Today, the Church gives us an episode from Jesus’ early family life to ponder. Why?
Gospel (Read Lk 2:22-40)
St. Luke tells us that after the wonder of Jesus’ remarkable birth, announced by angels and praised by shepherds, His parents did what all devout Jews did in that day after the birth of a firstborn son—they presented Him at the Temple in Jerusalem. There were two covenantal obligations on them that required their obedience. First, any woman who had given birth, thus incurring ritual impurity for forty days because of the blood that accompanies birth, had to offer sacrifice to “complete” her purification, enabling her to re-enter liturgical life again. Technically, this was not required of Mary, because the Church teaches that she gave birth with no violation of her virginity. Yet she submitted to it out of respect for the meaning of the law and to avoid giving scandal to others. Blood caused ritual impurity among the Jews because it was a powerful sign of death, and nothing associated with death could come into contact with holy people, places, or things. Ritual holiness symbolized life as God designed it to be, untainted by death (the punishment on sin in Eden). Respect for the holy promise of life from God’s covenant with His people made Mary want to follow the law’s prescription. This is reminiscent of Jesus’ desire to be baptized with repentant sinners in the Jordan River. The new Adam and the new Eve lived in solidarity with the people Jesus came to save.
Next, the law of Moses required all parents of firstborn sons to remember how God had spared Israel’s firstborn sons from death at the Passover, when He delivered them from bondage to slavery (see Ex 13:2; Num 18:15-16). In a sense, the parents “owed” these sons to God out of gratitude. In His kindness, however, God made provision for them to redeem their sons by making an offering. This ritual requirement planted very firmly in the family lives of God’s people how much He loved them and to what great lengths he was willing to go for them to live free.
So, we see that Jesus was born into a faithful, observant family, to parents who loved and honored God and who believed the requirements of their covenant religion were grounded in beauty, truth, and goodness. In this, Mary and Joseph become models to us, especially on this feast day, of how the family life established by faithful parents forms the foundation for the growth of children who one day grow up to be parents themselves. Remember the circumstances of Jesus’ extraordinary conception and birth. Do we wonder if His parents thought that perhaps the “rules” wouldn’t apply to Him, or even to them? If God had singled them out for such gracious, miraculous work, did that suggest their own holiness placed them beyond the law which was, after all, meant to regulate the lives of sinners? If they were tempted to think this way, they resisted it and did not succumb. They humbly submitted to all that their religion required of them, confident in its objective goodness, no matter what they personally thought or felt.
While they were at the Temple, Mary and Joseph had the unexpected blessing of prophetic pronouncements by Simeon and Anna about their beloved baby boy. In this, they got more than they could ever have imagined as they planned their trip to the Temple. First, Simeon describes seeing the “salvation” God has sent His people in this little Child—a confirmation to them of what Gabriel had announced at the Annunciation. Simeon’s words “amazed” the Child’s parents. All parents long for great things for their children. Parental love always wants to see happiness and fulfillment in the future that lies ahead for them. Of course, none of us want to hear what Mary and Joseph heard next from Simeon: “this Child is destined … to be a sign that will be contradicted.” Not only that, but Mary would experience the pierce of a sword as the Child accomplished the work God sent Him to do. On such a festive occasion as this Presentation, we should not miss the depth of meaning of Simeon’s prophecy. Even God’s own Son, born into the best possible loving, devout family, could not escape the suffering that is the lot of all of us ever since Eden. And yet, when Joseph and Mary heard all that Simeon and Anna had to say, could there be any doubt in them about the goodness and wisdom of God’s plan?
Confident of this, even though they had to absorb startling, even difficult, prophetic words, Joseph and Mary were able to return home to Nazareth and raise their Boy, trusting in the promises of God no matter what lay ahead.
Isn’t this what is required of all of us parents as we receive our children from God’s hands? Today’s Gospel reminds us to humbly submit to the religious obligations of our covenant with God, for His glory and the good of our children and ourselves. It also reminds us that every child baptized in this covenant is destined for greatness, because God loves us enough to make us His children, having willed us into existence. Finally, it gives us courage to accept the shadows of suffering that will inevitably fall into our family life, trusting that nothing ever conquers the goodness of God.
This is the kind of family into which Jesus was born and grew to manhood. By God’s grace, it can be our kind of family, too.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, help me remember that my family life is my first and best school for sanctity.
First Reading (Read Sir 3:2-7, 12-14)
This reading enables us to see that the family—its structure of parental authority and its potential for harmony and long-lasting joy—is God’s idea. “God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority He confirms over her sons.” This ordering of family life by God Himself is why the Fourth Commandment requires us to honor our fathers and mothers. Our relationship with God is not unaffected by our treatment of our parents, because, in a sense, they are standing-in for God, having cooperated with Him in our conception and birth. Obedience and reverence for our parents grows into obedience and reverence for God.
Possible response: Heavenly Father, thank You for creating families. Please strengthen us all in an age that is losing respect for strong family life.
Psalm (Read Ps 128:1-5)
God’s first commandment to man and woman, at the dawn of Creation, was to “be fruitful.” All through Scripture, blessedness is described in terms of fruitfulness. In the psalm, we see that “Blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in His ways.” Reverence for and obedience to the Lord are the essence of blessedness. See how they are rewarded—by fruitfulness. First, the blessed will be able to literally “eat the fruit” of their handiwork. Their crops will yield great bounty. Then, “your wife shall be like a fruitful vine…your children like olive plants around your table.” Here is a beautiful picture of the blessing of family life, God’s great gift to His faithful people. What a wonderful corrective this is for a culture like ours that so often counts its blessings in possessions, not people.
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings. Read it again prayerfully to make it your own.
Second Reading (Read Col 3:12-21)
In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul directs the Christians to treat each other as fellow members of God’s household. He exhorts them to live in the Church the way we ought first to live in our families: with “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” Life in God’s family requires us to forgive others as He has forgiven us. Love is the “bond of perfection” that holds the community together. The family is the best place to begin learning these virtues. St. Paul has specific instructions for families to enable them to be a place where this kind of life is a reality. He tells wives to “be subordinate” to their husbands, which means showing the respect he is due as head of the home. Husbands are to love and cherish their wives, not allowing “bitterness toward them” to fester. Children, not surprisingly, are to obey their parents. Fathers are exhorted not to “provoke” their children, because that discourages them.
In other words, all the virtues mentioned in the first part of this passage and given to the Christian community at large need to be vigorously practiced in the home, our most intimate Christian community. The result of this discipline (and it takes discipline to live this way!) will be “the peace of Christ,” our true place of rest.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, family life takes work. On this Feast of the Holy Family, please give us grace to practice the virtues St. Paul describes as the ones that lead to Your peace in our midst.