Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14
Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5
Luke 2:22-40 or 2:22, 39-40
So as to be more aware of the graces of the scripture and how they lead us to celebrate the Eucharist, let us first employ our imaginations.
A young man and woman are trundling along a road crowded with fellow travelers. The woman is riding on a donkey and holding a bundled baby in one arm. The Jerusalem temple is up and ahead and the woman looks from her child to her husband, then the temple, then to the sky, and then completes the visual circle by peeking at the baby once more.
The man is attentive to the passengers, the donkey, but he too keeps glancing up towards this great reminder of God’s dominion in Jerusalem.
“Help us to live as the holy family united in respect and love.” This is quite a dangerous request that the Church offers for our Opening Prayer today. We would be asking for mystery, uncertainty, letting go and receiving life’s pains gratefully.
We can pray for our own families of origin, for gratitude, healing and blessings. We can pray for our families of commitment, for growth, trust, togetherness and reverence. We can pray also for families whom we know are hurting, hoping, needy and separated. Families are where wishes meet weakness and humanity is made holy or harmed. We can pray personally with our expectations and for what is real around us in our homes.
I once asked a group of married couples, “Other than your spouses, what has been the biggest disappointment in your living the sacrament of marriage.” After they stopped laughing, they all said that they did not know that raising children was going to be so hard. “It’s a lot of work!” It is a lot of work raising expectations, raising spouses and raising levels of compassion and trust.
Our first reading for this liturgy is from the Book of Sirach. Most of these verses sound as if found in a Fortune Cookie and inserted in them by a father or grandfather. The reading combines family observances and relational reverence with the relationship with God. Parent-child relationships are directly related to the relationship with God. Prayers are heard by God, from those who respect and honor parents. God’s blessings will be the fortune of those offspring who care for father and mother.
Joseph and Mary are shown as having great reverence for God’s laws concerning newly born sons. They journey up to the Temple in Jerusalem for the post-birth purification and presentation ritual. According to the Levitical law, certain practices accompany the fulfillment of God’s promise to be fruitful as a sign of blessing.
While in the temple area the couple meets two holy souls. Simeon and Anna both impart blessings and prophecies concerning the destiny of this child. The child is given to this couple, but even more, given to be the gift of salvation for all the people and as a glory for Israel.
There is also the prediction that while this child will be considered great by some and rejected by others, her own emotions will suffer because of this child.
The couple and their child return home and by their living according to God’s law, the child grew strong and full of wisdom. So we have a picture of a holy family. They received from God, they returned thanks to the Giver; they were faithful to their lives even though they were aware of sufferings to come.
It seems that a child or children make the couple into a family. Mary and Joseph were not known as the Holy Couple. What makes a family a “holy family,” that is not as easy to define. Personal holiness is equally hard to define, it depends on who the person is and what is the criterion one is using. Well, what family holiness is might be impossible to articulate.
Mary, riding on the donkey, describes a circle of her heart’s concern. The child, her husband, the temple, the sky and back to her child encompassed the elements of her holy family. A circle has no point of priority. Did she love God in the temple more than her child in her arms or her husband by her side? Loving God makes the human and family circle all one act so that loving her husband is loving God. Loving the sky and earth is loving God as well. Joseph’s circle of love is completed as well by his being husband, father, and worker with wood of the earth and providing a space for growth of the child.
From the announcement by the angel to Mary and then to Joseph this couple was going to live in a Christ-centered tension. From the finding of Jesus in the temple to the finding of Jesus at the foot of the cross, from the flight into Egypt to his leaving home, mystery, uncertainty and letting go created a salvific tension.
This word can have a bad reputation. Holiness has something to do with how we allow grace to enter our very human tensions and what we do with them. It is too easy to say, that “belief is relief,” but tensions are not to be dissolved, but received for what they are, invitations.
Flights, journeys, wonderings, confused, but this family was holy,
not only because of the presence of the historical Jesus, but the living
gracefully of their family vocation of mystery. The Child in her
arms, the husband by her side, the temple and its laws and customs, the
world around them were all elements of tension and Mary and Joseph kept
walking, journeying, fleeing and trusting. No Fortune Cookie ditty
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