On the Sunday within the Octave of Christmas we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family, a natural continuation of the Christmas season (which lasts for twelve days, until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6). Part of the Christmas celebration is the inspiration Jesus gives to the family, the basic unit of society all over the world.
On December 28, 2011, at his Wednesday audience, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the life of the Holy Family in Nazareth. 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.
This year, in Cycle A, our first reading is from the book of Sirach, which belongs to ancient Israel’s Wisdom tradition. Wisdom literature dates to after the Babylonian exile (587-537 BC), the experience of which forced the Israelites to question many of their treasured beliefs. In wisdom literature, the authors arrive at conclusions based on reason rather than on their reflections about God’s powerful acts in history (e.g., the Exodus).
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 focuses on the successful living of daily life, providing insights and guidance to the ordinary person.
The reading for today is an instruction about family life, identifying the kind of living that pleases God and results in family harmony. The entire teaching about respect for parents, from the original 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 family 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 (i.e., 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 (agápē), 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 – Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
When the magi had departed, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt,
and stay there until I tell you.
Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”
Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night
and departed for Egypt.
He stayed there until the death of Herod,
that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled,
Out of Egypt I called my son.
When Herod had died, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream
to Joseph in Egypt and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel,
for those who sought the child’s life are dead.”
He rose, took the child and his mother,
and went to the land of Israel.
But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea
in place of his father Herod,
he was afraid to go back there.
And because he had been warned in a dream,
he departed for the region of Galilee.
He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth,
so that what had been spoken through the prophets
might be fulfilled,
He shall be called a Nazorean.
Today’s gospel shows that not even the Holy Family was spared the trials and sufferings of every family. The baby’s life was threatened and the Holy Family became displaced persons in a foreign country. The family is open to God yet also vulnerable to the tide of fortune.
There is also a great deal more being communicated in Matthew’s gospel, which we can better understand if we remember that his audience was primarily Jewish. One of Matthew’s most important themes is the demonstration of Jesus Christ as simultaneously the new Moses, the new Israel, and the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.
In fact, the entire second chapter (from which we read today) is dedicated to emphasizing the parallel lives of Jesus and Moses:
- both survived a slaughter of innocents (Matthew 2:16 = Exodus 1:22),
- both had to flee (Matthew 2:14 = Exodus 2:15),
- both returned (Matthew 2:19 = Exodus 4:19),
- both led the people out of slavery and to the promised land (Moses to the Land of Canaan, Jesus to the New Jerusalem).
When the magi had departed,
Greek: magoi. Originally this term designated the learned priestly caste of the Persians; later, it came to mean anyone skilled in occult knowledge and power (much like our “magician,” which is derived from the same word). The mention of the star in Matthew’s gospel shows they were called magoi because of their knowledge of astrology, hence the identification is some translations as astrologers.
behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”
Through the agency of an angel, God led Joseph and the family into Egypt, precipitated by the hatred of Herod.
From the time of the Maccabees, Egypt was a customary place of refuge for Jews. Since it bordered the Holy Land, many Jews were finding refuge there beyond the jurisdiction of Herod. Joseph would be welcomed in many of Egypt’s cities, and he would be able to find a livelihood in his trade of carpentry.
Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt.
Note the immediate obedience on the part of Saint Joseph. He is as devout as any Pharisee in his obedience to the Law of Moses, but able to go further and obey God’s new and complete revelation:
- He courageously protected Mary’s reputation, especially because God wanted him to.
- He took Mary as his wife even though the child with whom she was pregnant wasn’t his, because God told him to.
- To protect his family, he led them into exile, because God told him to.
- When Jesus began his public ministry, he spoke of God as abba, “Daddy,” and it was from the kindly Joseph that he had learned what a daddy was.
He stayed there until the death of Herod,
The Holy Family may have stayed in Egypt as long as three years.
that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
A quote from Hosea 11:1, in which the prophet is recalling the exodus experience and teaching his contemporaries about the faithful love of God: When Israel was a child I loved him, out of Egypt I called my son.
The reference is to the basic experience of salvation, the exodus from Egyptian bondage. Jesus is presented as reenacting in his own life the career not only of Moses but of all Israel, for he leads the New Israel. Jesus is the embodiment of the history of his people and the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to them.
The lectionary then skips verses 16-18, which report Herod’s order that all boys in Bethlehem aged two and under be killed. This too would remind a Jewish reader of Moses. There was also a slaughter of babies when Moses was born, which is why he was put into a basket and placed on the riverbank, where the Pharaoh’s daughter found him (Exodus 1:15-2:10). Jesus is being presented as the new Moses who has authority from God to give a new law.
When Herod had died, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said,
Note the parallel structure to the previous scene: the event is contingent on the termination of an earlier event (when the magi had departed / when Herod had died), followed by the exclamatory word “behold” (idoú), and the appearance of an angel of the Lord in a dream to Joseph.
A Jewish reader would be well aware that this Joseph was not the first Joseph to flee to Egypt and thereby save his family. Joseph the patriarch also fled to Egypt when his brothers plotted to kill him. Later, when there was a famine, Joseph’s family had to come to Egypt and ask Joseph for food. Joseph became God’s instrument of salvation for his family from famine and death (see Genesis 37:1-47:52).
Jesus will save not only his family, but the whole human race. Jesus will feed his people, not with bread, but with Eucharist. He will give them not just an extended life on earth, but eternal life.
“Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.”
This command to Joseph closely resembles the command given to Moses in Exodus 4:19.
He rose, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.
Again, Joseph’s obedience is highlighted.
But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go back there.
The death of Herod had changed things: his will had divided his kingdom into three parts, one for each of his three sons Archelaus, Antipas, and Philip. Archelaus was given Judea, and was so extremely cruel that, to quell a civil war, he opened his rule with the deliberate slaughter of 3,000 of the most influential people in the area. Ten years later, the Roman Emporer Augustus would remove him from power due to his cruelty.
And because he had been warned in a dream, he departed for the region of Galilee.
Joseph’s fears are confirmed by a warning via another dream, and therefore instead takes the family to Galilee, where Antipas reigned.
He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He shall be called a Nazorean.”
This origin claim in fulfillment of a prophecy has raised more questions than it might answer. First, such a prophetic proclamation is found nowhere in the Scriptures, nor is it considered a reference to any particular prophet. The plural “prophets” suggests that no specific passage was intended but rather that the important aspects of Jesus’ identity, ministry, and destiny all somehow fulfill the expectations of Israel.
Read literally, the “Nazorean” designation simply means that Jesus is a resident of the city. The word itself (nazoraios) is also the name of a Christian sect (Acts 24:5). However, both the name and the sect might be related to Nazirite, a ground known from earlier biblical tradition (Samson in Judges 13:4-5), a group that some believed later had an influence on John the Baptist. Since Jesus did not observe the rigorous life associated with the Nazirites, this explanation of the name attributed to him is unlikely.
A final possible explanation suggests a word play on Isaiah 11:1 with the Hebrew word nēser (branch): “A shoot shall rise from the stump of Jesse, and a branch (nēser) shall sprout from his roots.” The image suggests the destruction of the great organization set up by David, the son of Jesse, and transferred to his heirs. What struggles to emerge from this ruin (a tender shoot) is insignificant in comparison with what was once prominent (a large, established stump). Such an understanding corresponds to the insignificance with which Nazareth was viewed (John 1:46: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”).
Saint Jerome himself, in his Commentary on Isaiah 11:1, stated that the name “Nazorean” fulfills the prophecy as Christ is the branch (nezer) of the entire race of Abraham and David.
Connections and Themes
All the major themes found in today’s readings highlight the relational character of family life. In Sirach, some of the dynamics of family living and responsibility as exercised in the ancient world unfold before our eyes. Paul directs our attention to the manner of relational living to which we are summoned as members of the family of God, a manner of living that flows from the bond of perfection that unites us. The gospel narrative paints a picture of a family that follows the directives of God.
Family living. We often speak of family values, but what exactly are they? The specifics of family customs and roles played within the family may be culture-bound, but it seems that the values out of which they emerge and that inform them are not. Sirach sketches a picture of ancient family customs, but it is easy to look beneath them and find values that are enduring and speak to us today. There we clearly discover the values of mutuality, respect, and service between wives and husbands, between parents and children, and between the young and the old. This doesn’t mean there are no roles of dominance. However, these roles often disappear or change. As Sirach demonstrates, the son who was once dependent on the father now becomes his caretaker. Despite the nature of the roles and the way they move from one person to another, mutual respect and care for those in need remain a constant.
These values challenge us today. Because of cultural differences, we may not be inclined to live them out in the same way, but mutuality, respect, and care for others should still be the backbone of our living together. The challenge before us is to devise ways for husbands and wives to live in mutual esteem; for parents to honor the dignity of their children at the same time as children obey and show respect for their parents; for the elderly to protect the young even as the young watch over the elderly. Abuse occurs in far too many corners of the world, and no group seems to be spared its horror. The message from Sirach speaks to us today.
The family of God. While this feast considers the family unit as such, it also celebrates the Church as the family of God. Thus the values of mutuality, respect, and service become characteristics of the Church of the ecclesial family. What binds the family of God together are virtues as relational as are the ties that bind the members of the natural family together. While we use the metaphor of family and relate it to the Church, this does not mean that some within the community are mature and others are not. Within the family of God, the virtues outlined by Paul are to be lived in a mature manner, not one that is infantile. The Church is a community of adults who are called in one body to live in a collaboration of love, mutuality, and service. They are joined in a bond of perfection, not in subservience or neurotic antagonism.
It may be more challenging to live out these values within the Church, for those who are called to put on Christ, bearing with one another in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, must relate in this way with people who may be strangers. The natural family bonds are absent. Withing the family of God there is great diversity; there are often significant differences. There it is neither blood nor marriage that binds, only the word of Christ in the hearts of the believers. It is no wonder that more than once in the reading for today, Paul admonishes the Christians to forgive. The Church may be a different kind of family, but the values of mutuality, respect, and service are as essential here as anywhere.
The Holy Family. The model for both the natural family and the family of God is the Holy Family. There we find mutuality in the relationships, we find compassion, kindness and humility, gentleness and patience. In this portrait of the Holy Family, people do not claim privilege. Jesus, who was the son of God, was cared for and protected by his mother and father. In today’s reading it is Joseph, the head of the family, who is approached by the divine messenger.
Today the breakdown of family structure and the erosion of true family values have left many fathers and mothers adrift on the sea of confusion. Ours is a dangerous world for children. The gospel reading depicts Joseph as one who is open and obedient to the directives of God. For the sake of the safety of the child, he willingly leaves behind the familiar life he must have known and with Mary journeys to a foreign land. He is the model of a parent who puts the needs of the child before his own. Our children are not our possessions; they are our treasure and our legacy. They have been entrusted to us by God. In Joseph, we see one who took this trust very seriously. This story is a marvelous example of family values in operation.
A celebration of wisdom. It is not by accident that several of the readings for today deal with the theme of wisdom, which can be understood as seeking and savoring those insights gained from the experience of life that enable us to live fully and with integrity. In each reading, we see that we arrive at wisdom through the way we live out the relationships closest to us. In the family, we discover that while children are taught and molded by parents, it is the children themselves that teach the adults what it means to be a real parent. In the family, we discover that husbands and wives fashion and shape each other into caring, loving, and forgiving partners. So it is in the family of God. There we discover that it is only trusting relationships that we can live lives of mutuality, respect, and service. Modeling ourselves after Jesus, we learn to be compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, and patient. In the family of God, we take on the most basic family characteristic — we put on love.