Dec 26, 2021: Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph (C)

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 thirty years that Jesus spent in Nazareth the “hidden years,” because there is so little written about them in the gospel narratives. However, the little we do know reveals the holiness of ordinary life and shows 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. 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.

Each year, the Old Testament reading for today’s feast has to do with parents and children. This selection is from the book of Sirach, which 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 the daily life of the ordinary person.

This reading 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 takes on a completely different perspective when we remember that this is addressed to an adult child; our obligation to respect and obey our parents does not end when we reach adulthood. 

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, an authority confirmed by God.

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 adult son is exhorted to care for his father in his declining years, regardless of whether his frailty is physical or mental in nature. The responsibility of children with respect to their parents does not end when they reach maturity and independence.

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.

Alternate 1st Reading – 1 Samuel 1: 20-22, 24-28

In those days Hannah conceived, and at the end of her term bore a son
whom she called Samuel, since she had asked the LORD for him.
The next time her husband Elkanah was going up
with the rest of his household
to offer the customary sacrifice to the LORD and to fulfill his vows,
Hannah did not go, explaining to her husband,
“Once the child is weaned,
I will take him to appear before the LORD
and to remain there forever;
I will offer him as a perpetual nazirite.”

Once Samuel was weaned, Hannah brought him up with her,
along with a three-year-old bull,
an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine,
and presented him at the temple of the LORD in Shiloh.
After the boy’s father had sacrificed the young bull,
Hannah, his mother, approached Eli and said:
“Pardon, my lord!
As you live, my lord,
I am the woman who stood near you here, praying to the LORD.
I prayed for this child, and the LORD granted my request.
Now I, in turn, give him to the LORD;
as long as he lives, he shall be dedicated to the LORD.”
Hannah left Samuel there.

In Year C, the lectionary provides an alternate Old Testament reading from 1 Samuel, the story of the birth and dedication of the prophet Samuel.

Samuel played a key role in Israel’s transition from biblical judges to the institution of a kingdom under Saul, and again in the transition from King Saul to King David.

Like Samson, John the Baptist, and Jesus himself, Samuel’s birth was foretold by an angel. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, was childless; at long last, her fervent prayers for a child were answered.

In those days Hannah conceived, and at the end of her term bore a son whom she called Samuel, since she had asked the LORD for him.

Hannah had long been childless, with what was becoming a hopeless case. She was consistently humiliated by her husband’s other wife, who had given birth to several children. In scripture, the social status gained by producing children, especially males, often set woman against woman (e.g., Genesis 16, 21, 30).

Hannah sought a way out of her anguish by asking God, her only hope, to give her a son, vowing that she would dedicate that son to God if he saw fit to grant her request.

In this way, Hannah is the prototype of the devout woman who perseveres in prayer, convinced that she will be heard.

The next time her husband Elkanah was going up with the rest of his household to offer the customary sacrifice to the LORD and to fulfill his vows, Hannah did not go, explaining to her husband, “Once the child is weaned, I will take him to appear before the LORD and to remain there forever; I will offer him as a perpetual nazirite.”

The Nazirites set themselves apart for the Lord’s service by taking a vow that obliged them to abstain from drinking wine or cutting their hair (see Numbers 6:2-8). 

When Hannah prayed for Samuel, she made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if you look with pity on the hardship of your servant, if you remember me and do not forget me, if you give your handmaid a male child, I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life. No razor shall ever touch his head” (1 Samuel 1:11).

Once Samuel was weaned, Hannah brought him up with her,

Some commentators believe this refers to being weaned from the breast, which would have meant that Samuel was around three years old. Others believe it refers to being weaned from childish things, since presenting a three-year-old boy for service at the temple would have been very unusual. If that were the case, he would be somewhere between eight and ten years of age.

along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine, and presented him at the temple of the LORD in Shiloh. 

Hannah presents Samuel at the temple along with a sacrifice, and a significantly valuable one at that.

An ephah was a dry measure of about one bushel.

After the boy’s father had sacrificed the young bull, Hannah, his mother, approached Eli and said: “Pardon, my lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who stood near you here, praying to the LORD. 

Hannah is referring to an earlier event when the priest Eli observed her praying at the temple for the blessing of a child (1 Samuel 1:9-17). That earlier passage tells us that Hannah was prompted by “deep sorrow and misery” to  “pour her heart out to the Lord.”

At the time, Eli encouraged her, saying, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have requested.”

I prayed for this child, and the LORD granted my request. 

Hannah gratefully acknowledges God’s goodness in answer to her prayer.

Now I, in turn, give him to the LORD; as long as he lives, he shall be dedicated to the LORD.” She left Samuel there.

What a tremendous act. Having been given the child she prayed desperately for, Hannah gives the child back to God in the form of service at the temple. And she does this not for a specified term, as for an apprenticeship, but durante vita, as long he lives.

Anything we give to God was first his gift to us.

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, they are holy and beloved. This reality has profound ramifications on how we must treat each other.

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 that Christians should 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, and this isn’t control imposed by some outside force. It is an inner peace that 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. 

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

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.

We must always remember that, as Christians, we are acting in Christ’s name.

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).

This reminds us that one context in which we must place every biblical text is the context of the belief of the times. We must separate the core teaching of the author from what is an application of that teaching for the author’s specific historical audience. In this passage, the core teaching is that because God has chosen us and because we are holy and beloved, we must treat each other as beloved children of God. In the previous verse Paul reminded us that as Christians we are acting in Christ’s name: Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.

The application of this truth within the social setting of the Colossians is that wives should respect the order of the household codes of their time, and treat the husbands accordingly.

The core truth is just as applicable to our society as it was to the Colossians; the specific application is not.

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

To the traditional expectation that wives should be submissive to their husbands, the author adds instruction that the husbands act with love and thoughtfulness toward their wives.

This was a patriarchal world where men exercised total control over their wives, children, and slaves — admonishing men to have mutual concern for their wives was revolutionary.

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 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 2:41-52

Each year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the feast
of Passover,
and when he was twelve years old,
they went up according to festival custom.
After they had completed its days, as they were returning,
the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem,
but his parents did not know it.
Thinking that he was in the caravan,
they journeyed for a day
and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances,
but not finding him,
they returned to Jerusalem to look for him.
After three days they found him in the temple,
sitting in the midst of the teachers,
listening to them and asking them questions,
and all who heard him were astounded
at his understanding and his answers.
When his parents saw him,
they were astonished,
and his mother said to him,
“Son, why have you done this to us?
Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”
And he said to them,
“Why were you looking for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
But they did not understand what he said to them.
He went down with them and came to Nazareth,
and was obedient to them;
and his mother kept all these things in her heart.
And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor
before God and man.

Today’s gospel reading, the Finding of Jesus in the Temple, is the only account set in the years between Jesus’ infancy and the time of his ministry. It is reported only by Saint Luke.

Each year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover,

The Law required adult Israelite men to observe three major feasts in Jerusalem: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles (Exodus 23:14; Deuteronomy 16:16). 

Although only adult males were required to make the Passover pilgrimage, we are told that Mary and Joseph both made the trip each year, demonstrating their faithfulness. 

The distance from Nazareth to Jerusalem is about 60 miles as the crow flies, 85 miles by road.

and when he was twelve years old,

Jesus is still a child. At age thirteen, he will assume the religious responsibilities of an adult.

they went up according to festival custom.

The entire family travels to Jerusalem to observe the feast and celebrate for seven days. They literally “went up,” as Jerusalem is located on a mountaintop.

After they had completed its days, as they were returning, the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Thinking that he was in the caravan, they journeyed for a day and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances,

Entire villages would commonly travel in large caravans on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, broken up into two groups: one of men, the other of women. Children could go with either group.

This explains how they could go a day’s journey before they discovered he was missing, which probably happened when the families regrouped to camp.

but not finding him, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. 

They had traveled a day before Jesus’ absence was discovered, and it would have taken them another day to return to the city.

After three days they found him in the temple,

Imagine being told by an angel that the Son of God would be placed into your care, and then losing track of him for three whole days!

This detail foreshadows the ending of Luke’s gospel when Jesus will again go to Jerusalem and again will be “lost” for three days. That fateful trip will also be at the time of Passover.

sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, 

On feast days and Sabbaths, the Sanhedrin conducted informal question-and-answer sessions at courtyard of the Temple, rather than attending to their normal judicial activities.

and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers.

The Greek word used for “astounded” (exitēmi) is frequently used to describe the human reaction to the manifestation of divine power. (See also Luke 4:22.)

Although popular tradition (and some religious art) suggests that Jesus was teaching in the Temple, the text does not state this. He was probably simply part of the exchange. Jesus’ questions and responses attracted the teachers’ attention, he was so wise and well-informed.

When his parents saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”

While Mary and Joseph have been desperately searching for Jesus, Jesus has clearly not been looking for them.

Mary questions her son with a standard formula of accusation (see Genesis 12:18, Exodus 14:11, Numbers 23:11, and Judges 15:11).

And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Jesus’ reply are his first words recorded in the gospels.

He parallels Mary’s reference to Joseph as his father with his own reference of God as his Father. Herein lies the point of the narrative: Jesus is declaring himself as the Christ. Approaching adulthood, he is beginning to assume a public role.

In addition to providing an explanation to his parents, his words show his divine sonship and determination to fulfill the will of God. The expression “my Father’s house” can also be translated as “my Father’s affairs” or “my Father’s business.”

Many people, on reading these words, think they sound rude. Why didn’t Jesus at least apologize for frightening his parents? Luke’s point rests on the word must. In both his gospel and in Acts of the Apostles, Luke uses this word to describe actions that must be done in order to carry out God’s will (other examples include Luke 4:43 and 9:22).

Jesus’ response to his mother is revealing that Jesus’ main relationship in life is with his heavenly Father. With his first recorded words, he is already teaching us an important lesson: over and above any human authority, even that of our parents, there is the primary duty to do the will of God.

“And, once we are consoled by the joy of finding Jesus — three days he was gone! — debating with the teachers of Israel, you and I shall be left deeply impressed by the duty to leave our home and family to serve our heavenly Father” (Saint Josemaría Escrivá, Holy Rosary, Fifth Joyful Mystery).

But they did not understand what he said to them.

At a young age, Jesus is already emphasizing that he must attend to doing God’s will, even if it means those he loves will suffer. Mary and Joseph did not yet understand the full implication of what his role as the Christ would entail, and that his relationship to God took precedence over his relationship to them. They would grow to understand this as the life of their Child unfolded.

They lost Jesus. They could not find him for three days. They did not understand. This scene from Jesus’ childhood prefigures what will take place at the climax of his ministry as an adult. In the last days of his life, Jesus will make another pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover. There in the holy city, he will enter the temple and engage the Jewish teachers in the sanctuary. He will amaze many with his wisdom, just as he did in his youth. On this later occasion, however, the astonishment will lead to his demise, as the Jerusalem leaders plot his death. Once again, Jesus will be taken from his mother, this time to be crucified on Calvary. And standing below the cross, Mary, as any mother, will feel the pains of not fully understanding how her son could suffer such a tragic death. Yet at the same time, Mary will trust that Jesus must be about his Father’s affairs, fulfilling the will of the Father. And just as Mary found Jesus on the third day in Jerusalem as a child, she will find him again on the third day when he rises from the dead on Easter morning. [Edward Sri, Praying the Rosary Like Never Before]

He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them;

The Gospel sums up Jesus’ life in Nazareth in just three words: erat subditus illis, “he was obedient to them.”

Luke does not present Jesus as a son who had no regard for his parents’ wishes. Having made a striking appearance in the Temple, he returns to Nazareth and a life of obedience to his parents. Jesus was faithful to both his earthy family and to God, his father. 

Although the key element in this passage is the christological self-declaration of young Jesus, the context of the account depicts a very religious family unit and an equally submissive son.

and his mother kept all these things in her heart.

The implications of these events and Jesus’ words are not lost on Mary. She keeps them in her heart, expecting that she will later fully comprehend them. She is obediently watching God’s will unfold before her very eyes.

Commentators since ancient times have concluded that this line (along with Luke 2:19, which is like it) is also Luke’s way of citing the Blessed Virgin as his firsthand source.

And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.

Today’s reading is the last reference to Saint Joseph in the gospels and is a beautiful tribute to him: obedient to his guidance, Jesus grew to perfect manhood.

Connections and Themes

Family living.  The customs of family life may be bound by culture, but the values out of which they emerge are not. In the first reading, Sirach sketches a picture of ancient family customs, but it’s easy to look beneath them and find enduring values that are relevant today: mutuality, respect, and service between wives and husbands, children and parents, young and old.

This does not mean that there are not roles of dominance, but with dominance comes responsibility. Mutual respect and care for those in need remain constant within a righteous family.

Because of cultural differences, the details (e.g., which role is dominant) may differ, but the values espoused in today’s readings should still be the backbone for how we live.

The family of God.  While today celebrates the family unit, it also celebrates the Church as the family of God. In the second reading, Paul outlines the virtues required to live out our role within the ecclesial family. This may be more a more daunting challenge, as we must relate in a self-sacrificial way with people who may be strangers that differ from us in significant ways. It is neither blood nor marriage that binds us with other believers, but the word of Christ in our hearts. The Church may be a different kind of family, but the values of mutuality, respect, and service still apply just as critically.

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; we find obedience to parents long with the respect for the uniqueness of children. Jesus, the Son of God, submitted to his human mother and father. Mary and Joseph, who exercised authority over Jesus, also stood in wonder of him.

 

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