The Holy Family (Year B)

Commentary on Genesis 15:1-6;17:3-5,15-16;21:1-7; Hebrews 11:8,11-12,17-19; Luke 2:22-40

It is customary to celebrate the feast of the Holy Family on the Sunday immediately following our celebrations of the birth of Jesus at Christmas. It is a time when we can reflect on the quality of our own family life in the light of the Church’s (if not the world’s) ‘First Family’.

For a large part of his life, Jesus was part of a family. We always imagine that this must have been an extremely happy family. Yet, like every other family, it must have had from time to time its ups and downs, its joys and sorrows, its problems and difficulties.

There may have been problems about supplying the family’s needs on occasion. Surely someone fell sick at one time or another and was a source of anxiety for the rest of the family. And this was in an age when medical resources were few, and relatively little was known about health and hygiene.

During Jesus’ public life, Mary appears a number of times and she witnessed his death on the cross. But we do not know anything about Joseph. Had he already died by the beginning of Jesus’ public life (although his name is mentioned during Jesus’ visit to Nazareth; see Luke 4:22)? Given the short life expectancy of those days, it is very possible that, by the time Jesus was in his 30s, Joseph had already died. If so, it must have been a painful experience for mother and son. There is no reason to think that the Holy Family was spared any of the pains or denied any of the joys of ordinary families.

Leaving the family
It must have been a painful time – as it can be for any family – when Jesus, already about 30 years old, left his family for the work his Father had given him to do. We remember, when he was only 12, how distressed Mary and Joseph were when he “disappeared” for only three days. From now on, he would belong to a new family, the family of the world and especially of those who were committed to follow his Way. His mother, brothers and sisters would from now on be those who became his disciples, those who heard the Word of God and kept it. Of course, no one would have heard and kept God’s Word better than Mary his mother.

Most people, in one way or another, leave their family environment. While the family must always have top priority in our concerns, it is not an absolute priority. All of us, and especially Christians, are called to follow the example of Jesus and align ourselves with the family of the world. For, with one Father, we are all brothers and sisters to each other and are called to care for each other. One of the problems with some modern families is that they see the surrounding society as being there simply to satisfy their wants and ambitions. It is this attitude which can put unbearable pressures on young people.

Offered to God
The roots of this caring attitude are recorded in today’s Gospel, which describes what we normally refer to as the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Jesus, as the first-born* child of his parents, has to be offered up specially to the Lord. This was an acknowledgment that all life is a gift from God and that God is the Lord of all life. The child belonged to God and had ritually to be bought back for a small sum of money.

But Jesus is no ordinary child and his arrival in the Temple is welcomed by two very holy people – Simeon and Anna. Simeon, filled with the Spirit of God, had been promised he would not die before seeing the Messiah, Israel’s long-awaited Saviour-King. With deep spiritual insight he recognises his Lord in the infant he holds in his arms and says:

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace…
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.

A stumbling block
But all is not light, for:

This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel…

Jesus will be the source of life and liberation for many, but he will also be a fatal stumbling block for those who, in their culpable blindness, reject his way of truth and love. To those who recognise him, he will say:

Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…
(Matt 25:34)

But to those who refuse to recognise him, he will also say:

Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels… (Matt 25:41)

For, as Simeon foretells, Jesus will be “a sign that will be opposed”, i.e. rejected by many of his own people and rejected by many others since.

And the shadow of the Cross looms when he warns Mary that:

…a sword will pierce your own soul, too.

This was part of the package when she said, ‘Yes’ to the angel:

Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word. (Luke 1:38)

Yes, this family will not be spared its problems either. But these things are fully accepted as part of the family’s mission to bring light and life to the world.

Silent witness
The old woman Anna, too, on seeing the child, breaks into praise of God. And she spoke of him to all who looked forward to the “redemption of Jerusalem”. She gives her silent witness to the world’s longing for salvation, for wholeness. In placing Anna standing side by side with Simeon, one writer has said that Luke:

“…expresses by this arrangement that man and woman stand together and side by side before God. They are equal in honour and grace, they are endowed with the same gift and have the same responsibilities”.

In this environment of love and hope, Jesus’ parents return to Nazareth with their son. There he continues to grow and mature full of God’s wisdom and God’s grace-filled love. Here the solid foundation is built for his future work. All that Jesus, the grown man, means to us can surely be traced back to the formative years in the bosom of his two loving parents.

Good family life
And what is true of Jesus is true of all of us. A happy, nurturing family environment is so important. One gets the impression that in many parts of the world and especially in the so-called “developed” world, family life is in deep trouble. Anyone who has regular contact with young people will be aware of how disillusioned many of them are in themselves, in their family situation and, in particular, in their relationship with their parents.

The problem is that many parents expect respect and obedience from their children without actually behaving in a way which deserves it. Parents cannot set double standards by which they feel entitled to do what their children are forbidden from doing. Parents can hardly earn respect if they are constantly fighting with each other, if they are too busy making money to spend time with their children, if they think they can buy off their children with money, but have neither the ability nor the willingness to listen to what they have to say.

One father had the experience (not at all unknown) that, as soon as he walked into the room, his son would walk out. When a friend encouraged trying to understand the son rather than insisting the son do what he was told, the father replied:

“I already understand him. What he needs is to learn respect for his parents and to show appreciation for all we’re trying to do for him.”

The friend suggested another approach:

“If you want your son really to open up, you must work on the assumption that you don’t understand him and perhaps never fully will, but that you want to and will try.”

The father did try, he did listen unconditionally, and both father and son learnt much they had not been aware of before.

Ultimately, a Christian family’s agenda has to be set in the light of the Gospel’s vision of life. In these days, too much of it is being set by a highly pressurised society and sometimes by clinging irrationally to out-dated cultural traditions. Perhaps only the Church as a whole, and not individual families, can deal with this problem – not only for its own members, but for society as a whole.

There is no question that the quality of any society depends on the quality of its family life. Society exists for the family, but the family also exists for society and, unless these two interdependent relationships are recognised, the vision of God’s Kingdom will be thwarted.
*First-born does not necessarily imply that there were other children. It simply means what it says: the first child to be born into a family.

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