December 27h 2015     Holy Family (C)         Sunday in the Octave of Christmas

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

B. The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day: The Family Today. “Let marriage be held in honour by all”.

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

First Reading (1 Samuel 20-22, 24-28). Samuel is made over to the Lord for the whole of his life. This is the feast of the Holy Family, of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and as first reading we have an event concerning a family from the early history of Israel, from the period of the Judges, before the time of David. It concerns Hannah, a wife of Elcana. Hannah was sterile and her inability to conceive was a cause of shame and of immense embarrassment to her. With her husband she went up to worship at offer sacrifice at Shilo where the Ark of the Covenant then was, and where Eli was functioning. Hannah was deepley distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly. And she made a vow and said: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look at the misery of your servant, and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before your ad as nazirite until the day of his death”. The Lord heard her prayer, and she conceived and bore a son and named him Samuel because the Lord has heard her prayer (shama is the Hebrew word for “to hear”). The following year Elkanah and his family went to Shilo to worship but Hannah and her son remained at home, until the child was weaned. Then she took him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh. Sacrifices were offered and the child Samuel was brought to the priest Eli, and Hannah recalled her earlier prayer for a male child to the Lord, saying that she was then lending her child Samuel the Lord; and as long as he lived Samuel was given to the Lord.

            This reading is chosen to go with today’s Gospel reading in which we have the episode of the Holy Family, Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the Temple of Jerusalem.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 83[84]). They are happy who dwell in your house, O Lord.

Second Reading (1 John 3:1-2, 21-24). We are called God’s children, and that is what we are.

This reading contains themes repeatedly made in this First Letter of John, and also in the Gospel of John. The “world” in question in this literature is those who consciously reject the message of Jesus, and are enemies of it. The Christian community, as this letter and tradition puts it before us, is a body of believers confirmed in their Christian belief by the Holy Spirit dwelling within them. Their Christian instruction and this firm conviction assures them that they are not only called children of God but so they really are, a belief and a conviction that cannot be shared by outsiders, be they designated as “the world” or any other name. The gift of faith already gives a knowledge of God; through faith, even in this life, Jesus can be “seen” as risen Lord and Son of God. All look forward to a day beyond this mortal life when believers see God as he really is.

Central to John’s Gospel and to this First Letter of John is the truth that God is love, a love that calls for response from us. The opening words of the present reading lay stress on this. This love must not just words but real and active (literally “in deed and in truth”). These opening words are followed by a text not altogether clear to us, but possibly addressing a concern of those to whom the letter was first addressed. Central to this section is the word “conscience”, literally “heart”. In biblical thought the heart is not the centre of emotion, but rather of thought, self-knowledge, self-awareness. The Holy Spirit gives believers the awareness of being children of God, and this section speaks of love in deed and in truth as giving, or deepening, this awareness. In case of doubt on the matter God comes to the aid of believers, giving courage to stand in his presence and call on him, with assurance of being heard. The text then returns to the keeping of God’s commandments and living as God wills. When we mention “commandments” we naturally think of the Ten. This text, however, has two special commandments in mind: belief in Jesus Christ as Son of God and the commandment to love. The entire text is about a life in union with God, awareness that God lives in us (individually and as a Christian community), a divine life brought to our attention by the Holy Spirit, God’s great gift. It is a text centering on prayer and reflection on God’s love.

Alternative 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!

Alternative 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 C) (Luke 2:41-52). Jesus is found by his parents sitting among the doctors This Gospel reading gives basis for reflection for us today, as its contents did for Mary and Joseph and for the early Church. The setting is clear enough. The feast of Passover drew immense crowds of Jewish pilgrims to Jerusalem every year, from the surrounding districts and from much further afield. Mary and Joseph, as pious Jews, went yearly on pilgrimage. As Jesus was twelve, nearing the age required by Jewish law to become subject to its demands, he went with them. We are not given any details of why Jesus separated from Joseph and Mary in Jerusalem. The journey from Jerusalem to Nazareth, by the shorter route, would take about four days. Mary and Joseph got worried at the end of the first day. What Luke stresses is that Jesus is acting independently. He is in the Temple among the learned, listening and questioning and revealing his special knowledge. The high point of the passage comes with his mother Mary’s question and Jesus’ answer. Mary addresses him as “Son” (rendered in some versions as “My child”), leading into Jesus’ reply. He is Mary’s son, but must be about “the things of his Father”, his Father’s affairs, of his Father’s house (the Temple). The exact meaning of the words used is not clear, as the reply was not clear to Mary and Joseph. This is the point Luke is making. Jesus reveals to Mary and Joseph, that while an earthly son he has a heavenly Father. He is not quite bound by human family ties. There is a dimension in his person and mission, even at the age of twelve, that goes beyond the natural order. Despite this, Jesus reverts to human standards and returned to Nazareth and was obedient to, lived under the authority of, Joseph and Mary. Mary ponders on the mystery of her Son, who is presented as growing and increasing in wisdom, in favour with God and mortals.

            The central message of this reading for today’s liturgy, the Feast of the Holy Family, is that Jesus, Son of God, conscious at the age of twelve years old of being about the concerns of his Father, was obedient, under the authority of Mary and Joseph at Nazareth. In this his family he lived his human nature to the full, growing in wisdom and years, in divine and human favour. This holy family of Nazareth remains the model for all Christian families.

            The Temple event gave food for thought to Jesus’ mother. The early Church, too, could learn from it that Jesus’ mission should not be restricted to his own human Jewish family. His Father’s “affairs” embraced the gentile world. It can give us matter for thought today: the mission of Jesus is ever to open new roads of salvation.

B. The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day: The Family Today. Let marriage be held in honour by all”.

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, recalling the words of the Letter to the Hebrews:“Let marriage be held in honour by all” (Hebrews 13:4).

            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. All those, therefore, who exercise influence over communities and social groups should work efficiently for the welfare of marriage and the family”.

            This is all a modern reflection on the Gospel reading on the family at Nazareth. Two worlds, this and the divine, came together in Jesus, Mary and Joseph, at Jerusalem and Nazareth. 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.

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