December 29th 2013 Holy Family (A) Sunday in the Octave of Christmas

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

Dialogue: The Family Today. “Let marriage be held in honour by all”.

First Reading (Ecclesiasticus 3:3-7, 14-17).

The Fourth Commandment says (Exodus 20:12): “Honour your father and your mother that your days may be long”. Marriage was held in great honour in Israel and in today’s reading Ben Sira (who is better known in Latin tradition as Ecclesiasticus, “the ecclesiastic/church one”), who had a wisdom school for young promising students in Jerusalem (about 180 BC), gives us his reflections on the great commandment. What he has to say is full of humanity and compassion. Respect by all the members of a family for one another makes for happiness. Observance of this fourth commandment is meritorious and atones for sins. And such observance is not always a joy. It means acceptance of one’s kith and kin, among other matters putting up with certain weaknesses and foibles. It calls for sympathy and compassion in sickness and old age, reminding the young, strong and healthy members of the family to be aware of the infirmities of old age. All in all, this is a very fine Old Testament treatment of what family life is called to be.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 127[128[]). O blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways!

Second Reading (Colossians 3:12-21).

This reading is the continuation of Paul’s magnificent description of what Christian life, life in Christ, is intended to be. The risen Christ is its source and its model. Human nature has its weaknesses and failures, as the Colossian community had before their conversion to Christ. With baptism, union with the life-giving Christ, the past lay behind them. Christ’s followers have put on a new nature which is constantly being renewed, becoming more Christlike, more in the image of God. Paul stresses these points in the three paragraphs of today’s reading. The Christian community is God’s chosen people; God loves them. Christian life should be characterized by sincere compassion, kindness, gentleness and patience, and a readiness to forgive when a quarrel begins. These are telling virtues, and they should be bound fast by love, love that keeps all these together. Here Paul may be thinking of what he had written to the Corinthians of this subject (1 Corinthians 13:4-7): “Love is patient and kind. … Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things”. Paul then stresses the need for believers to be aware of the richness of their Christian inheritance, and to share this love for it with one another.

Against this background he goes on to treat briefly of principles governing Christian social life in the world of his day. He begins with family relations, where respect, love and gentleness should be the governing principles. Parents should not drive children to resentment, as this might make them feel frustrated; or lest they become discouraged, as another translation puts it. All this is food for thought on this feast of the Holy Family, the model of all Christian families. It may be well to recall that Paul’s emphasis on the ideal Christian life does not necessarily mean that the Colossian community was living this ideal. The contrary may well have been the case, and that Paul stresses the ideal because of tensions, divisions and enmity within the Church at Colossae.

Gospel (Year A) (Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23).  

Take the child and his mother and escape into Egypt. We may profitably first consider the persons and places mentioned in this reading. We have Herod and Archelaus, Egypt, Judaea, Galilee and Nazareth.  King Herod, ruler of Palestine and regions to the east of it, died in 4 BC, indicating that the real date of Jesus’ birth was some years before this, say 6 BC. Our present reckoning, probably made by Dionysius Exiguus in the sixth century, is a few years out. Herod was known for his cruelty. Herod’s last will designated as his heirs three of his sons Archelaus (with the title of king), Archelaus’s sibling Antipas and his half-brother Philip, a will to be ratified by Rome (by the Emperor Augustus). Archelaus was detested by his people, and objections against his succession were sent to Rome. Augustus ratified him as ruler (tetrarch) of Judaea, Samaria and Idumea, but without the title of king. Further objections to his tyrannical rule were made to Rome, and in AD 6 Archelaus was deposed, and his territory became ruled directly by Rome, under a Roman governor. Antipas became governor of Galilee (with the title tetrarch). Philip does not interest us here. He became ruler of a territory east of the Jordan, and built his capital to be known as Caesarea Philippi. The text highlights once again the obedience of Joseph to the divine commands. In his presentation of the infancy narrative Matthew is interested here again in typology and the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies and typology. Jesus is the new Israel. Israel of old in Egypt was described by God as his first-born son (Exodus 4:22), and the prophet Hosea (11:1) has God say that when Israel was a child he loved him, “and out of Egypt have I called my son”. Matthew can apply this text to the coming back of Jesus God’s son, and the future new Israel, to Jesus. On returning from Egypt, and settling in Nazareth, in Galilee, Matthew sees fulfilled “words spoken through the prophets”, “he (that is Jesus) shall be called a Nazarene”.  Matthew speaks of the prophets in general, and it has proved impossible to identify any particular text of the prophets. Jesus was known as “Jesus of Nazareth” (the title on the cross), But it is possible that Matthew has in mind a reference to the Nazir par excellence, Samson (Judges 13:5), intended by God to begin to deliver (redeem) Israel from its enemies. But Samson was no real deliverer. It is not so much the biblical account itself, as the manner in which it was regarded by a Jewish tradition, possibly very old. The dying Jacob is made to say: “Not for the redemption of Samson do I look, which is but a transient redemption; but for the redemption of him, the  Messiah, that you have said to bring on your people Israel does my soul look”.

B. The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day

Dialogue: The Family Today. “Let marriage be held in honour by all”.

In a final admonition towards the end of the letter to the Hebrews the author says: “Let marriage be held in honour by all” (Hebrews 13:4). To say that Christian marriage and the family today are under threat would be a truism: so many single-parent families, same-sex unions or marriages and many other examples besides. There is a movement in western countries to treat of traditional marriage as a thing of the past, and to work towards a new form of public life in which it will not be taken account of. This is the world in which we live. This would not be the place to speak at length of this situation. The feast we are celebrating, however, is an occasion for reflect on the current state of affairs and consider what they can do to renew belief in Christian marriage and help those in trouble on the issue.

A beginning point could be conviction of the importance of Christian marriage, for society, for children and from many other points of view. The Vatican Council has dealt with this question very well in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, especially in its section on “The Dignity of Marriage and the Family. Marriage and the Family in the Modern World” (paragraphs 47-52). Thus for instance: (par. 52). “The family is a kind of school of deeper humanity. But if it is to achieve the full flowering of its life and mission, it needs the kindly communion of minds and the joint deliberation of spouses, as well as the painstaking cooperation of parents in the education of their children. … Thus the family, in which the various generations come together and help one another grow wiser and harmonize personal rights with the other requirements of social life, is the foundation of society”.

Two worlds, our human one and the divine, came together in Jesus, Mary and Joseph, at Jerusalem and Nazareth. Mary and Joseph had their worries about Jesus’ safety.  The Holy Family of Nazareth whose feast we are celebrating can be the model for the family in this rapidly changing world: stability and openness to meaningful change.
Quite an amount of attention is being given today by both civil and religious traditions today on the family in society, including Pope Francis’s call for an examination of current views on the matter. The Church will discuss marriage at the next consistory meetings in February 2014. It will also be addressed at the extraordinary synod in October 2014 and again in the ordinary synod the following year. Many elements will be examined in more detail and clarified during these sessions. Let us pray the all will lead to marriage being held in greater honour as a result.

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