Father Donald Senior, CP

Dec. 29: The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

A family in flight

Sir 3:2-6, 12-14; Ps 128:1-2, 3, 4-5; Col 3:12-17; Mt 2:13-15, 19-23

In his painting “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” artist Luc Olivier Merson depicts the Holy Family taking refuge in Egypt. The family is camped at night, with Mary and her child cradled in the arms of a sphinx and Joseph sleeping protectively next to a small fire and the tethered donkey that brought them here. (Egyptian Christians, by the way, believe that the Holy Family spent three years in their land, moving as refuges from place to place and sanctifying every part of the land they touched.)

How amazing is it that the Gospel of Matthew today introduces us to the family of Jesus, God incarnate, not enthroned in Jerusalem or surrounded with adoring admirers, but as refugees fleeing for their lives from a murderous despot? And how amazing for us this Christmas season 2019 when we learn that there are more than 70 million refugees in the world, an unprecedented number? How pertinent, too, is it that our country is embroiled in a debate about what to do with the desperate families seeking refuge at our southern border at this very moment? How incomprehensible is it that for families like this we would separate children from their parents?

Matthew’s account of the flight into Egypt is paired with other biblical readings for this Sunday and the ensemble expresses both the beauty and the frailty of family life. In the first reading, Sirach, a book from the so-called wisdom literature of the Bible, describes the patriarchal family ideals of ancient Israel. The father is honored as the head of the household; the mother revered by her children. The same is true of the response Psalm 128. The family clan is blessed when there are enough children to help with the work that kept a family alive. It is wonderful to have a wife who is a “fruitful vine” and therefore children multiplying like “olive plants around your table.”

One perennial note familiar to us today comes through: The adult children are admonished to “take care of your father (i.e., your parent) when he is old.” Be “considerate of him, even if his mind fails.” “Kindness to a parent will not be forgotten,” we hear. Today, even more so than in Sirach’s time, the blessing of longer lifespans increases the responsibility of adult sons and daughters to care for their aging parents with patience and enduring love.

The reading from Paul’s letter to the Colossians ends with another culturally bound expectation: “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands; husbands, love your wives; children obey your parents.” Fortunately, the Lectionary permits omitting this final paragraph and concentrating instead on the beautiful admonitions at the beginning of the reading.

Like so many New Testament exhortations, this passage lifts up virtues that reflect genuine love and the actual experience of family life. We are urged to put on “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another. Above all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.” Striving to live with each other in this way will allow “the peace of Christ [to] control your hearts.” 

Pope Francis, in his powerful reflection on family life “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”), notes that the words used in biblical passages like this are not romantic or sentimental but reflect love that has been lived in the reality of family life where there is the need for forgiveness, patience and forbearance when faced with our own and others’ weaknesses and failures.

Matthew’s Gospel for this Sunday after Christmas has a sober tone. Herod threatens this dearest of families with death. Even after Herod is gone, the family cannot go home to Bethlehem because the Romans installed Archelaus, the son of Herod, as king of Judea and he was as cruel as his father. Joseph is warned to move again and take refuge in Nazareth in the north.

We Christians celebrate the family today, which is the heart of human experience, a sacred school of love and life. Yet, it is also fragile and in many places under assault. We ask God’s loving protection for all families.



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