Friday, January 08, 2021

The Collect of the Feast of the Holy Family

Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato, The Holy Family, 1640-1650
Lost in Translation #33

In the 1962 calendar, the feast of the Holy Family falls on the Sunday after Epiphany rather than the Sunday after Christmas. One advantage of this arrangement, as Peter Kwasniewski notes, is allowing “the central mystery of the Incarnation of the Eternal Son of the Father to ‘breathe’ or occupy central stage”:

In terms of the “psychology” of the season, one notes that the more modern feast of the Holy Family is not permitted to “intrude” until the great event of the Nativity in all its facets—including its cluster of special companion saints who, as it were, surround the cradle of the infant King—has been given plenty of room to shine. Our gaze is intently focused on the mystery of the Incarnate Word: Christmas for eight days, the Circumcision when the Redeemer first shed His blood, the Holy Name he was given and by which we are saved, the Epiphany or revelation of God as savior of the Gentiles. Only after this do we turn expressly to the family in which Our Lord grew up, His baptism in the Jordan, His first miracle at Cana (2nd Sunday after Epiphany), and the start of His preaching and miracles (subsequent Sundays). [1]
Another advantage of the old ordo is that it allows the mystery of the Holy Family to breathe as well. Although some of the propers of the feast in the new Missal likewise take up the life of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in Nazareth, many Catholics find it difficult to think of anything else except the Bethlehem infancy narratives when the feast is celebrated so close to Christmas and prior to the liturgical acknowledgement on January 1 of the Circumcision, the ritual act that formally incorporated Jesus into the Holy Family. [2] But when the feast occurs after Epiphany, it is easier to imagine the Holy Family over the long arc of their lives together, from Bethlehem to Egypt and back to Nazareth.
The “big picture” of the Holy Family is also on the mind of the Church when she prays the Collect for this feast:
Dómine Jesu Christe, qui Maríae et Joseph súbditus domésticam vitam ineffabílibus virtútibus consecrasti: fac nos, utriusque auxilio, Familiae sanctae tuae exemplis ínstrui; et consóortium cónsequi sempiternum: Qui vivis et regnas.
Which I translate as:
O Lord Jesus Christ who, by being subject to Mary and Joseph, didst consecrate domestic life with ineffable virtues: grant that by assistance of both we may be instructed by the examples of, and gain eternal fellowship with, Thy Holy Family: Who livest and reignest.
It is rare for the Roman orations to address the Son rather than the Father, and rarer still to address Him by His Holy Name, but by mentioning Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in that order, the Collect ranks the members of the Holy Family according to their degree of sanctity. In the Holy Family, the order of holiness is the opposite of its order of subjection, with Joseph as head, Mary as subject to him, and Jesus subject to both (see the Gospel of the day, Luke 2, 42-52). This divinely-ordained discrepancy is worth contemplating. Astonishingly, the omniscient and omnipotent Second Person of the Holy Trinity has voluntarily placed Himself under the authority of two mere mortals; and the holiest “mere mortal” of all time has chosen to place herself under the authority of Saint Joseph, a simple carpenter. Among the lessons to be learned from this mystery is that the Christian concept of subjection does not entail any insinuation that the subordinate person is ontologically or spiritually inferior. There is a difference between value, dignity, and excellence on one hand, and an economy of authority based on role or office on the other.
The Maker of all has placed Himself under the authority of two of His creatures, and in so doing has consecrated (consecrare) the home with ineffable virtues. Consecration is literally the act of making something sacred, setting it apart from profane use and dedicating it to God. But in Christian parlance it can also mean to “make holy by means of a sacrament.” [3] In the Solemn Nuptial Blessing of the traditional rite of matrimony, the Church prays: “O God, who hast consecrated the conjugal joining [conjugalis copula] by so excellent a mystery...” Just as Our Lord took a natural good like marriage and elevated it to the dignity of a sacrament, so too has He done something similar with the family. Thanks to the early life of Jesus Christ, domestic life has a new dignity as a potential channel of grace.
The Collect calls the virtues with which Jesus consecrates domestic life “ineffable.” Initially it seems strange to describe virtues as indescribable; after all, can’t the virtues be named and defined? (If they can’t, then the Secunda Pars of St Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae is a massive waste of time.)
The adjective “ineffable”, it seems to me, serves two purposes. First, it speaks to Christ’s sanctification of the home: insofar as the Christian home becomes a channel of grace, it is participating in a supernatural mystery, and insofar as it is participating in a mystery, it is participating in something ineffable. The Church uses a similar logic in the Collect for Friday of the Fourth Week of Lent when she speaks of God as He who “renews the world with ineffable sacraments.”
Second, it speaks to the fact that the domestic life of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph was by and large a hidden life. We cannot describe the virtues of the Holy Family as they lived their quotidian lives insofar as we cannot observe them either with our own eyes or through the sacred text.
The Collect does not ask for grace directly from God but for the assistance of Mary and Joseph, and it asks them to do two things for us: help us be instructed by their examples and help us attain eternal fellowship with them. The prayer uses the plural exempla rather than the singular exemplum. Our attention is directed not to the example of the Holy Family but to their examples, to the different members of the family (each of whom had a different role to play) and to the different chapters of their lives.
Seeking eternal fellowship with the Holy Family, on the other hand, is a reminder of our status as divinely adopted sons. If we are the adopted sons of God the Father, then Jesus is our brother, Mary our mother, and Joseph our foster father. If we are the adopted sons of God, we have also been adopted into the Holy Family of Nazareth.
Seeking eternal fellowship with the Holy Family also ties into the Postcommunion petition “that at the hour of our death the glorious Virgin Mother and blessed Joseph may run to meet us and that we may be found worthy to be received by Thee into Thy eternal dwellings.” Saint Joseph is the patron saint of a happy death because He reputedly died in the arms of Jesus and Mary, and we pray for a similar fate. There is no better way to live or die than as a beloved member of the Holy Family.
[2] Both the 1962 and 1969 Missals include Luke 2, 21 in the Gospel reading on January 1: “And after eight days were accomplished, that the child should be circumcised, his name was called Jesus, which was called by the angel, before he was conceived in the womb.”
[3] Sr. Mary Pierre Ellebracht,Remarks on the Vocabulary of the Ancient Orations in the Missale Romanum (Dekker & Van de Vegt N.V.), 145.

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