Sunday within the Christmas Octave. Feast of the Holy Family
Family life is experiencing a crisis of stability, partly caused by economic hardship, but often by other factors like lack of generosity, or too much insistence on getting one’s own way. Today’s feast invites us to meditate on our own contribution to family life. In the homespun maxims of Ben Sirach, we read how Jewish families in Our Lord’s time applied the Fourth Commandment as a promise of blessing. Then from St Paul we hear words of advice and encouragement for kindness within the family. Finally, the Gospel story of the flight into Egypt shows how even Jesus, Mary and Joseph, that best of all families, had to cope with dangers and hardships, which they faced together with the help of God.
Sir 3:3-7,14-17. A practical application of the fourth commandment, that we should honour our parents, not only when we are young, but also when they are old and in need of care.
Col 3:12-21. Paul’s summary of the kindness and help which should characterize the relationships between all Christians, but are particularly applicable within the family.
Mt 2:13-15,19-23. Tells of the flight into Egypt and of the early dangers faced by the Holy Family before they settled down to the hidden life of Nazareth.
– that, like the family of Nazareth, we may appreciate those with whom we live, and treasure the virtues of harmony and peace.
– for the whole human race, often divided by national, religious and social conflicts, that we may grow towards a better family atmosphere.
– for those whose home life has broken up or whose marriages have proved unhappy, that they may turn to God and be comforted.
– for children whose parents have separated or divorced, that their own lives may not be overshadowed or derailed by this experience.
– for ongoing loving partnership between husbands and wives, and that they may fulfil their married vocation of mutual love and support.
Inspiration for Christian families (John Walsh)
The poet, William Wordsworth, writing about the French Revolution as it appeared to enthusiasts said,
“Bliss was it that dawn to be alive,
but to be young was very heaven.”
The same perhaps could be said about Christians in the Apostolic Age, which had a glory and splendour about it that inspired people to acts of heroism in spreading the gospel and living up to its demands. But as early as 100 A.D. things were beginning to change. The thrill of the first years, to a certain extent, had passed. Christianity had become a thing of habit, the wonder had faded, and there were some who wanted to adapt the teaching of Christ to the secular philosophy and outlook of the day. What’s new, you might say. The infant Church was in real danger of breaking up into opposing factions under the influence of emerging heresies.
St John, the only surviving Apostle, saw only one remedy for this, and in his First Letter to the Christian communities he expressed it in this rather surprising sentence, “If God has loved us so much, then we also ought to love one another” (4:11). Note he did not say “we also ought to love God,” but rather “we ought to love one another.” In other words the immediate response to God’s love as it envelops each one of us should be to have respect and consideration and love for one another. This is the way we manifest our love for God.)
On this, the Feast of the Holy Family, we could find no more apt advice for all Christian families, especially those which are in danger of splitting up under the stresses and strains of this modern age. Following the advice of St John, we can say that from the moment husband and wife are joined together in marriage, the only way for them to be faithful to God is by being faithful to each other; the concrete way they express their love for God is by the pure and steadfast love that they have for each other. If this love between a husband and wife persists, then their children will grow up in God’s love. We can even say that when the children respond to their parents” love for them, then they too are responding to God himself. That which sustains the married relationship of such a couple will be, not so much the house they live in, or the material things they possess, or the securities they have built up for the future, but rather this true love, which they show to each other, and the children God grants them.
The perfect model for any family has got to be the union of Mary and Joseph, who had no possessions, no securities, not even a house to call their own, during the period covered by today’s gospel story. We find the protective instinct of Joseph trying to shield Jesus and Mary from the hostility of King Herod. And just as the day would come when Joseph would no longer be there to supply this protection, so no modern father or mother can hope to control indefinitely the situations in which their children find themselves. After all Jesus was only twelve when, lost in the Temple, he began to see the will of his Father for himself in a way completely incomprehensible to both Mary and Joseph.
Mary in the Incarnation being disturbed, Joseph in his dreams being urged to go against traditional custom, Jesus in the Temple acting as he did, all these show that tensions did exist within the Holy Family, tensions which were in no way the consequence of sin, but rather an indication of evolution and growth. It is within the family that spiritual and moral values, attitudes towards each other, towards life, towards God himself, are being passed on, and this not so much by a process of indoctrination, as by a free and natural initiation.
We can only guess as to the extent to which the attitudes of Jesus were formed by Joseph, the man of inner vision, the man of respect for the law, of seeing love as greater than the law, and by Mary, not the meek, male-dominated woman portrayed by commentators in the past, but the one, who could make such far reaching decisions as she did at the Annunciation, the mother who did not try to hold on to her Son, who displayed such remarkable inner strength and calm in the face of all kinds of adversity, in standing by her Son to the end, even to his death on a Cross.
May families always look to Jesus, Mary and Joseph for guidance, for inspiration, for courage, in the glorious but demanding task to which God has called them. Not only will the Holy Family be a model, it will be a source of grace to them as well.
Refugees, Anchored by Family (Jack McArdle)
The gospel tells us about Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to Egypt, to avoid the evil plans of Herod, and of their return from there, when that danger had passed. It is a simple story, but a significant one, and one from which we can learn a great deal about God’s overall plan of salvation for all of us.
We are all too familiar, unfortunately, with the reality of refugees in today’s world. How often we have seen the ravaged faces of young and old, of mothers and babies, all fleeing before the destructive onslaught of the bully and the tyrant. With all their riches, and all their power, such tyrants are miserably poor, and tragically weak. The greatest evil is that it always seems that it is the innocent who are the victims of greed, aggression, and violence. Not much has changed in this world since the time of Jesus. He himself would be the first to say that, when we look at any one of those innocents on our television screens, we are looking at him.
The journey to and from Egypt has a powerful significance. For the Hebrews, Egypt was a place of slavery and returning from there was the redemption of God, who leads them into the Promised Land. Moses had been a foreshadowing of Jesus, who has come to us in our slavery, to redeem us, and to lead us safely home. His journey into Egypt was a symbol of his joining us in our exile. In becoming like us, he was joining us in our humanity, and was prepared to accompany us on our journey into freedom.
Twice in today’s gospel, we are told that what Jesus did was to fulfil a prophecy that had been made about him. In other words, there was a deliberate purpose in the act. He had come to do the Father’s will, and to carry out everything that was ordained for him to do. If he was to undo the evil of the original disobedience, then he had to become obedient unto death, even death on a cross. He lived in the sure knowledge that what happened to him was the Father’s will. This is not predestination, or being programmed in such a way that one loses one’s free will. Far from it. What happened to Jesus is what Jesus wanted to happen. He gave himself into the Father’s hands, with a deliberate offer of “Not my will, but yours, be done.” His prayer to the Father was total trust, abandonment, and obedience.
Sometimes we hear the expression about being “anchored” in life, implying that one’s security comes from within, and I am not tossed around by the storms that surround me. This is farfetched, even as I say it, because Jesus was a helpless infant at the time of today’s gospel. However, throughout all of his adult life, “my meat is to do the will of him who sent me.” Both he and his life were the fulfilment of a promise, the completion of a plan. If the Old Testament was radio, the New Testament was television. His had come to fulfil the promises of the prophets, and to complete the work of creation, by making it possible for sin to be forgiven, for slavery to be turned into freedom, and for death to become eternal life.
Response: Very few of us, if any, have experienced the trauma of being a refugee, or of being homeless. Our security is important to us, and we need to have a sense of being in control. I personally have been deeply impressed, and indeed in awe, at colleagues who left home and headed off into a completely unknown and uncharted mission field. This was pure gospel to me. They took Jesus at his word, went where they felt he wanted them, and trusted him totally to provide, to bless and to fulfil his promises. In today’s gospel, Jesus is a helpless child, but, in their own way, each of those of whom I speak were also powerless. It is in such powerlessness that God’s power works most effectively.
Jesus was brought to Egypt as a result of a dream Joseph had, and, again, following another such dream, he was brought back to Nazareth. The Joseph of the Old Testament was mocked by his brothers as being a dreamer. Many of us interpret that to mean that a dreamer is someone who sits around with a head full of crazy and impossible ideas, but who never does anything to make those dreams come true. It is important for us to remember that some of the greatest human beings this world has ever seen have been dreamers, have been people with dreams. We all remember Martin Luther King’s famous speech, which includes those immortal words “I have a dream ..” unlike those nocturnal dreams that we all have when we sleep, the real dreamer is the one who is most awake and alert. Joseph was fully open to any word from God, and he was willing and ready to carry out that word. “Happy are they who dream dreams, and are prepared to take the steps to make those dreams come true.”
Humility is a difficult concept to grasp, and this can be because its meaning is so simple. It is nothing more than the plain and simple truth. It is a gift that enables me see myself as I really am and, being fully conscious of my human weakness, I can easily see how dependent lam on God, and why I should live every day with a constant awareness of that dependence. Mary and Joseph were humble people. When she visited Elizabeth, Mary spoke of how God had regarded her lowliness, and how he had done wonderful things for her because of her own powerlessness to do any of that herself. She magnified God, which is like looking at something through a strong magnifying glass. The bigger your God, the smaller your problems. Despite the human hardships, Mary was quite willing to leave everything, and head off into a foreign country, if that is what God wanted her to do. Sin is pride, which is my way of insisting that I do things my way; that my way is best. Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Truth. The Spirit had come upon Mary at the annunciation, and she would continue to be led by that Spirit throughout her life.
When I look into the face of one of those refugee children, I am looking into the face of Jesus. Racism and bigotry is the worst form of blindness, and there is no nation on earth that can pretend to be free of that. Racism and Christianity certainly don’t go together. “Whatever you do to the least of these, my sisters and brothers, that’s what you do to me.” I myself may not have had to experience the trauma of being a refugee or of being homeless, but I can find out a lot about myself when I reflect on how I see, and how I relate to those who are in such a predicament. I don’t necessarily have to personally meet one such person to discover what my inner attitudes are.
The first time I was carried into a church, I wasn’t consulted, and the next time I’m carried into a church I won’t be consulted either. To attempt to run the show in the meantime is insanity. I own nothing. Everything I have is on loan. One heart attack and life is over. Humility is the gift of seeing and accepting things as they really are. Saying yes to God can be a constant and continual form of prayer. I don’t ever have to worry what I’m saying yes to, because God will always make that perfectly dear, as time goes by. He doesn’t treat us like robots, nor does he ever want to avail of our services without our goodwill, and willing co-operation. In Twelve-Step recovery programmes for alcoholics, narcotics, etc., Step Three says “We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.” What the person is really saying is, “You should have seen me and my life when I was in charge.” You could do nothing better than take a few moments out today to reflect on the whole idea of turning things over to God. When you die you’re going to have to let go of everything, anyhow, so why not begin with little things now?
I spoke earlier of the significance of Jesus going into Egypt, the land of slavery for the Jews, and his subsequent return from there. Slavery is a word I could do well to dwell on. I could be quite enslaved and not know it. The alcoholic is the last one on the block to believe that he is an alcoholic. If Jesus is to be my Redeemer, then I must be willing to get in touch with those areas in my life which are in need of redemption, in need of being restored to healthy and happy living. There is no doubt at all in my mind that the Spirit will certainly reveal all of this to me if I am willing to find out. As you listen to me now, or as you read this, remember that there are two characteristics of the Word of God, i.e. it is always challenging, but it is never discouraging. I hope that you will be challenged by today’s gospel, and that you will be prepared to accept it as a pointer for you today, rather than as something that happened thousands of years ago.
I remember a simple incident in which I was involved many years ago. It was very early in the morning, and I was travelling to give a Retreat in a place quite a distance from home. I passed through many small towns and villages on the way. As I was leaving one town I encountered a young man thumbing a lift. I stopped to give him a lift, and discovered that he was going to a town only a few miles short of my own destination. I went through the usual litany of questions. “Are you going to work etc.” He told me what was happening. There was a centre for alcoholics in the town where I met him, and it is well known the length and breadth of the country. The previous evening, under pressure from family and friends he had decided to check himself in. He attended the opening session on the previous night and, as soon as the doors were unlocked the following morning he made good his escape. I’ll never forget his comment, and the sense of shock in his voice as he spoke it. “Do you know what they wanted me to do in there? They wanted me to change my whole life.” That was too much, and he got out of there before anything happened. I’ve often thought of him since, and have wondered what happened to him. If he was not prepared to change his whole life he is probably dead by now. The road that was pointed out to him seemed impossible to travel. Without knowing it, he took the most difficult road of all and, as I said, it may well have cost him his life.
The Holy Family of Nazareth (Tommy Lane)
This Sunday, the family life of Jesus, Mary and Joseph is put before us by the Church as a model for our families. We call them the holy family but that does not mean that they did not have problems. Just as every family has to face problems and overcome them, or to put it another way, has to carry a cross, so also the holy family had to carry crosses. Their many crosses come to mind from reading the Scriptures. We can easily imagine how misunderstood both Mary and Joseph must have been when Mary conceived Jesus through the Holy Spirit. Their story would never be believed. Even Mary herself had it very rough early in the pregnancy when Joseph was planning to divorce her before the angel intervened in a dream. When the time for Jesus delivery came it took place in an animals shelter since Bethlehem was already so crowded. Then the family had to flee to Egypt as refugees because Jesus life was in danger due to Herod, in much the same way as refugees from war-torn countries are now entering many western countries. Mary and Joseph suffered the awful experience of losing Jesus for three days when he was twelve years old and the only satisfaction they got from him was that he had to be about his Fathers business. We do not hear of Joseph any more so we presume that before Jesus began his public ministry in Galilee Joseph had died, the holy family suffering the greatest pain of all families, the pain of bereavement and separation through death. Jesus public ministry must have taken its toll on Mary. Simeon had predicted in the Temple that a sword of sorrow would pierce Marys soul. We can imagine one such occasion was as we read in Mark 3:21 that when Jesus returned to Nazareth one day his relatives came to take him by force convinced that he was out of his mind. Not a pleasant experience for any family, no matter how holy. There was also the pain caused by the rhyme made up about Jesus: Behold a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners (Luke 7:34). And there was the growing hostility to Jesus by the Jewish authorities that must have caused huge pain to both Mary and Jesus, especially as it became increasingly obvious that Jesus would have to pay for his mission by dying. The saddest moment of all came when Mary watched her son die on the cross.
What kept the family together and sane throughout all of these trials and crosses? The answer is Love for each other and God. Jesus love for Mary and Marys love for Jesus, and the love of both of them for God the Father or we could say faith in God. We can see Jesus love for his mother when he was dying on the cross and was worried about leaving her behind so he asked his close friend and disciple John to look after her, saying to Mary, Woman behold your son, and to John behold your mother (John 19:26-27). What holds our families together also in times of difficulty is love and forgiveness. It is love which triumphs in the end, even if for a while love may have to take the form of some honest talking. When discipline needs to be given, if it is not given in love it is reduced to abuse. If ever our families fail in any way, it is because of a lack of love on someones part. Whenever our families are successful, it is because they are places of love.
I believe that the greatest threat facing families now is simply that we dont spend enough time together. We are so busy working, or socialising, or watching TV that we have less and less time for each other. What a pity. There is a story about a solicitor who lived a considerable distance from her elderly father. Months had passed since they had been together and when her father called to ask when she might visit, the daughter detailed a list of reasons that prevented her from taking the time to see him, e.g., court schedule, meetings, new clients, research, etc., etc. At the end of the recitation, the father asked, When I die, do you intend to come to my funeral? The daughters response was immediate, Dad, I cant believe youd ask that. Of course, Ill come. To which the father replied, Good. Forget the funeral and come; I need you more now than I will then. As I said, I believe one of the greatest threats facing families now is simply that we do not spend enough time together.
Just as the holy family survived all its crises through love for each other and faith in God, let us pray during this Mass that our families will conquer all difficulties through love for each other and faith in God.
First Reading: Book of Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14
For the Lord honors a father above his children,
and he confirms a mother’s right over her children.
Those who honor their father atone for sins,
and those who respect their mother are like those who lay up treasure.
Those who honor their father will have joy in their own children,
and when they pray they will be heard.
Those who respect their father will have long life,
and those who honor their mother obey the Lord;
My child, help your father in his old age,
and do not grieve him as long as he lives;
even if his mind fails, be patient with him;
because you have all your faculties do not despise him.
For kindness to a father will not be forgotten,
and will be credited to you against your sins
Resp. Psalm: Ps 128:1-5
Happy is everyone who fears the Lord,
who walks in his ways.
You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands;
you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you.
Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house;
your children will be like olive shoots around your table.
Thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord.
The Lord bless you from Zion.
May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life.
Second Reading: Colossians 3:12-21
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart.
Gospel: Matthew 2:13-15; 19-23
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, 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 there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”