Dec 28, 2014: Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph (B)

Introduction

On the Sunday within the Octave (eight days) of Christmas we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family. Some spiritual writers have called the 30 years that Jesus spent in Nazareth the ‘hidden years’, because there is so little written about them in the gospel narratives. However, they reveal the holiness of ordinary life and show us how it becomes extraordinary for those baptized into Christ.

On December 28, 2011, at his Wednesday audience, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the life of the Holy Family in Nazareth. Here is a short excerpt:

“The house of Nazareth is a school of prayer where we learn to listen, to meditate, to penetrate the deepest meaning of the manifestation of the Son of God, drawing our example from Mary, Joseph and Jesus.

“The Holy Family is an icon of the domestic Church, which is called to pray together. The family is the first school of prayer where, from their infancy, children learn to perceive God thanks to the teaching and example of their parents. An authentically Christian education cannot neglect the experience of prayer. If we do not learn to pray in the family, it will be difficult to fill this gap later. I would, then, like to invite people to rediscover the beauty of praying together as a family, following the school of the Holy Family of Nazareth”.

1st Reading – Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14

God sets a father in honor over his children;
a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons.
Whoever honors his father atones for sins,
and preserves himself from them.
When he prays, he is heard;
he stores up riches who reveres his mother.
Whoever honors his father is gladdened by children,
and, when he prays, is heard.
Whoever reveres his father will live a long life;
he who obeys his father brings comfort to his mother.

My son, take care of your father when he is old;
grieve him not as long as he lives.
Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him;
revile him not all the days of his life;
kindness to a father will not be forgotten,
firmly planted against the debt of your sins
— a house raised in justice to you.

The book of Sirach belongs to ancient Israel’s Wisdom tradition.  Unlike the prophets who either called the people back to God when they strayed or encouraged them to be faithful in the face of overwhelming adversity, the wisdom tradition is a collection of insights gleaned from the successful living of life.  It draws attention to the importance of daily life of the ordinary person.

The reading for today is an instruction about family life, identifying the kind of living that results in family harmony.  The entire teaching about respect for parents, from the commandment (Exodus 20:12, Deuteronomy 5:16) to this admonition in Sirach, takes on a completely different perspective when we remember that this is addressed to an adult child; our obligations to respect and obey our parents does not only apply to children.

God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons.

Given the patriarchal nature of Israel, the admonition to honor one’s mother is significant.  Note that the text states that a mother has authority over her sons, and this authority is confirmed by the Lord.  In the face of the androcentric (male-centered) bias found in the text, this point is significant.

Whoever honors his father atones for sins, and preserves himself from them. When he prays, he is heard; he stores up riches who reveres his mother.

Respect and obedience are due both parents, not just the dominant father.

Whoever honors his father is gladdened by children, and, when he prays, is heard. Whoever reveres his father will live a long life; he who obeys his father brings comfort to his mother.

As is characteristic of Wisdom instruction, the author lists the blessings that result from the prescribed way of living: long life, remission of sins, riches, children of his own, the answer to prayer.

My son, take care of your father when he is old; grieve him not as long as he lives. Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him; revile him not all the days of his life; kindness to a father will not be forgotten, firmly planted against the debt of your sins — a house raised in justice to you.

These final verses make clear that the intended audience of this instruction is adult children, not youth.  The responsibility of children with respect to their parents does not end when they reach maturity and independence.

The adult son is exhorted to care for his father in his declining years, regardless of whether his frailty is physical or mental in nature.

There is no mention of providing similar care for his mother, possibly because it was presumed that women would be cared for by their fathers or brothers, then by their husbands, and finally by their sons.  However, the head of the family was normally not vulnerable and in need of care — in this case, the son would be in a position to discreetly and respectfully sustain his father.

2nd Reading – Colossians 3:12-21

Brothers and sisters:
Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,
bearing with one another and forgiving one another,
if one has a grievance against another;
as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.
And over all these put on love,
that is, the bond of perfection.
And let the peace of Christ control your hearts,
the peace into which you were also called in one body.
And be thankful.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,
as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another,
singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs
with gratitude in your hearts to God.
And whatever you do, in word or in deed,
do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus,
giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Wives, be subordinate to your husbands,
as is proper in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives,
and avoid any bitterness toward them.
Children, obey your parents in everything,
for this is pleasing to the Lord.
Fathers, do not provoke your children,
so they may not become discouraged.

Like our first reading, today’s second reading is also an exhortation to virtuous living.  Because Christians are God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, they should act accordingly.

Brothers and sisters: Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, 

The idea of putting on (or clothing oneself with) virtue suggests a kind of uniform that is worn, one that would allow Christians to be recognized on sight by their manner of living.

Note that the virtues themselves are relational — all directed toward others, and all requiring unselfish sensitivity.

bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.

The motivation for such acts of self-sacrifice is the forgiveness they have received from God.

And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.

After clothing ourselves with self-sacrificial attributes of Christ, Paul instructs us to put on love (agape), the highest of all virtues, as the final outer garment.  It covers, binds, and informs all the others.

And let the peace of Christ control your hearts,

The peace of Christ should not be confused with mere tolerance, or control imposed by some outside force.  It is an inner peace which originates with a relationship with God.

the peace into which you were also called in one body.  And be thankful.

The peace of Christ transforms us and enables harmonious living with others in the one body of Christ.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Paul seems to provide directives for a community practice.  It’s not clear whether these practices are liturgical in nature or part of everyday life; regardless, they are all communal in nature.

Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord.

The final directives concerning family life reflect the household codes prevalent in the Greco-Roman world of the time (see also Ephesians 5:22-29).

Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them.

The author does not remove the expectation that wives should be submissive to their husbands, but rather adds instruction that the husbands act with love and thoughtfulness toward their wives.

Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, so they may not become discouraged.

Similarly, the traditional expectation of obedience from children is not removed, but fathers are given an additional directive to be moderate in the training of their children lest the discipline become oppressive.

This was a patriarchal world where men who headed the families exercised total control over their wives, children, and slaves — in that context, the admonitions here for men to have mutual concern for the members of their family are quite revolutionary. This Christian code of household life retains the tradition of the society from which it sprang, but emphasizes male responsibility over patriarchal privilege.

The Christian virtues listed at the beginning of the reading, when applied within the context of the family unit, have transformed the patriarchal customs of the day and yield the same blessings of unity and harmony.

Gospel – Luke 2:22-40

When the days were completed for their purification
according to the law of Moses,
They took him up to Jerusalem
to present him to the Lord,
just as it is written in the law of the Lord,
Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord,
and to offer the sacrifice of
a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,
in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon.
This man was righteous and devout,
awaiting the consolation of Israel,
and the Holy Spirit was upon him.
It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit
that he should not see death
before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.
He came in the Spirit into the temple;
and when the parents brought in the child Jesus
to perform the custom of the law in regard to him,
He took him into his arms and blessed God, saying:
“Now, Master, you may let your servant go
in peace, according to your word,
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you prepared in sight of all the peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel.”
The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him;
and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother,
“Behold, this child is destined
for the fall and rise of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be contradicted
—and you yourself a sword will pierce—
so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
There was also a prophetess, Anna,
the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.
She was advanced in years,
having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage,
and then as a widow until she was eighty-four.
She never left the temple,
but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.
And coming forward at that very time,
she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child
to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions
of the law of the Lord,
they returned to Galilee,
to their own town of Nazareth.
The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom;
and the favor of God was upon him.

This gospel account of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple is a celebration of piety – the piety of Mary and Joseph, of Simeon, and of Anna.  It stresses the holy family’s strict obedience to the Law of Moses.  In fact, the author will declare five times in this passage that the parents of Jesus conformed to the ritual prescriptions of the law (verses 22, 23, 24, 27, and 39).

When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord,

Just as they had complied with the imperial decree to be enrolled in the census (Luke 2:1-5), so now Mary and Joseph observe the religious requirements of purification (Leviticus 12:1-8) and redemption of the firstborn (Exodus 12:2, 12), which was prescribed by Mosaic law to occur forty days after the birth.

The purification requirement sprang from the belief that blood was a source of life-power and belonged to God.  Therefore, blood was to be kept separate from the secular activities of life.  When this separation was not possible, as during a birth or death, the people and objects that came into contact with the blood were considered ceremonially unclean for a period of time.

just as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord,” and to offer the sacrifice of “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,” in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.

The sacrificial offering during the presentation was a way of reclaiming the firstborn male child, who they believed really belonged to God.  Buying back the child, as prescribed in Numbers 18:15-16) was a way of formally acknowledging God’s initial claim.

The requisite offering was a lamb plus a dove or pigeon; if the mother was poor, her offering would be two doves or pigeons.  Note that Mary gave the offering of the poor.

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon.  

Simeon is the Hebrew form of Simon.  The name means “He [Yahweh] has heard.”

This man was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel,

Probably a reference to the time of messianic fulfillment.  “The consolation of Israel” can also be considered a messianic title.

and the holy Spirit was upon him.

Like the prophets of ancient Israel, he had been seized by the Spirit of God (see Isaiah 61:1).  

It had been revealed to him by the holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Messiah of the Lord. He came in the Spirit into the temple;

Note that Luke states three times that Simeon is under the direction of the Holy Spirit.

and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform the custom of the law in regard to him, he took him into his arms and blessed God, saying: “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to our word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.”

Simeon recognizes the child Jesus as the object of his longing, the one who was both the glory of Israel and the light for the rest of the world.

It is ironic that Joseph and Mary have brought their son to be presented to God at the Temple, but in reality, through the words of Simeon, God is presenting his only-begotten son to men.

The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother,

This must have taken place in the outer court of the Temple, where women were allowed, for Simeon explicitly addresses Mary.  This was very unusual behavior, as men did not typically speak to women with whom they were unfamiliar, especially in public.

“Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, 

Simeon continues by predicting the opposition that Jesus would inspire.  Some would accept him, others would not.  The pure goodness of the Messiah would force people to acknowledge their great sinfulness.

If the “fall and rising” applies to one group, then it means they must be humbled in repentance before they can rise into salvation. If it describes two groups, then it indicates that those who reject Jesus will fall eternally, but those who accept him will rise to a new life.

and to be a sign that will be contradicted and you yourself a sword will pierce

The rejection of her son will be like a sword in Mary’s heart.

so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”

These words are enigmatic.  What the rejection of her son and corresponding pain to Mary has to do with the thoughts of others is not obvious.

There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.  She was advanced in years, having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer. 

Anna the prophetess is old and a widow, constantly in the temple praying and fasting.

And coming forward at that very time, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.

Anna probably witnessed the meeting with Simeon and heard what he said, for she is convinced of the identity of the child, and she proclaims this to all those who cherished messianic hopes.

Neither Simeon nor Anna were formal temple personnel, yet they were the ones who recognized the divine child.  This points to the fact that religious insight comes from fidelity and genuine devotion rather than official status or privileged role.  God and the ways of God are revealed to those who have open minds and open hearts.

When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

The family returns to Nazareth to resume its unpretentious life, but it is note the same.  Even though the child grows up like other children, he is merely waiting for his time to come.

Connections and Themes

In Christ all relationships are made new.   Parallels can be drawn between culcural codes of behavior and the kinds of relationships that are to be fostered within the Church, the household of God.  In fact, the cultural mores can be reinterpreted through the lens of Christian teaching.  Relationships in both the family and the Church are made new because of the experience of Christ.  Those who believe in Christ, while still adhering to certain cultural codes of conduct, are asked to consider new and ever more balanced ways of relating in view of their lives as Christians.  This is true for all relationships: parent and child, husband and wife, brother and sister.  In Christ, all must be embraced as equal members of the household of God.

Adult children and their parents.   The importance of family loyalty is announced and celebrated.  The internal cohesion of the family, though largely spoke of in terms of the patriarchal bias and structures of the times, is seen as nourishing all the members and the family system itself.  While it is important that children of all ages honor their parents, this is an exhortation to adult children to respect and honor their aging parents.  Such a caring relationship is vital in an age of mobility and the lack of extended families to broker the needs of their aging members.  No easy solution is available; however, the point is clear.  From God’s perspective, loving care of aged members is non-negotiable.  It is a family virtue that is to be kept sacred.

The wisdom of the family.   Wisdom comes with time and experience.  It is religious fidelity to God and to the ways of the covenant.  Such wisdom is a source of blessing for the community to know the mystery and the presence of God.  When the wisdom of the elderly is respected, the young are enriched by the stories of the past.  The wisdom figures can point the community to places where God is working and where the divine can be found.  It is their respect for tradition that allows the elderly to speak prophetic words that can change the course of the future and inspire noble deeds of courage in the face of great pain.  In referencing the elderly and their wisdom, the community of believers receive Christ.

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