By Fr Jim Butler
“…a light to enlighten the pagans and the glory of your people Israel”.
Have you ever wondered about how much thought or consideration people give to how they read biblical stories, especially Old Testament stories? Very often it might be for little more than their literary or entertainment value. Personally I find it helpful to look at a biblical scene as ‘a holy drama’, and then (assisted by a little prayer or reflection) to enter into that drama.
Well, the story of Abraham and Sarah in today’s 1st Reading is one such drama. Here Abraham (who was regarded as the ‘father of faith’ and ancestor of the Israelites) receives a divine call to leave his own country and people in order to serve God - a God who promised him that he would become the father of many nations. Later in the Book of Genesis we see him interceding for the notoriously sinful city of Sodom, where very few righteous people could be found (Gen 18:16-33). Instead, it is wickedness and violence that consumes the city. And this story is an integral part of the vocation of Abraham – the Abraham who, together with his wife Sarah (despite their advanced age) give birth to a son, Isaac. And through this son (and those who come after him) Abraham is to become the father of a new generation – a generation who will seek God’s ways and thereby form an alternative to the evil of Sodom.
Consequently, while Jesus is the son of Joseph, he is also (in this sense) the son of Abraham, and the son of David. And in the Gospel chosen for today’s Mass, we see him being brought to the temple to fulfil the requirements of Jewish Law. But as Joseph and Mary fulfil these requirements, they receive the blessings of (in the words of Pope Francis) two ‘senior citizen prophets’, Simeon and Anna. These two elders are constantly waiting in prayer, and they re-echo the hope of the ancient prophets for the coming of God among his people. And Simeon warns Mary that ‘a sword will pierce her own soul too’. In other words, Jesus will be rejected before his final triumph. And in a later scene (when Jesus is twelve) he tells his mother (Mary) that he ‘must be about his father’s business’. But Mary has to ‘ponder all these things in her heart’. But, of course, as we now know, the Greek word ‘ponder’ also means to think about, to contemplate or to pray over. So, while Mary couldn’t have realised the full significance of Simeon’s prophecy, like Abraham she trusted and prayed about it.
But the task of Mary and Joseph was not simply to hand on their Jewish traditions to Jesus. They were charged also with helping him retrace the steps of Israel in history. Their quiet fidelity to their vocation as parents of the Son of God allowed Jesus to go to ‘his Father’s house (Lk 2:49) and, later, to invite us to become sons and daughters of his heavenly Father.
Because of the Covid-19 restrictions, this year more than any year we are all beginning to realise that Christmas is a real family time. And for that reason it is highly appropriate that this beautiful feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph is slotted into the liturgical calendar only a few days after the celebration of the birth of Christ. It is appropriate because the Holy Family is a model, not only for all families, but also for all who walk ‘in the way of the Lord’. This family especially shows us the way to live a life centred on God, constantly showing love and respect for him and each other.
And so today (on this their special feast day) let us ask Mary, Joseph and Jesus to intercede for all our families. May our children love and cherish their older relatives and draw strength from their perseverance in the faith. May ‘our senior citizens’ find hope in passing that light of faith to the younger generations. And may all families know the peace and joy of the Holy Family, as they make their way in a world now often hostile to the family (and family values) as we have traditionally known them.