Father Donald Senior, CP

Dec. 27: Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Family portraits

Sir 3:2-6, 12-14; Ps 128:1-2, 3, 4-5; Col 3:12-21; Lk 2:22-40

The poignant scenes appear on our television screens every day. Children touching hands of an elderly loved one with a window of a nursing home in between. Disappointed families trying to draw together through Zoom when sharing a Christmas dinner is a risk. The tensions sparked from being confined in close quarters even with people we love. All of us can add experiences of our own to the list of conditions endured during this unusual time.

Perhaps more than ever, the church’s feast day celebrating the sacredness of family life is a moment for reflection and prayer. Today we honor the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and in so doing, we honor all families everywhere. 

It would be easy enough to speak of this Holy Family in tones that reflect one of those beloved Norman Rockwell paintings of family dinners where everyone is clean, bright and joyful. Yet the portraits of the Holy Family found in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew are more challenging and more real.

Today’s Gospel is from Luke’s exquisite portrayal, the source of so much of our Christmas pageants: birth in a manger, songs of angels, homage of the shepherds. The scene today describes the moment when Mary and Joseph bring their newborn son to the temple, conforming to the Jewish ritual of consecrating their child to God’s protection. 

What follows are scenes of great tenderness and emotion. There is the elderly and devout Simeon taking the child in his arms and singing out in joy because he realized that he cradled in his arms the hopes of his people Israel. Then there is Anna, a widow who spent every day in the temple, fasting and praying. She, too, is inspired to realize who this child is and what life he will bring to the people. Luke concludes the scene by noting that this young family returns to Nazareth where the child would “grow and become strong.”

This is a beautiful account of Jesus’ infancy, with the full realization of his destiny just below the surface. But there are storm clouds in the background.

We learn that Joseph and his pregnant wife had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem because a Roman emperor wanted a census taken to ensure he could tax all the people Rome had subjugated. What did the travails and anxiety of a pregnant Jewish woman and her husband mean to him? And the joy of entering the vast and beautiful temple with their baby is tempered with the ominous prophecy of Simeon that this child will be a “sign that will be contradicted” and that Mary’s own heart would be pierced with a sword of sadness.

If there are echoes of tension and sadness in Luke’s account, there is full-blown chaos in Matthew’s portrait of the Holy Family. Joseph is confused and stricken when he first learns that his betrothed is pregnant, but not by him. The life of the child is threatened by a murderous despot, Herod, who will stop at nothing to snuff out the life of a rival. Joseph is inspired to take his fragile family into exile in Egypt — far from his extended family that would ordinarily provide support and comfort. Then, after the death of Herod, they return home to Bethlehem only to learn that Herod’s son, Archelaus, is worse than his father. They are displaced to Nazareth, a long way from their ancestral home.

How eerily like the experience of so many families today is this Holy Family: anxious about the future; their lives disrupted by events and decisions over which they have no control; having to leave behind familiar places and people they love to seek safety.

Despite the threats and sorrow, the heart of the Holy Family was nourished by the unimaginable love that bound them together. That is true of most families. We strive for the kind of love we hear of today in Paul’s letter to the Colossians: “Put on, as God’s chosen ones … heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another. … And over all these put on love, that is the bond of perfection.”



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