Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 26 December 2010
Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14; Psalm 128:1-5; Colossians 3:12-21; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
The Feast of the Holy Family, celebrated on the first Sunday after Christmas, focuses upon Joseph’s little family as a model for domestic life. The Old Testament reading is an extended commentary on the commandment to “honour your father and mother”, the psalm extols the blessing of children, the New Testament reading tells family members how to relate to each other and the Gospel shows us how Joseph acts to protect his family from the danger presented by Herod.
In biblical wisdom, respect for one’s elders is key. Wisdom is only passed on from one generation to the next if the younger generation is respectful and willing to learn. Respect for parents isn’t to be limited to the period when they are in their prime and able to impart wisdom, however. How a society treats its elderly, particularly the feeble, is a good indication of its ‘humanness’.
The psalm paints a picture of the blessed life as a family with children in an economically and politically stable environment. Children as a sign of God’s blessing is a constant theme in the Old Testament. Prosperity is astutely described as being able to eat what our hands have worked for. In other words, there is adequate employment and a just economic structure that allows individuals to reap the benefits of their own labour. The converse of that is that there is no wealth without work.
The idyllic picture of blessed family life has a shadow side. Social stability can come at the cost of individual flourishing. Families can become systems of domination where the power and interests of some are exercised at the expense of others. And even ‘good’ family solidarity can become the means of excluding the other. Is there a hint that childlessness is an indication of divine disfavor? That was certainly the belief in biblical times. We do well to remember that Joseph’s family is a blended family of sorts – the child Jesus is not his own. Jesus when he grew up remained single and childless. He resisted his family’s preferential claims upon his time and energy and taught that allegiance to the Kingdom of God comes above loyalty to family. He is not lowering the bar in terms of the imperative to love one another, but teaching that our obligation is to a broader community than that defined by family ties. It is a call to transcend the ‘us and them’ mentality created by the traditions of love and hate that are the shadow of strong familial identification.
Paul gives a beautiful description of a life which reflects the values of the kingdom of God. ‘Love’ can become a meaningless cliché in Christian circles, so here Paul fleshes it out for us, reminding us of what a life characterized by love actually looks like. He applies it to the community of the people of God generally before suggesting what it might look like within the family setting.
To conclude, let’s return to the vignette of the Holy Family presented to us by Matthew. Joseph faithfully plays his part in God’s greater purpose because he listens and obeys. He is both concerned for the wellbeing of his little family and open to the transcendent. Jesus truly was blessed to have a foster-father with the spiritual sensitivity to hear God’s messenger in his dreams and the courage and humility to do as he was told. This is love in action.
Here is the text of the reading from Sirach for those who do not have the Deuterocanonical books in their Bible:
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.