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Feast of the Holy Family

SIR 3: 2-6, 12-14; PS 128: 1-5; COL 3:12-21; MT 2:13-15, 19-23

December 26, 2013

On this Sunday after Christmas the Church celebrates the Holy Family. The Holy Family is, of course, Jesus, Mary and Joseph but in remembering this family of families, we also celebrate all families as sacred.

As I read through the readings, I began to think how different families are around the world in different cultures and different circumstances. There is the ideal family depicted in Norman Rockwell's famous paintings, with everyone gathered - all the children, the grandparents and parents, and aunts and uncles - everyone beaming with the Christmas turkey on the table in front on them. And then there are the refugee families, pouring right now by the thousands into Lebanon and Jordan, fleeing the chaos in Syria without a penny to their name and desperate for food and shelter. And there are the broken families all around the globe where the death of a loved one or the great wound of a divorce have left one spouse trying to cope with everything. And then there are our families - most of us anyway - not ideal but nevertheless kept together with love and hard work, despite our frailties and mistakes.

Even though the biblical images of family in today's readings come to us across a great divide of time and culture, we can see echoes of these varied experiences of family present and also the high hopes we all have for our family life. Sirach and Psalm 128, both of which come from the Bible's wisdom tradition and draw on proverbial human experience and longing, describe one of those Norman Rockwell type families. The father and mother are to be revered and cared for in their old age. Reverence and kindness toward an aging parent will never be forgotten and can even help ensure a long life! And the Psalm imagines every ancient farmer's dream, one's wife will be "like a fruitful vine" able to bear a lot of children (important for helping with the crops!) who will be like "olive plants around your table."

The reading from Paul's letter to the Colossians (either written by Paul or a disciple in his name) begins with a beautiful description of how Christians should treat each other in a family or in any community; showing "heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another." "Above all," Paul reminds his Christians, "put on love, that is, the bond of perfection." He goes on to describe something of an ideal community life, too; being "peaceful," "thankful," "singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your heart to God."

And then the author of the letters swings into some family advice: wives should be "subordinate" to their husbands; husbands should love their wives and avoid any bitterness with them; children should obey their parents "in everything" and, lastly, fathers should not "provoke" their children "less they become discouraged." There is some wise advice here, for sure, although most modern western couples are not happy about the idea of wives being "subordinate" to their husbands. [In recognition of this, the Lectionary allows for a shorter version of the reading from Colossians that omits the last paragraph-helping many homilists breathe a sigh of relief!]

Remarkably, the gospel which speaks explicitly of the Holy Family brings all this down to earth. The passage is from the Gospel of Matthew and describes the plight of this small family unit. Joseph is warned in a dream that Herod wants to kill the infant Jesus and they are to flee to refuge into Egypt. So they have to leave the home they knew and go to a foreign land. And even when the despot Herod dies and it seems safe for the family to return home, they are unable to do so. Archelaus, Herod's son and successor, proved to be just as cruel as his father, so the Holy Family is back on the road again, fleeing to refuge in a remote farming village in Nazareth. Matthew who gives a vibrant Jewish cast to his Gospel portrays Jesus at the very outset of his life in a manner that recalls the difficulties and dangers Israel as a people had endured in the past; persecution by Pharaoh, desert wanderings, the tragedy of exile.

But the gospel reading ends on a beautiful and hopeful note. Despite all the threat and dislocation, this small family arrives safely in Nazareth and from this unlikely spot the mission of Jesus would ultimately break forth. With that in mind, Matthew cites a quotation from scripture: " that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, 'He shall be called a Nazorean'." Scholars have poured over the Old Testament trying to find this exact quote but it doesn't exist! Rather, Matthew seems to allude to a beautiful passage in Isaiah 11:1 - "A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom." The Hebrew word for a "shoot" or "sprout" is nazir and it is likely that Matthew wants to remind his Jewish Christian readers of this text. As evidenced in the fate of Jesus and his family, there is tragedy and disruption in every family, but from the sheared off "stump of Jesse" a little green sprig shall blossom - a sign of hope. Jesse was David's father and the royal lineage of David had been cut off by exile and invasion. But in Jesus, the green sprig growing from the stump, the hopes and dreams of God's people would be renewed and made real.

Let's pray this Sunday for our family, and every family, that God's grace can help the bonds of love and compassion endure and our homes be places of peace and welcome in spite of our frailties.

Donald Senior, CP
President Emeritus
Professor of New Testament Studies

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