Sunday of week 1 of Christmas – Cycle B

Commentary on Isaiah 52:7-10; Hebrews 1:1-15; John 1:1-18

THE BIRTH OF JESUS is, this year, fittingly celebrated on the Lord’s Day. However, in so doing we drop from our liturgy the Feast of the Holy Family which normally binds the weekday celebration of Christmas to the Sunday following. So it is fitting that we look upon Christmas this year as the celebration of the first among all families in human history, the Holy Family.

Christmas is actually the story of a family, the family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. (Perhaps, right from the beginning of our reflection we might notice the order of the names in this family and ask what would be the order in our own family.)

When Jesus was born, we are told that angel choirs sang and that shepherds came from surrounding fields to pay him homage. In a very real way they took the place of the extended family, the relatives of Mary and Joseph who could not be present. Then too, we are told, shepherds living in the area came to pay him homage. In a very real sense they represent all of us who on Christmas Day become like neighbours dropping in to visit the new family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

The Gospel of the Daytime Mass reminds us that although Jesus was indeed God, he became a human person just like us. Born in Bethlehem, he returned with his parents back to Nazareth to lead, as far as we know, a very ordinary village life. From the glorious events surrounding his birth to the beginning of his public life, there was nothing out of the ordinary in his life or that of his family, the Holy Family. Joseph was a carpenter, Mary would have taken charge of the house and Jesus grew up like any other boy. They were certainly not rich but, on the other hand, there is no evidence that they were particularly poor by the standards of the time or the place. Theirs was a life of simplicity: having what they needed and little more. And Jesus had relatives, many of whom are mentioned in the Gospel.

Changes in family life

The family of today has changed much from Jesus’ time. Some of the changes in family life have taken place within the past hundred years. The traditional family was broad, with relatives as part of its daily living. The modern family has become much smaller. The extended family with uncles, aunts, grandparents and cousins has given way to the nuclear family of just father, mother and children.

Even the role of parents has changed. Much of the work of forming and educating and the teaching of basic values, including religion, have been handed over to institutions, especially the school.

Yet, the church or the school or the police cannot teach people to be good in the way that parents can both by their words but, most of all, by the example of their own behaviour. Unfortunately it seems that many parents create a double standard that expects one level of behaviour from children and another from themselves. “Don’t do as I do, do as I say,” as the teacher in the film “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” tells her students after they point out some inconsistency in her behaviour. Many parents seem to work on that principle.

The heart of society

In spite of the social changes affecting family structures, it remains the nucleus of our society. Where family life is good, the influence must have an influence on the quality of our society.

Practically all the social problems of today – gangs, drugs, sexual misbehaviour, suicides and violence, dishonesty and stealing in its many forms, not to mention difficulties in people relating with each other because of class, race or religion can find their roots in a defective family background.

And that means one thing – that a genuine love is often lacking in the family environment. Both the Old Testament in the Wisdom Books and the New Testament in Saint Paul’s Letters speak of the deep respect all the family members need to have for each other. Not only children towards their parents but parents towards their children, husband and wife towards each other, children towards each other.

Saint Paul speaks of the warm atmosphere that should pervade those relationships – “sincere compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, mutual acceptance and forbearance, willingness to forgive after quarrels, love and peace”. How many can say that these are the qualities which, in general, would describe their family life?

Some time ago a young boy on television said that the gifts he appreciated most from his parents at Christmas were the love and the hugs they gave him. Children may ask for all kinds of things – new clothes, the latest computer – but what they really want is to be told clearly that they are loveable and that they are loved purely and simply for themselves.

Today many of us live in a highly competitive society and this penetrates deeply into the family. It seems, generally, that when children are very young, parents really do dote on their little ones. But, as soon as school life begins, there is a change. Children become loved less for what they are than for what they are able to achieve.

Children soon begin to learn that the love they receive is in direct proportion to what is written on the report card. From then on there is a push, push to achieve better and better in primary school, in secondary school, and, if possible, on to university. In the school itself, the pressures are equally great.

Gifts are now linked with academic achievement. Being given a watch for doing well in important examinations and so on. When one speaks with students about their family life, an impression one gets is of constant nagging. The effects on self-esteem are very obvious. And what is more worrying is that they, when they become parents themselves, will not know any other way of acting towards their own children.

And for the child who cannot achieve, there is stress and distress. It is not surprising, then, that social and interpersonal behaviours emerge which result in some of the social problems mentioned above.

Modern holy families

It all seems very far removed from the Holy Family. One might say that the comparison is impossible because of the social differences between a rural village 2,000 years ago and a modern city in the third millennium. Yet there are ‘holy families’ among us. They are families where that mutual respect does reach to every member. Where each one is totally accepted for what they are, where the gifts of each child are allowed to develop in whatever direction they may take. Where richness of life is not in terms of money but in terms of well-adjusted, mature and loving persons using the gifts they have to make this a better world to live in. It is a special pleasure to walk into such homes and experience the warmth of their hospitality, even though, materially speaking, they may not have as much to offer.

People from such families do not create social problems. Their members do not need to steal in order to make short cuts to wealth because material wealth is not a value for them. Their members do not need to go in search of sexual excitement because they are already richly experienced in the art of loving and being loved. Still less will they be driven to addictive and self-destructive actions because for them life is good and definitely worth living. Image and status, being purely external, have little relevance.

The domestic church

If this family is also a Christian family, it is in a sense a church, an ekklesia, a gathering together with the Spirit of Jesus in its midst. It is a place where the Word of God is heard, and spoken, and lived. It is a place where family meals are an agape, a love meal, a kind of Eucharist expressing the love and unity and mutual support of the members.

It is a place where the values of Jesus become the values of this family. It is a place where there is love and forgiveness, where there is support and understanding, where there is genuine sharing – not just of things but of ideas and feelings, of joys and sorrows, and where there are ears willing to listen and to understand.

Such a family is a real blessing, not only for its own members but for its neighbours and all those who come in contact with it.

Finally, as the Gospel for the Holy Family in Year C hints, the family is a place where the younger members must one day go off to follow where God is calling them and, perhaps, to establish another family. Parents, even if tearfully, must let go and allow their children to follow that call. At times Jesus reminded Mary and Joseph “Do you not know I must be about my Father’s business?” And that business is creatively to follow the example of the Holy Family in quietly carrying out God’s plan for each one of us.

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