Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5
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
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
Among the readings for which can be chosen for today is one 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
birth, family rituals and as in today’s Gospel, the annual pilgrimage up to
Jerusalem. According to the Levitical law, certain practices accompany the
fulfillment of God’s promise to be fruitful as a sign of blessing.
There is a family disfunction operating in today’s Gospel. Three
times every year a pious Jewish family would make their way to Jerusalem;
for Pentecost and the feast of Booths, which are harvest celebrations, and
Passover. It is this festival to which the Holy Family journeys. They are
fulfilling the Law and customs around which their families live their private
and communal lives. While on their way back home, Jesus begins breaking away.
After a three-day journey, it is discovered that Jesus, the twelve-year-old,
is not among the returning caravan. His parents return searching for him and
find him still in the temple discussing things of the law with the “teachers.”
After a short discussion between his parents and himself, Jesus returns to
the family and the keeping of the Laws and customs of the family. There is
something different in the air. Jesus expresses an intensification of the
response to God which is built upon the Law, but the “Father’s business” will
be lived out and preached during the rest of his public life, leading to
his death and resurrection. He will confront these “elders” again eighteen
years hence and call them to a more personal response to God. He will be leaving
his family of birth to extend the Covenant of life to the entire family of
humankind. That will come later, but for now, Luke gives us a glimpse of
how Jesus, Mary and Joseph lived their faith and love.
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.
It seems that 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, on the way up to and home from the Temple, 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 house
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, confusion, 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 growing child 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. There is no Fortune Cookie ditty here lived in the original
Holy Family, nor yours. How do you spell “holiness?” You don’t; you live it!