Samuel have done without his mother's commitment and gratitude to God for His gift to her? And while we can presume that Jesus would carry out his mission regardless of whether Mary and Joseph were on board, the gospel writers—particularly Luke—make it clear that Mary and Joseph are pious and observant Jews. That could not have hurt his mission by any means.
So family is important for faith formation, and part of formation in the faith is discerning one's calling. Because of his mother's sacrifice, Samuel discerned his calling while he served in the temple. Undoubtedly, Jesus was able to respond to his calling because of his parents' observance of the Jewish high holy days. In both cases, we see that the child is aided in discerning and following a call through his parents' support.
Now, I'm sure I don't need to explain that the word vocation comes from the Latin verb that means to call. A calling is a vocation, and all of us are called to some mission. As Catholics, we believe that this calling is not just a personal preference but something that God has knit into our fabric—into our very being—and if we ignore the call or if we do not take the time to listen for it, we miss the very purpose for which we have been given life. All of us have a vocation, and if we do not find that vocation, we will find our lives unsatisfying. We will fill up our time with frivolous and meaningless endeavors.
It used to be the norm for Catholic families to encourage their children to discern whether they had a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. My uncle attended minor seminary for just that purpose, and I know more than one of our parishioners who spent some time in the discernment process. Some discern instead that they have a firm commitment to the vocation of marriage, and that is good as well. The point is that they discern where God is calling them to mission.
"What do you want to do with your life?" That is a question we often ask our children. What do you want of your life? There's a problem with this. First, it confirms the tendency we have in our culture to think that we live solely for our own self satisfaction, and that is quite simply not true. Second, it assumes that we are given gifts for our own use alone. Scripture teaches us that our gifts must be used for the purpose for which they are given, and that purpose is not under our determination, but it is under our stewardship.
We do not ask our children the right question. We should not be asking them, "What do you want to do when you grow up?" We should be asking them, "What do you think God is calling you to do when you grow up?" We should be encouraging them to consider their mission in terms of God's will for them, not their own will for themselves. It should be no surprise to us, then, if our grown children are focused solely on their own personal self-fulfillment than on serving God or anyone else. Their self-centeredness is something our culture will implant in them if we do not take the time to inculcate in them a knowledge of their obligation to discern God's will in their lives—in directing their lives according to His will and not their preferences.
This concern about vocations is not just an abstract exercise. Our Church needs priestly and religious vocations. And vocations begin in the home. If we are going to have priests to serve at the altar, to bring us the Eucharist daily, weekly, or even monthly, we must raise boys to pursue the priesthood. If we are going to have religious brothers and sisters to provide service to the Church and to the impoverished, elderly, and disabled, we must raise children who seek to serve rather than to be served. We have to look at the generosity of Hannah, who gave her much desired child back to God in His service; and to the Blessed Mother, who accepted her own vocation to be the Mother of God. We have to look back on the generosity of the fathers and mothers of past generations who encouraged their children to seek God's purpose for their lives, parents like Blessed Louis and Zélie Martin, who gave not just one but five daughters to serve religious vocations, including a doctor of the Church, St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
We have to recall why we are here, and it doesn't hurt to start with the basic proposition from our catechism. We are here to know, love, and serve God, in this life and the next.