Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Readings for Holy Family Sunday

The Sunday that falls in the Octave of the Solemnity of Christmas is dedicated to celebrating the Holy Family.  The Readings for this Sunday focus on the rights and responsibilities of family members toward each other, and the Gospel focuses on the role of the “most forgotten” member of the Holy Family, St. Joseph, who cared for and protected the Blessed Mother and infant Jesus through the dangerous early years of Jesus’ childhood.

The Lectionary provides different reading options for this Sunday: the celebrant may opt for the “standard” (ABC) readings, or choose the more recently proposed readings for Year B.  (The USCCB website provides both, although not the standard (ABC) Gospel Reading, for some reason.)  It what follows, we will try to cover all the options:

1.  The First Reading (ABC) is Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14:

God sets a father in honor over his children;
a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons.
Whoever honors his father atones for sins,
and preserves himself from them.
When he prays, he is heard;
he stores up riches who reveres his mother.
Whoever honors his father is gladdened by children,
and, when he prays, is heard.
Whoever reveres his father will live a long life;
he who obeys his father brings comfort to his mother.

My son, take care of your father when he is old;
grieve him not as long as he lives.
Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him;
revile him not all the days of his life;
kindness to a father will not be forgotten,
firmly planted against the debt of your sins
—a house raised in justice to you.

Sirach is the last of the wisdom books in the Catholic order of the canon, and may be regarded as a massive summation of the Israelite wisdom tradition composed c. 200 BC.  In fact, Sirach is truly a meditation on the entire body of Israel’s Scriptures from the perspective of wisdom, that is, the practical knowledge of successful living.  Because Sirach provides such a useful digest of the moral message of the Old Testament Scriptures, the early Church used it heavily in catechesis, earning it the name “Ecclesiasticus,” that is, “the Church book.”

Sirach excels in giving practical advice—teaching people the application of natural virtues in daily life.  Early on, the Church realized that it was difficult to catechize pagan cultures that did not practice the natural virtues well.  Theological virtues—faith, hope, and love—rest upon and perfect the natural virtues—prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.  The Book of Sirach was employed to form people in basic Judaeo-Christian morality and family life.  Leading a moral and well-ordered natural life is, of course, not ultimate goal of the Christian life—union with God is.  However, it is very difficult to make progress in union with God in the midst of immorality and disorder.

The teaching of the Book of Sirach frequently strikes us these days as quaint or dated.  However, our modern alternatives to the moral vision laid out in this book have not been empirically successful—by almost any psychological or sociological measure, our culture is growing more unhealthy and dysfunctional.  Sirach has been treasured in Christianity (and even in Judaism) for centuries because its principles work.

The first paragraph of this Reading from Sirach focuses on the responsibility of children to revere their parents.  One’s relationship with one’s parents affects one’s relationship to God: it preserves one from sin, merits forgiveness of sin, and makes one’s prayers efficacious. 
Happy is the person who finds it easy to revere his father and mother, because they are virtuous and admirable people!  You are truly blessed in body and soul.  But many of us meditating on these Readings struggle with this command to revere parents, because we have been hurt by them: perhaps we are children of divorce, or were abandoned my father or mother.  Perhaps we suffered abuse of some kind.  How then do we react to this Reading?

It is still applicable to us.  Our identity is so strongly bound up with our parents that hatred of them becomes self-hatred, damaging us at the core of our being.  So for the sake of our own health and the health of our relationship to God, we need to pray for divine strength—what we call “Grace”—to forgive hurts that otherwise are beyond our ability to forgive, and ask God to show us whatever was good, true, and beautiful in our parents, in order that we may emphasize and dwell on that.

Isn’t this part of “loving our neighbors as ourselves”?  Aren’t we conscious of ways we sinned against our own children, and don’t we hope they will come one day to forgive our vices and emphasize our virtues?  This Reading from Sirach is, in a way, an application to the child-parent relationship of the principle of the Lord’s prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we have forgiven those who trespass against us,” because “if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.  (Matt 6:14-15).”

The second paragraph of this First Reading especially commends honoring one’s father in his old age.  These verses remind us of the times that Pope Francis, like his predecessors, has emphasized that the moral measure of a society—and we may add, of individuals, too—is how we treat the very old and the very young, those who don’t seem to “contribute” very much to the economy.  This de-supernaturalized way of evaluating human worth is contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The elderly deserve honor and care for their own sake, as image-bearers of God.  Moreover, since there is an order to charity, those closest to us (like our parents) have the first claim on our love.  Therefore, much later in salvation history, St. Paul will affirm: “If any one does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim 5:8).  Why “worse than an unbeliever?”  Because he brings discredit to the Christian faith. 

The other first reading option, for Year B, is taken from Genesis 15:
The word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying:
"Fear not, Abram!
I am your shield;
I will make your reward very great."
But Abram said,
"O Lord GOD, what good will your gifts be,
if I keep on being childless
and have as my heir the steward of my house, Eliezer?"
Abram continued,
"See, you have given me no offspring,
and so one of my servants will be my heir."
Then the word of the LORD came to him:
"No, that one shall not be your heir;
your own issue shall be your heir."
The Lord took Abram outside and said,
"Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can.
Just so," he added, "shall your descendants be."
Abram put his faith in the LORD,
who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.

The LORD took note of Sarah as he had said he would;
he did for her as he had promised.
Sarah became pregnant and bore Abraham a son in his old age,
at the set time that God had stated.
Abraham gave the name Isaac to this son of his
whom Sarah bore him.

The miraculous birth of Isaac is a type of the birth of Christ, and Abraham and Sarah are types of St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother.  In both cases we have a miraculous conception and birth in a situation where common sense and biology would dictate that none should be possible.  The links between Jesus and Isaac are many.  Both are called the “only son” of their respective fathers, and both would one day climb a mountain carrying the wood of their execution on their back, and then be laid on the wood at the top of the mountain in order to be sacrificed to God out of love for their father for the sake of blessing to the entire world (see Gen 22:1-18).

This first reading reminds us that the salvation of the world “passes by way of the family,” to use a phrase of which St. John Paul II was fond.  Again, the salvation of the world frequently did, and still does, come down to quiet decisions and acts of faith made by parents in out-of-the-way times and places, decisions and acts that are never reported in the papers or on the internet, but which lead to conception and birth of new human beings who ultimately will change the world.  Truly the drama of human history plays out mostly in the quiet intensity of daily life, especially within the family.  This should motivate us to recommit ourselves to seeking holiness in the little mundane details of daily living, because so often it is from those small acts of faith in the pursuit of holiness that great acts of salvation are conceived and grow. 

2.  Responsorial Psalm is Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5:

R. (cf. 1) Blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways.
Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD,
who walks in his ways!
For you shall eat the fruit of your handiwork;
blessed shall you be, and favored.
R. Blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways.
Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine
in the recesses of your home;
your children like olive plants
around your table.
R. Blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways.
Behold, thus is the man blessed
who fears the LORD.
The LORD bless you from Zion:
may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life.
R. Blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways.

This psalm emphasizes the natural blessing that family life is.  One of the blessings God grants to the one who fears him is the joy of married love and fruitfulness:

Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine
in the recesses of your home;
your children like olive plants
around your table.

This does not rule out the possibility that person may sacrifice the great good of family life in order more radically to be devoted to God through a life of celibacy (Matt 19:10-12). But the person who gives up family life because he or she has contempt for them, misunderstands the call to religious life.   Marriage and family life are a great good.  They mirror the life of the Trinity, since God Himself—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is familial in his nature.  “Father” and “Son,” after all, are family terms.  Apostolic celibacy gains its value because it is the sacrifice of a great good (a spotless lamb) in order more fully to dedicate this temporal life to God and to His sacramental family, the Church.

Sadly, marriage and family life are not even perceived as desirable goods by many in our culture.  Marriage rates are dropping and too often children are perceived as a burden and distraction from our career or hobbies.  Is that well-ordered?  Is your job at some corporation really a greater eternal good than one’s own child?  We are very far from seeing reality through the eyes of God.  

The option for Year B is Psalm 105, a review of salvation history that matches well with Genesis 15:

R. (7a , 8a) The Lord remembers his covenant for ever.
Give thanks to the LORD, invoke his name;
make known among the nations his deeds.
Sing to him, sing his praise,
proclaim all his wondrous deeds.
R. The Lord remembers his covenant for ever.
Glory in his holy name;
rejoice, O hearts that seek the LORD!
Look to the LORD in his strength;
constantly seek his face.
R. The Lord remembers his covenant for ever.
You descendants of Abraham, his servants,
sons of Jacob, his chosen ones!
He, the LORD, is our God;
throughout the earth his judgments prevail.
R. The Lord remembers his covenant for ever.
He remembers forever his covenant
which he made binding for a thousand generations
which he entered into with Abraham
and by his oath to Isaac.
R. The Lord remembers his covenant for ever.

Psalm 105 is one of a pair of psalms (105 & 106) that together conclude Book IV of the Psalter, each of which makes a review of salvation history.  Psalm 105 reviews history and concludes God has always been faithful; 106 reviews the same and concludes Israel was always unfaithful.  Together, these two psalms explain why Israel ended up in exile.

The passages of Psalm 105 chosen at this mass remind us of the Abrahamic covenant, which was referenced in the First Reading as well.  The LORD “remembers forever his covenant which he made binding for a thousand generations, which he entered into with Abraham, and by his oath to Isaac.”  The only place in the Scriptures where God explicitly swears an oath to any of the patriarchs is in Genesis 22:15-18.  There, after Isaac is almost offered on the wood as a sacrifice and as a type of Calvary, God swears by his own Self to Abraham and Isaac that through Abraham’s “seed” (Heb. zera’, meaning descendant or descendants) all the nations of the earth would be blessed.  This psalm, then, reminds us that the birth of Jesus was a fulfillment of the covenantal promise given to Abraham long ago, to bless the world through Abraham’s family.  Covenant is, of course, and extension of kinship by oath, a way of making a person into your family member by swearing to them.  Covenants form families.  God saves us through covenants, especially the New Covenant, because the New Covenant makes us truly into the family of God.  To be saved is to enter into the divine family. 

3.  The Second Reading is Col 3:12-21:

Brothers and sisters:
Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,
bearing with one another and forgiving one another,
if one has a grievance against another;
as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.
And over all these put on love,
that is, the bond of perfection.
And let the peace of Christ control your hearts,
the peace into which you were also called in one body.
And be thankful.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,
as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another,
singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs
with gratitude in your hearts to God.
And whatever you do, in word or in deed,
do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus,
giving thanks to God the Father through him.

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 Reading breaks down into two main sections: the first concerns how to behave with the spiritual family which is the Church, the second how to behave within the natural family, the ecclesia domestica, the domestic Church.

The second section lays out responsibilities of family members toward one another.  “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord.”  This is because, throughout Scripture, beginning with Adam in the Garden-sanctuary of Eden, the ideal held up for the father and husband is to serve as the priest or spiritual leader of the family, the domestic church.  To do this, he needs the support of his wife.  He needs her both to expect and to respect him as the “family priest,” as it were.  The children will take their cue from their mother.  If they see she does not respect her husband or look to him for spiritual leadership, the family becomes disordered.  Let’s remember the Blessed Mother, who—though she was the sinless Mother of God—looked with respect on St. Joseph and honored him as her husband. 

To lead the family toward God is the responsibility of a husband and father, but one that is frequently shirked.  When I worked in urban ministry, I encountered fathers who were willing to send their kids to Church or youth programs, as long as they weren’t involved.  I told them they’d do more for their children by leaving the kids and home and coming to worship themselves.

St. Paul moves on to speak of the husband’s responsibility: “love your wives and avoid any bitterness toward them.”  A longer treatment of the husband’s responsibility is found in the famous passage of Ephesians 5, that likens the husband’s love of his wife to that of Christ for the Church.  Thus, the model of Christ’s love even to a sacrificial death is held out as normative for husbands.  This is a high calling.  It also rules out any abuse, any selfishness, any chauvinism, any “machismo” on the part of the husband.  Any such thing is a disorder incompatible with the command to love one’s wife as Christ loved the Church.  Though the husband many be the priest of the domestic church, this is for him a role of service, not one of “lording it over others” (see Luke 22:25-26). 

St. Paul moves on to speak of children and fathers.  “Children, obey your parents in everything.”  Of course, this does not mean to obey parents in anything that is sinful.  Obedience is always guided by the moral law of God.  In moral issues, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).  This holds true also for sins against our person.  We are not called to submit to offenses against our person perpetrated by one in authority.

But St. Paul presumes the good will of parents in this passage, and so says, “obey your parents in everything,” knowing that parents typically have the best interest of their children at heart, and that, moreover, willful disobedience just introduces chaos into the home. 

Then he says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.”  Notice that he addresses fathers!  He assumes that fathers take an active role in the raising of their children, and of setting family policy!  He assumes they do more than come home from work and sit on the couch drinking beer and watching football!  The role of the father is so important in children’s development.  Let’s not listen to the lies of those who say the father can be replaced without harm: that is bad science and bad theology.  The father who is a strong, loving, and directing presence in his children’s lives contributes greatly to their spiritual and psychological health, and makes it easier for them to find faith in a God who calls Himself “Father.”

The optional Second Reading for Year B is taken from Hebrews:

Brothers and sisters:
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place
that he was to receive as an inheritance;
he went out, not knowing where he was to go.
By faith he received power to generate,
even though he was past the normal age
—and Sarah herself was sterile—
for he thought that the one who had made the promise was trustworthy.
So it was that there came forth from one man,
himself as good as dead,
descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky
and as countless as the sands on the seashore.

By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac,
and he who had received the promises was ready to offer
his only son,
of whom it was said,
"Through Isaac descendants shall bear your name."
He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead,
and he received Isaac back as a symbol.

This beautiful reading from Hebrews is so appropriate, because the previous Readings for Year B have focused on the covenant with Abraham, and how God used Abraham’s family, a type of the Holy Family, to bring salvation to the world.  And we have already pondered how salvation is bound up with family life, indeed, salvation is family life in the divine family created by the New Covenant, which restores and transforms everything that was good about the Abrahamic covenant. 

This Reading from Hebrews encapsulates the entirety of Abraham’s career, mentioning the key points, such as his faith to leave Ur for the Promised Land, his patience in waiting for an heir, and his willingness to offer Isaac in sacrifice in Genesis 22, the ultimate test of faith which merited the divine covenant oath that guaranteed blessing to the world through Abraham’s descendant, who turned out to be Jesus Christ.

The moral sense of the text reminds us that family life is difficult, and requires a great deal of faith, not only in Abraham’s day but in our own.  Families face all sorts of challenges, including sickness, infertility, financial hardship, high taxation, persecution from the government, unemployment or underemployment, mental illness, and many other challenges.  Become a father and a mother requires courage.  It is not for the faint of heart.  And yet, the survival and salvation of the world depends on it.  Parents listening to these readings should ponder the sufferings endured by Abraham and Sarah and take to heart their example of faith.  It has never been easy, and there are and will be times in family life where it seems that all is lost, all has been for nothing.  At those moments we need to remember that we are the spiritual children of Abraham, that man who never gave up because he believed God can raise the dead.  And he can!

4. The Gospel is Matt 2:13-15, 19-23:

When the magi had departed, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt,
and stay there until I tell you.
Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”
Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night
and departed for Egypt.
He stayed there until the death of Herod,
that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled,
Out of Egypt I called my son.

When Herod had died, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream
to Joseph in Egypt and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel,
for those who sought the child’s life are dead.”
He rose, 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 back there.
And because he had been warned in a dream,
he departed for the region of Galilee.
He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth,
so that what had been spoken through the prophets
might be fulfilled,
He shall be called a Nazorean.

This Gospel is one of the few that focuses on St. Joseph as the protagonist.  Let’s recall a few facts about such a great but overlooked saint.  St. Joseph was of royal blood.  In fact, he himself was heir to the throne of Jerusalem: that is the point of the genealogy of Matthew 1.  However, although he is the legitimate heir, he has to flee from the imposter who actually sits on the throne: Herod, a half-Jewish, half-Edomite aristocrat and politician who bribed, manipulated, and married his way onto the throne of Israel.  Herod is one of the original anti-Christ figures of the Bible.

Although St. Joseph was of the royal line of the tribe of Judah, he’s named after the patriarch of a different tribe, one that always rivaled Judah for leadership of the twelve tribes of Israel (cf. Gen 49:10 & 26, NAB).  Like Joseph of the coat-of-many-colors fame, St. Joseph is particularly open to communication from God, and receives revelatory dreams that involve traveling to Egypt and preserving God’s people from harm.

In this period of salvation history, the safety of the Holy Family and thus the preservation of the hope of salvation for the entire human family is all in St. Joseph’s hands.  Mary is immaculate, the child Jesus divine, but like many good action flicks, at the moment of crisis the plot is all in the hands of the one character who does not have “superpowers”!  In this way St. Joseph is a type of the believer: Jesus entrusts himself to us, he dwells within us through his Spirit and the Eucharist.  In a way, too, through the communion of saints in the Spirit, the Blessed Mother dwells with us (John 19:27).  But how well do we cherish the Lord and his mother who have been entrusted to us?  Do we allow their life to flourish, such that we can say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me?” (Gal. 2:20).

What does the Scripture highlight about St. Joseph?  What qualities does it put forward as the virtues that made him successful in the role to which God called him?

We note two qualities in this passage: (1) He was open to hear the voice of God, and (2) he was prompt in obedience.

Practically speaking, being open to hear the voice of God in our own lives usually requires certain habits, among which we may list: (1) devoting adequate time to prayer, including silence in prayer when we can let our heart be moved by God; (2) reading and meditating on Scripture, through which God speaks to us; (3) the counsel of a holy confessor or spiritual director; (4) the practice of penance and (at least small) mortifications, through which we develop detachment from the material goods and pleasures that often dull our spiritual senses.

Hearing the word of God for us must lead to action, however.  Some spiritual writers say that God stops sending inspirations when we habitually refuse to act on them. 

St. Joseph sets an example for all Christian fathers in particular, and for all believers generally, of how to hear God’s Word and obey it.  St. Joseph, pray for us!

The optional Gospel for Year B is taken from Luke 2, the account of the Visitation:

When the days were completed for their purification
according to the law of Moses,
They took him up to Jerusalem
to present him to the Lord,
just as it is written in the law of the Lord,
“Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord,”
and “to offer the sacrifice of
a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,”
in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon.
This man was righteous and devout,
awaiting the consolation of Israel,
and the Holy Spirit was upon him.
It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit
that he should not see death
before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.
He came in the Spirit into the temple;
and when the parents brought in the child Jesus
to perform the custom of the law in regard to him,
He took him into his arms and blessed God, saying:
"Now, Master, you may let your servant go
in peace, according to your word,
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you prepared in sight of all the peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel."
The child's father and mother were amazed at what was said about him;
and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother,
"Behold, this child is destined
for the fall and rise of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be contradicted
—and you yourself a sword will pierce—
so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed."
There was also a prophetess, Anna,
the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.
She was advanced in years,
having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage,
and then as a widow until she was eighty-four.
She never left the temple,
but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.
And coming forward at that very time,
she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child
to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions
of the law of the Lord,
they returned to Galilee,
to their own town of Nazareth.
The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom;
and the favor of God was upon him.

There are several points to be made from this passage.  In the first place, the Holy Family’s obedience to the Law of Moses in their fulfillment of their religious duties as recorded in the first paragraph of this Gospel reminds us that Jesus and his parents were no lawless hippies traveling Israel in their VW Vanagon with an anarchy sticker on the back.  This is a salient reminder in an era where contempt for law is rampant, whether it is civil law, canon law, or even the moral law.  Even within the Church, there are loud voices that criticize the careful observance of Church law, as if one is a Pharisee or a legalist if one is careful to follow the commandments of God and of the Church.  These individuals view Jesus as having come to free us from law, in the sense that we can disregard civil and moral commands if we have some kind of important reason, although what those important reasons are, are often not well defined. 

However, Jesus Christ never criticized persons for being careful to obey the law of God.  He even commended the Pharisees, for example, for tithing their spices (that is, donating a tenth of their spices to the Temple service).  What Jesus criticized was the use of loopholes in the Law to avoid having to obey a more important moral commitment. So, for example, Pharisees would use a loophole in religious law to donate their estate to the Temple, in order not to have to liquidate their estate to care for their elderly parents.  Then, after the death of their parents, they would “undonate” their estate and enjoy the profit.  This was the kind of thing Jesus criticized: using legal rationalization to avoid fidelity to core principles of divine and moral law.  Otherwise, Jesus lived as an obedient Jew.  He respected the order of authority and did not teach people to hold civil and religious authorities in contempt.  He even told the people to obey the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees, because they “sat in Moses’ seat,” i.e. they were heirs of Moses’ authority.  He did, however, establish a different set of legal authorities for his own community, by granting to Peter and the Apostles the power to “bind and loose”, which were ancient terms for making authoritative decisions about how to put the moral law into practice. 

However, the main point of the Gospel really focuses on the figures of holy Simeon and Anna, who utter prophecies about the child Jesus.  Simeon and Anna are grandparent figures: we imagine them surrounding the Holy Family, and we see three generations: child, parent, and grandparent.  We are reminded of Pope Francis’ stress on the role of grandparents in a family.  In this case, the “grandparently” Simeon and Anna speak about the future of the child.  Simeon ominously tells the Blessed Mother, “a sword will pierce your own soul.”  This indicates her co-suffering with Jesus, and in fact, all of us co-suffer with Jesus.  This Gospel reminds us that there is much suffering in family life, especially for parents, and yet these sufferings can be united to the suffering of Jesus and offered for the salvation of the world.  Let’s pray at this mass that Mary and Joseph would help us learn to take those sword thrusts, those painful agonies that strike us in the process of raising a family, and unite them to the cross of Christ, offering them as a prayer for God to unleash blessing upon “all the families of the earth”(Gen 12:3).

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