Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Joy and Challenge of Family Life: Readings for the Feast of the Holy Family

The Sunday within the Octave of Christmas is always dedicated to contemplation of the Holy Family, giving us the opportunity to meditate on the way in which the family structure, established by God and perfectly mirrored in the Holy Family, reflects His own familial nature (as Father, Son, and Spirit) and shows us the truth about ourselves and our deepest longings for love, acceptance, and communion with other persons.

The Readings for this beautiful feast provide the celebrant with a dizzying array of options—too many for me to adequately handle during this busy week of family activities and end of the year deadlines.  I will have to limit myself to some remarks on the First Reading and Gospel proposed for Year C.  (For an overview of the options, see Fr. Felix Just’s excellent website dedicated to the Lectionary.  Click here.)

1.  The First Reading option for Year C is 1 Sam 1:20-22, 24-28, the preferred choice to complement this year’s gospel:

In those days Hannah conceived, and at the end of her term bore a son
whom she called Samuel, since she had asked the LORD for him.
The next time her husband Elkanah was going up
with the rest of his household
to offer the customary sacrifice to the LORD and to fulfill his vows,
Hannah did not go, explaining to her husband,
"Once the child is weaned,
I will take him to appear before the LORD
and to remain there forever;
I will offer him as a perpetual nazirite."

Once Samuel was weaned, Hannah brought him up with her,
along with a three-year-old bull,
an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine,
and presented him at the temple of the LORD in Shiloh.
After the boy's father had sacrificed the young bull,
Hannah, his mother, approached Eli and said:
"Pardon, my lord!
As you live, my lord,
I am the woman who stood near you here, praying to the LORD.
I prayed for this child, and the LORD granted my request.
Now I, in turn, give him to the LORD;
as long as he lives, he shall be dedicated to the LORD."
Hannah left Samuel there.

Hannah is one of the more important types of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Old Testament.  Hannah’s name is a feminine form of the Hebrew word for “grace” or “favor,” (Heb. hēn), so her name is quite literally “Grace,” a foreshadowing of a woman who would be “full of grace” (Luke 1:28).  Both women, Hannah and Mary, had natural impediments to childbirth: Hannah was barren, Mary was virginal.  Both bore sons who were answers to prayer, boys who became priest-prophets and saviors for their people.  Thus it has long been recognized that the narratives about Samuel’s childhood in the early chapters of 1 Samuel have influenced Luke’s telling (or else his source materials) for the infancy narratives in Luke 1-2.  For example, it is useful to compare Hannah’s prayer of thanksgiving in 1 Sam 2:1-10 with the Blessed Mother’s “Magnificat” in Luke 1:46-55 and note the many similarities.  Again, we may note that Luke twice refers to Jesus “growing in wisdom and favor with God and men” (Luke 2:40,52), which is modeled on the summary of Samuel’s childhood in 1 Sam 2:26.

The point of the similarities is that the life and ministry of Jesus is not unexpected and unanticipated.  Though he is the unique God-Man, yet the people of God have been prepared for his coming over centuries by a chain of great prophetic saviors who foreshadowed him.  Jesus is certainly more than Samuel, but he is also, in a sense, a New Samuel come to save his people in the time of their oppression.

Today’s First Reading has a particular parallel to the Gospel: in both narratives, the young boy-prophet is brought up to Israel’s central sanctuary and left there. 

Before moving on to this Gospel, let us remark briefly on the moral or practical sense of this First Reading, that is, how it may instruct us in a lifestyle that pleases God.  In this passage we see that the conception of Samuel is the answer to his mother’s prayer, demonstrating God’s ultimate power to open and shut the womb.  The Catholic Church always shows reverence for God’s sovereignty over matters of life and death, in part by refraining from the illegitimate manipulation of both processes (of birth and death), whether through contraception, in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, euthanasia, or unwarranted application of the death penalty.  It is strange that in an era in which there is such respect for the natural order manifested in efforts not to disturb the environment through “excess carbon emissions,” destruction of the rainforest, or the introduction of genetically modified organisms, there yet remains such contempt and disdain for Catholic reverence for the natural order of conception and childbirth, and for the natural process of death.  Again, this Catholic reverence is an expression of deference to the sovereignty of God in matters of human destiny, a deference supported in today’s First Reading.

Again, in this Reading we note the generosity of Hannah, that she corresponds  to God’s generosity toward herself (God gave her a son) by returning God’s love (giving her son to God).  This correspondence of generosity is a virtue we also see in Our Blessed Mother, who, having received Jesus from God, in turn gives him back to God at the foot of the cross (John 19:25).  This example is instructive for those of us who are parents. We need to be reminded that our children are ultimately gifts from God, given to us not to simply please us and perpetuate a family legacy, but given to us to be cared for on God’s behalf, and ultimately offered for his service.  And although our children can serve God in many ways, this text reminds us that many are needed for the service of “the sanctuary,” which is now the Church.  Vocations are desperately needed for the religious life and the priesthood, and these vocations are fostered at home, by parents with generous hearts, gladly willing to offer their children for a life of service to God and his people.

2.  The Gospel is “The Finding of the Boy Jesus in the Temple,” Luke 2:41-52:

Each year Jesus' parents went to Jerusalem for the feast
of Passover,
and when he was twelve years old,
they went up according to festival custom.
After they had completed its days, as they were returning,
the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem,
but his parents did not know it.
Thinking that he was in the caravan,
they journeyed for a day
and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances,
but not finding him,
they returned to Jerusalem to look for him.
After three days they found him in the temple,
sitting in the midst of the teachers,
listening to them and asking them questions,
and all who heard him were astounded
at his understanding and his answers.
When his parents saw him,
they were astonished,
and his mother said to him,
"Son, why have you done this to us?
Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety."
And he said to them,
"Why were you looking for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?"
But they did not understand what he said to them.
He went down with them and came to Nazareth,
and was obedient to them;
and his mother kept all these things in her heart.
And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor
before God and man.

New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham proposes a rather direct connection between the text of our First Reading this Gospel portion.  Bauckham suggests that the boy Jesus may have understood himself a priest-prophet designated from birth, on the model of Samuel, and that when his parents brought him up to the Temple on this occasion, he believed that the plan and expectation was that he would stay and begin his service in the Temple, as Samuel did.  The theory is speculative, but worth considering.  It would explain Jesus’ apparent confusion when his mother and father finally arrive: “Why were you looking?  Did you not know … ?”  In other words, Jesus thought his parent’s plan was that he would stay.

One of the obvious themes in this Gospel is the true origin of Jesus, or in other words, the true Fatherhood of Jesus.  Though Joseph is (rightly) called Jesus’ “father” by the Our Blessed Mother (“your father and I have been looking for you”), nonetheless Jesus responds “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”, reminding us of Jesus’ divine origin, and that Joseph was in the end only his adopted father.

At first we are tempted to say that this is a difference between Jesus and ourselves.  We have natural biological fathers, but Jesus had God as his Father.  But again on further reflection, we have to admit that there is not so much difference—or better said, there is a closer analogy between our origin and Jesus’.  Like Jesus, those of us who have been baptized have been “born of God,” born in a supernatural way from a heavenly father: “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn 1:12-13).  This is the point of the Second Reading option from 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24.  Our biological fathers are in a sense merely adoptive fathers, stewards of our education and well-being until we can begin our lives of prophetic and priestly service to God.  All fatherhood has its origin in God (Eph 3:15 [Greek patria, "fatherhood"]), a point Jesus himself drives home with great force: “call no man on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father in heaven” (Mt 23:9).  In the church’s spiritual tradition, this powerful doctrine of childhood to God is called divine filiation, and it is the source of great joy for believers.  As we contemplate the Holy Family this Sunday, we need to ponder the fact that, like Jesus, we have a supernatural origin from God the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Having God as our Father makes it possible for us to break out of patterns of sin that we may have learned, consciously or unconsciously, from our human fathers—good men though they may have been—and live in “the glorious freedom of children of God” (Rom 8:21).

The moral sense of this Gospel also contains important reminders.  Although the whole incident with the loss of Jesus in the Temple was finally resolved without harm to anyone, nonetheless we must recognize the event must have been a terrible stress and strain on St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother.  This account reminds us that even in a family of two great saints and a divine child, misunderstandings arise and can cause strain on relationships.  Faithful living of the Christian virtues can alleviate many of the more obvious dysfunctions in family life, but are not a guarantee of freedom from all stress and difficulty.  There is some consolation in realizing this, and we can thank St. Luke for recording this incident, which reminds us that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph also had to bear with the sufferings of a fallen world, even though they did not participate in sin.

We are also instructed by the humility of Jesus, who being already wise in the Scriptures at the onset of his manhood (age twelve being a traditional time of transition from boy to man), nonetheless submitted to his parents and was “obedient to them.”  In families, as in all human organizations, there has to be some order of authority for the sake of the common good.  Even in superbly pleasant activities, like sports or dancing, there has to be a team captain, or someone to lead.  Often it happens that the one exercising authority is less gifted in various ways than those he or she is entrusted to lead and care for.  Such was the case in the Holy Family: St. Joseph was entrusted with its leadership, though he was neither immaculately conceived like his wife, nor divine like his son.  Perhaps he was tempted at times to feel inadequate to the job.  Yet in his role as father, he had the support of his obedient son and the trust of his wife, which certainly must have been a great encouragement.

The role of the father is greatly under attack in contemporary culture, and it is even becoming politically correct—even if wholly false from a scientific and objective perspective—to claim that fathers are optional, and children do just as well or better being raised, for example, by two women rather than by their own father and mother.  Yet the Scriptures assume that the Christian father is one who takes responsibility for, and thus leads, his family, under the ultimate guidance of Christ himself.  So, in one of the optional second readings, we find that within the love of the Christian family, there remains an order of authority (Col 3:18-21):

Wives, be subordinate to your husbands,
as is proper in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives,
and avoid any bitterness toward them.
Children, obey your parents in everything,
for this is pleasing to the Lord.
Fathers, do not provoke your children,
so they may not become discouraged.

This beautiful yet challenging text lays out the reciprocal responsibilities of the members of the Christian family. Jesus’ example of obedience to his parents reminds us that deference to proper authority is not based on some “superiority of essence,” for certainly the Lord’s parents were not superior beings to him.

The limit to obedience to authority is always the threshold of sin, for to obey someone to sin is to disobey a higher authority, God.  Therefore this text of St. Paul has to be understood in light of the full teaching of Christian and biblical morality.  Children are not obliged to follow their parents into sin—including sins against themselves, that is, against the children.  Likewise in the husband-wife relationship, the injunction to be “subordinate” only holds in the realm of morally permissible action.  The leadership of the husband is only valid as he follows Christ—a father’s authority in the home does not extend to violation of the law of Christ and the Church, which is the Law of Love (Rom 13:8-10).

As we mature in our relationship with Christ, we begin to realize more and more than any position of leadership, whether in civil society (mayor, governor), business (boss, manager), the Church (pastor, bishop, superior), the home (father, mother) is a responsibility for the well-being of others, and more of burden (from a human perspective) than a privilege (see Matt 20:27-28; Mk 10:44-45; Lk 22:24-27).

Whatever our role in our respective families, this Feast Day presents an excellent opportunity for us to make an examination of conscience concerning whether we are living the virtues that make for “happy and cheerful Christian homes” (a phrase of St. Josemaría Escrivà). These virtues are largely listed in Colossians 3, one of the options for the Second Reading.  This text from Colossians would be an excellent one to take to personal prayer sometime during this Feast Day.

This Feast also presents us an opportunity to ask for the intercessions of the Holy Family to live family life while.  In a particular way, those of us who are fathers may wish to invoke St. Joseph for the help we need to fulfill a role for which we often are inadequate if left to our own resources.


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JohnE said...

Thank you for this reflection. I've often pondered this 5th Joyful Mystery and wondered what Jesus' purposes may have been, or Luke's purposes for including this story. Luke must have sensed that this was more than just an interesting event in Jesus' life, but a profound mystery about who Jesus is. He doesn't expound upon it further and basically tells us that Mary and Joseph didn't understand either. It seems that we are left with a deep well, but a short rope.

The three days where he is missing foreshadows the three days between Jesus' death and resurrection when he also would not be found, but I suspect there's much more to this than Jesus spiritually preparing Mary for that event, or as a statement to Joseph that he would not be following in his footsteps as a carpenter. The theory by Richard Bauckham was interesting. I had similarly wondered if Jesus may have been discerning whether it was time to begin his ministry, or at least to begin the serious training for it. The concern of his parents and his obedience to them would be how he discerned that this time had not yet come, or at least not in this way. But does this mean Jesus was mistaken? Does that conform to Jesus being divine? Later, at the wedding feast of Cana, the situation seems reversed. When Mary presents the problem of the wine shortage, which would require a miracle, he says that his hour has not yet come. Is this obedient son in an oblique way allowing Mary to give her consent this time? In a way, it's like he was bringing his beloved home (his disciples were there) and asking his mother for permission to make his beloved his Bride.

John Bergsma said...

JohnE, thanks for the reflections!

Psalm Reflections said...

Something that only occurred to me recently when reading Benedict's most recent book was whether (or, when) Mary told Jesus that he had been conceived by the Holy Spirit. I've read other scholars who seem to discount this (potential?) fact when examining Jesus 'consciousness' of his origin (or, divinity). I had always assumed, perhaps with them, that his 'mission' was only revealed at his baptism. But, if Mary told him, from the earliest times the truth of his birth, how much would this have affected him. And, conversely, this passage could be read in an entirely literal manner (not, of course, excluding the layers of meaning). Is there any guidance on when Mary told Jesus about his conception?