Scripture and the Liturgy

Feast of the Holy Family

The Sunday that falls in the Octave of the Solemnity of Christmas is dedicated to celebrating the Holy Family. There are a standard set of readings that may always be used for this Feast Day, and there are optional sets of Readings for Years B and C.  This commentary follows the options for Year B, in which the Readings focus on the rights and responsibilities of family members toward each other, and the Gospel is the account of the Presentation.

First Reading | Genesis 15:1–6; 21:1–3

The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying:
“Fear not, Abram!
I am your shield;
I will make your reward very great.”
But Abram said,
“O Lord GOD, what good will your gifts be,
if I keep on being childless
and have as my heir the steward of my house, Eliezer?”
Abram continued,
“See, you have given me no offspring,
and so one of my servants will be my heir.”
Then the word of the Lord came to him:
“No, that one shall not be your heir;
your own issue shall be your heir.”
The Lord took Abram outside and said,
“Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can.
Just so,” he added, “shall your descendants be.”
Abram put his faith in the Lord,
who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.

The Lord took note of Sarah as he had said he would;
he did for her as he had promised.
Sarah became pregnant and bore Abraham a son in his old age,
at the set time that God had stated.
Abraham gave the name Isaac to this son of his
whom Sarah bore him.

The miraculous birth of Isaac is a type of the birth of Christ, and Abraham and Sarah are types of St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother. In both cases we have a miraculous conception and birth in a situation where common sense and biology would dictate that none should be possible. The links between Jesus and Isaac are many. Both are called the “only son” of their respective fathers, and both would one day climb a mountain carrying the wood of their execution on their backs, and then be laid on the wood at the top of the mountain in order to be sacrificed to God out of love for their fathers for the sake of blessing to the entire world (see Gen 22:1–18).

This first reading reminds us that the salvation of the world “passes by way of the family,” to use a phrase of which St. John Paul II was fond. Again, the salvation of the world frequently did, and still does, come down to quiet decisions and acts of faith made by parents in out-of-the-way times and places, decisions and acts that are never reported in the papers or on the internet, but which lead to conception and birth of new human beings who ultimately will change the world. Truly the drama of human history plays out mostly in the quiet intensity of daily life, especially within the family. This should motivate us to recommit ourselves to seeking holiness in the little, mundane details of daily living, because so often it is from those small acts of faith in the pursuit of holiness that great acts of salvation history are conceived and grow.

Responsorial Psalm | Psalm 105:1–2, 3–4, 5–6, 8–9

R. (7a , 8a) The Lord remembers his covenant for ever.
Give thanks to the Lord, invoke his name;
make known among the nations his deeds.
Sing to him, sing his praise,
proclaim all his wondrous deeds.
R. The Lord remembers his covenant for ever.
Glory in his holy name;
rejoice, O hearts that seek the Lord!
Look to the Lord in his strength;
constantly seek his face.
R. The Lord remembers his covenant for ever.
You descendants of Abraham, his servants,
sons of Jacob, his chosen ones!
He, the Lord, is our God;
throughout the earth his judgments prevail.
R. The Lord remembers his covenant for ever.
He remembers forever his covenant
which he made binding for a thousand generations
which he entered into with Abraham
and by his oath to Isaac.
R. The Lord remembers his covenant for ever.

Psalm 105 is one of a pair of psalms (105 and 106) that together conclude Book IV of the Psalter, each of which makes a review of salvation history. Psalm 105 reviews history and concludes that God has always been faithful;106 reviews the same and concludes that Israel was always unfaithful. Together, these two psalms explain why Israel ended up in exile.

The passages of Psalm 105 chosen at this Mass remind us of the Abrahamic covenant, which was referenced in the First Reading as well. The Lord “remembers forever his covenant which he made binding for a thousand generations, which he entered into with Abraham, and by his oath to Isaac.” The only place in the Scriptures where God explicitly swears an oath to any of the patriarchs is in Genesis 22:15–18. There, after Isaac is almost offered on the wood as a sacrifice and as a type of Calvary, God swears by his own Self to Abraham and Isaac that through Abraham’s “seed” (Heb. zera’, meaning “descendant or descendants”) all the nations of the earth would be blessed. This psalm, then, reminds us that the birth of Jesus was a fulfillment of the covenantal promise given to Abraham long ago, to bless the world through Abraham’s family. Covenant is, of course, an extension of kinship by oath, a way of making a person into your family member by swearing to them. Covenants form families. God saves us through covenants, especially the New Covenant, because the New Covenant makes us truly into the family of God. To be saved is to enter into the divine family.

Second Reading | Hebrews 11:8, 11–12, 17–19:

Brothers and sisters:
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place
that he was to receive as an inheritance;
he went out, not knowing where he was to go.
By faith he received power to generate,
Even though he was past the normal age
—and Sara herself was sterile—
For he thought that the one who had made the promise was trustworthy.
So it was that there came forth from one man,
Himself as good as dead,
Descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky
and as countless as the sands on the seashore.
By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac,
and he who had received the promises was ready to offer his only son,
of whom it was said,
“Through Isaac descendants shall bear your name.”
He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead,
and he received Isaac back as a symbol.

This reading pairs well, of course, with the First Reading and Psalm, both of which focus on Abraham as our father in faith, the importance of the Abrahamic covenant, and the way that the family of Abraham typifies the Holy Family but also indicates the importance of family to God’s plan of salvation.

This reading adds other considerations to those that have arisen already in the First Reading and the Psalm. One of these is the spiritual drama of family life. Abraham was not an ascetic, not a monk, not a professional prophet, not a Nazarene, not a professional priest. He did not have any designated ecclesiastical or civil role: he was just a husband and father, a leader of a large clan of relatives. And yet he is remembered as one of the greatest men of faith in all of salvation history, and the struggles of family life that he faced and overcame were monumental and definitive for God’s plan of salvation for the whole human family. Three major struggles are mentioned: (1) having to uproot his family and move to a new and unfamiliar land, (2) sterility and barrenness, despite a mandate to have children, and (3) a divine command to part with his only son and heir. All of the major challenges of Abraham’s life were in the context of trying to be a father and husband and raise up the next generation to carry on this unique relationship with God that he was privileged to enjoy. What is true for Abraham is true for every Christian father to this day: a lot rides on the decisions we make for our family, and our response with faith to the challenges that arise in family life. Of course, fathers have a particular role of responsibility, but we can broaden the application out to mothers and children as well: the challenges we face as family have drama—a lot rides on them. The future of the Church, the future of our nation, the course of salvation history can be altered at the dining room table or in the backyard.

Yet for all that, we must recognize that the natural family is not God, and allegiance to God must override even natural family ties. So the great climax of Abraham’s life is when he is faced with the choice of annihilating the very thing he has been working to achieve all his life: his heir. Isaac represents Abraham’s hopes for a successful natural family, and God asks Abraham to sacrifice him. Yet in attempting to sacrifice him, Abraham gets him back and merits the greatest blessing God could give him: that he would be the instrument of blessing to every human being. This reminds us of the paradox of family life, that as important as it is, nonetheless, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:37). Fidelity to God comes before fidelity to family. But paradoxically, our fidelity to family will be worth nothing, from an eternal perspective, if we are not faithful to God first.

Gospel | Luke 2:22–40 or Luke 2: 22, 39–40
When the days were completed for their purification
according to the law of Moses,
they took him up to Jerusalem
to present him to the Lord,
[just as it is written in the law of the Lord,
“Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord,”
and to offer the sacrifice of
“a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,”
in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout,
awaiting the consolation of Israel,
and the holy Spirit was upon him.
It had been revealed to him by the holy Spirit
that he should not see death
before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.
He came in the Spirit into the temple;
and when the parents brought in the child Jesus
to perform the custom of the law in regard to him,
he took him into his arms and blessed God, saying:
“Now, Master, you may let your servant go
in peace, according to your word,
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you prepared in sight of all the peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel.”
The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him;
and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother,
“Behold, this child is destined
for the fall and rise of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be contradicted
—and you yourself a sword will pierce—
so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
There was also a prophetess, Anna,
the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.
She was advanced in years,
having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four.
She never left the temple,
but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.
And coming forward at that very time,
she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child
to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.]
When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions
of the law of the Lord,
they returned to Galilee,
to their own town of Nazareth.
The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom;
and the favor of God was upon him.

Luke emphasizes that the Holy Family was obedient to the Old Covenant law, and this is a theme throughout the Infancy Narratives (Luke 1–2). Jesus is not a hippie rebel who overthrows all authority and takes lightly the Scriptures and God’s Law. Obedience is a virtue: they act “in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.”

The rituals being described here are those indicated for the purification of the mother after childbirth (Lev 12:2–8). This need not be considered proof that the Blessed Mother bore Jesus in the typical way of childbirth, involving pain, tissue damage and bleeding of the mother. Just as Jesus had no reason to be baptized inasmuch as he had no sin, yet submitted to John’s baptism; so it may be that the Blessed Mother, while not in need of purification, humbly submitted to the ritual out of solidarity with all women.

Interestingly, what is ostentatiously absent from Luke’s account is any mention of the redemption payment for Jesus. According to Numbers 3:47–48, every Israelite first-born son was to be “bought back” or redeemed from his priestly service to the Lord, and his place in ministerial service was filled by a Levite. This goes back to Israel’s great sin with the Golden Calf, when the priesthood was taken away from Israel’s firstborn and given to the tribe of Levi (Exod 32). Is the failure to mention the redemption of Jesus from priestly service an omission on Luke’s part, or is it an indication that Jesus the firstborn (cf. Rom 8:29; Col 1:15, 18; Heb 1:6) never was redeemed from priestly service because his parents knew he would be the great High Priest (Heb 3:1)? We should note that some theorize that Luke helped Paul write Hebrews, with its priestly theology of Jesus, since the Greek of Luke and Hebrews is similar. How intriguing! At the least we can say: Luke’s conspicuous silence on the redemption of Jesus invites us to ponder Jesus’ priestly status.

What is said about Simeon recalls the prophecies of Isaiah. The “consolation of Israel” may refer to the promised comforting of the people in Isaiah 40, esp. 40:1–2. This was an important chapter for the Essene movement, who may have founded the Qumran community in response to Isaiah 40:3 (“A voice cries, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD.”) The constant mention of the Holy Spirit with respect to Simeon also recalls the Essenes, because they had a rich spirituality of the Spirit, whereas other Jewish sects (i.e. Pharisees and Sadducees) had little to say or do with the Holy Spirit. The words of Simeon about the Christ Child (“My eyes have seen your salvation . . . prepared in the sight of all peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles . . . ”) are also very Isaianic (see Isa 42:6, 49:6). The “rise and fall of many in Israel” may be a reference to Isaiah 40:4–5: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low,” understood as a mystic prophecy of the exultation of the poor and the humbling of the rich. But there is little precedent for his shocking statement to the Blessed Mother: “You yourself a sword will pierce.” This is one of the biblical passages that undergird the theology of Mary’s co-redemption. Not that she is equal with her divine Son in the work of redemption, but that she participated in that work in an entirely singular and unique way, co-suffering as she watched her only Son rejected, humiliated, tortured, and killed.

On this Feast of the Holy Family, this warning of Simeon is an antidote to the schmaltz and saccharin sentimentalism that is a temptation on this solemnity. The life of the Holy Family was not a comfy, cozy experience of hearth, home, and hospitality. It was bitterly painful, involving persecution, opposition, and death. And our connection with Jesus also will involve a “sword through the heart” in psychological, spiritual, and sometimes physical ways, as well.

The Prophetess Anna of the Tribe of Asher also testifies to the mission of the child Jesus. The “redemption of Jerusalem” is an Isaianic theme again, very much in keeping with the sentiments of Isaiah 40 and many other passages in Isaiah 40–66. That Anna is from Asher—a long-forgotten tribe among the ten northern tribes, last mentioned in 2 Chronicles 30:11 as the source of a remnant of humble men who came down to worship in Jerusalem—is significant, inasmuch as it indicates that Jesus has come to redeem all Twelve Tribes, not just Judah. This Twelve-Tribe restoration theme runs through all the Gospels, and is most evident in the symbolic choice of Twelve Apostles as the nucleus of Jesus’ movement.

“When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions . . . they returned to Galilee,” Luke says, overlooking the fact that the flight to Egypt intervened, according to Matthew (Matt 2:13–19). This omission is typical of St. Luke, who tends to omit or de-emphasize parts of Jesus’ life that suggest conflict between Jesus and his followers and the civil government. One of Luke’s points of emphasis in Luke and in Acts is that being a follower of Christ does not mean one opposes lawful government authority.

What message do we take away from this beautiful vignette from the life of the Holy Family? Some over-arching themes are the importance of obedience and the example of humility. Although the special situation and status of the Holy Family could have been used by Joseph and Mary to excuse themselves from religious obligations, they nonetheless humble themselves to fulfill all the proper regulations of the Old Covenant and thereby express solidarity with the rest of the people of Israel, who had to perform these rituals as a legacy of penance for the rebelliousness of their ancestors, going back to the great debacle of the Golden Calf (Exod 32). Joseph and Mary also put a priority on worship, one of their first acts as a young family being to bring the child Jesus and “present” him before the Lord. By humbling themselves in obedience and placing a priority on worship, the Holy Family put themselves in a position to receive beautiful blessings and insight from Simeon and Anna, who were waiting for them, as it were.

God continues to wait for us in the place of worship. When we attend Mass and the other sacraments, we encounter a God who has been “waiting for us” to show up, ready with a blessing to bestow on us. This is by no means sentimental, because sufferings are going to come and we will share the passion of Christ. Nonetheless, God waits for us with the encouragement we need, if we show up and make our holy appointments—be that our weekly Mass obligation, our daily prayer time, or other obligations of prayer and worship that we commit to—with a spirit of obedience and humility.

1 comment

  1. Thank you again for sharing your great commentary and connections you make between the Old and New Testament…as well as your recent book “Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls”…also the video series on the same with Fr. Dave! It provides great material for sharing and I find enriches one’s relationship with the Word made Flesh through the Scriptures. Evangelisation at it’s best!!!!

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