A new parish has been established in Nottingham, an amalgamation of three former parishes, and it has the named the Parish of the Holy Family. In these dark days no joyful day of celebration Sunday is possible, no happy proclamation of the birth of a new configuration of Catholic presence in the northeast of our city. We can only hope and pray that soon we can all join with the parishioners of the new Holy Family Parish.
In the meantime, it seems to me that we ought to pause and ask exactly who were in the original family that lived in Nazareth. Holy Family. Jesus, to be sure. But who else?
There is so much to cherish and celebrate in the days of Christmas that much may be lost in the pile of remembering that has to be done if we are to embrace the fullness of God’s love that springs into the world from the little town of Bethlehem.
I have my hopes for our new parish. Especially, I hope and pray that when its celebrations are allowed to cross the Trent, what will be celebrated is the whole family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, James, Joses, Jude, and Simon, along with their sisters. For the original oddity of celebrating only three of a very large family must be undone. There is no hidden mystery here. The Holy Gospel according to Saint Mark tells the story. Recall the Gospel words:
He [Jesus] went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honour, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marvelled because of their unbelief.
Mark, chapter 6, verses 1 to 6
A pretty crowded household. Given that Nazareth was a totally insignificant place, maybe with 150 to 200 people (at a stretch), it is never mentioned in the Bible until Joseph and Mary entered God’s story. This is the place that provoked the insolent question of Nathanael:
Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
John, chapter 1, verse 46
I have to say that Jesus did not hold it against Nathanael (after all, Jesus himself was given to calling a spade a spade). This is what Jesus thought of that young man when he saw him:
Behold! An Israelite in whom there is no deceit!
John, chapter 2, verse 48
In Mark’ account above there is no Saint Joseph and we may presume that that good man was dead and Mary was left to run a home of five men and at least two women. The men are named and the women are not but since Mark’s says “his sisters” we know there was more than one.
About the Son Jesus we know all that God has taught us. Of the sisters we know nothing, not even their names. Of those whom Mark names as “his brothers”, all are named after great men we meet in our Bible - so a religious household, to be sure. Three are in the musical about the Joseph who owned an amazing technicoloured dream-coat.
First listed in Mark above is James, which in Greek is Jacobus, a very common name that by the time it gets into English has become James. Every one in Nazareth would have called him Jacob, named after the father of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, the father of the dream-coat Joseph.
Joses is the Greek form of the name we know as Joseph and it seems to come from a Hebrew word related to “add” as in the prayer “May the Lord add to me another son” (though I suspect the Hebrew prayer was not in my mother’s heart at the time I came into the world).
The name Judas occurs again and again in the Maccabee families who led the revolt against the Greek occupation of the Holy Land. The name occurs in the Acts of the Apostles, that of a zealot from Galilee who opposed Roman occupation. It is often spelled “Jude” in Christian writings to avoid mistaking people with Judas Iscariot. The Judas or Jude in the family in Nazareth is regarded by most scholars as the Jude who wrote the 26th (or second last) book in the New Testament, an intriguing letter about what “the brother of the Lord”, calls “our common salvation”. He reminds us that he is “a brother of James”, thus placing himself in that crowded family in Nazareth.
There are five men named James in the pages of the New Testament. There is the son of Zebedee, the man who owned he boat. There is the James identified as the son of Alphaeus, listed among the Twelve called by Jesus. There in a James, son of Mary (not, of course, Our Lady), and he was not one of the Twelve. His mother, along with Mary Magdalene and Salome, followed Jesus all the way from Galilee to Jerusalem, and saw him die there. These three women were the women who brought spices to the tomb and were met by an angel with an amazing announcement:
He has been raised!
He is not here!
The James first mentioned as a member of the family of Nazareth is known as “James, the brother of the Lord” throughout much of the New Testament. It is that James and Peter who are the most significant directors of the earliest Christian communities in Jerusalem in the days immediately after the coming of the Holy Spirit on all of those who,
... with the women, along with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and his brothers, continued in prayer with one mind,
as they waited, and waited, for the promise of Jesus to come upon them. Read Acts, chapters 1 and 2.
The James who is so significant a power in the first years after Pentecost is also the James who wrote one of the most contentious writings in the New Testament. Not that that was his intention. But Martin Luther did not approve of what James wrote and even in modern Lutheran Bibles, the Letter of James is crammed in at the back obviously not to be classified as true words of Scripture.
So there was a very crowded household in Nazareth. We should not image there were but three in that holy family. While he lived, Joseph and when he died, Mary, will have given all the children in that little house, a deep Jewish faith. In our Christmas rememberings we learn this:
And when [Joseph and Mary] had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favour of God was upon him.
I think we can be sure that every boy and girl in that large family grew strong, were filled with wisdom, and found favour with God. And that is joy that we can all celebrate and hopefully our families, with God’s help, can imitate.
Dr Joseph O’Hanlon.
The Feast of the Holy Innocents,
December 28th, 2021.
Download: TABLET HOLY FAMILY 2021
 All quotations are taken for the English Standard Bible (ESV Catholic Edition), soon, thank God, to be the text in our new Lectionary.