Sunday Scripture: The Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.


Welcome to this, the twenty-third of my reflections on the theology of the Sunday readings at Mass.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I sincerely hope that this reflection will inspire you. You might find that it answers a few questions you may have, but most of all I hope that it will show you how fantastic Sacred Scripture is and perhaps enable you to share some of my love and passion for the Bible as you begin to comprehend how layered and multi-faceted it is, and what a carefully considered part of the Mass the readings are.

If you want to know how these posts came about, please read my first post in this series here.

I would like to think this regular blog would be a great help to anyone who reads at Mass, to enable them to foster a deeper understanding of the message they are trying to impart to the congregation.

There are several different ways to read this post. I would suggest the first thing to do is to look at the relevant readings. You might then want to look at the specific commentary for a particular reading. I post the same summary of the featured Biblical books each week, but at the end, under the subheading this week, you will usually find some commentary specific to each week. At the end I post a passage which attempts to draw all the readings together and understand the message.

My reflections are not definitive, but based on my study and perhaps authenticated by careful reference to the Biblical Commentaries and books I list at the bottom each week.

This Sunday the theme for the readings might be summed up as:

The Sanctification of the Family


  • First Reading: Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14.
  • Psalm 127:1-5; Response v. 1.
  • Second Reading: Colossians 3:12-21.
  • Gospel: Luke 2:41-52.
First, a short preliminary survey of each of the books.

I will post the same, or similar prelims week on week, for each book as we encounter them, although I may add a little detail specific to each week's readings.

The Book of Sirach contains some extremely important developments that constitute a significant advance in highlighting the Word of God. The book is a legacy of traditional pious Judaism in the middle of the Seleucid period. It is among the earliest of the deuterocanonical Old Testament books and contains the most extensive portion of Israelite wisdom literature to come down to us.

Somewhat confusingly, it is variously called The Book of the All-Virtuous Wisdom of Joshua (or Jesus) ben Sira; Wisdom of Sirach or simply Sirach, and also as The Book Ecclesiasticus, not to be confused with The Book of Ecclesiastes. The original title in Hebrew, according to the subscription of Cairo manuscript B, was "The Wisdom of Yeshua [Jesus] ben [son of] Eleazar ben Sira." The title "Sirach" is a transliteration of the the name found in the Greek manuscripts. The title "Ecclesiaticus," which probably means the ecclesiastical (or Church) [book], is found in many Latin manuscripts and can still be seen in the NJB, NEB, and RSV.

The author was the master of an academy in Jerusalem who devoted his life to drawing out the implications of faith for the culture of his people. At the end of a long an distinguished academic career, he arranged his lecture notes and personal reflections into the form of a book modelled after Proverbs.

The book covers the same variety of subjects as Proverbs and many short sayings; it also contains a more elaborate development of thought. Jesus Ben Sira personifies wisdom and praises her as God’s creature and His gift to men (1:7-8) acquired through demanding discipline (6:18-31). There are several interesting new ideas, for example the introduction of the idea of the Jerusalem Temple as the special home of wisdom among the Chosen People. Ben Sira’s first concern, from beginning to end is the cultivation of wisdom (1:1; 50:27) he asserts that God has touched human beings in such a way that directs them in search of wisdom.

Sira’s meditation on creation shows extraordinary insight, highlighting the role of God’s Word as the creative power (42:15 cf. Gn 1:1-2:3; cf. Ps 33:6). This insight leads to a conviction that wisdom is revealed to mankind through creation, and especially in the Law. Sira develops a synthesis between God’s work in creation and revelation, stating that wisdom is manifest in the temple and speaks through the Law. Sira sees the Mosaic Torah as the interior revelation of divine order to mankind, more than a mere set of external rules, but rather a deeply spiritual reality: the manifestation of the mind of God, adherence to which can only be of benefit. Indeed, it is through the acquisition of wisdom that leads to an deepening of understanding that will lead us to adhere to the Law:
“By allowing the Law to govern our actions, each of us develops a personal order that puts our lives in harmony with the rhythm of the divine symphony that resonates throughout creation.”
This week, Sirach explains to us how true religion, i.e. fear of the LORD in all its implications (1:11-30), also involves duties to others, first of all to parents. Honouring father and mother, the cornerstone of biblical ethics (Exodux 20:12; Deut 5:16), will bring a person long life (cf. 1:12), forgiveness of sins, and other blessings; cf. Exodus 21:17; Tob 4:3-4; Prov 1:8; Matt 15:3-6.

Psalms is the Bible's manual of inspired song and prayer. The collection of 150 Psalms represents the culmination of a long tradition that extends across almost the full span of the history of ancient Israel, from the Exodus (c. 1280 B.C.) until the last centuries of the Old Testament era (c. 200 B.C.). In Hebrew the canon of the Bible is called the TNK or Tanakh, which consists of Torah (teaching), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (writings)—thus TaNaKh. Psalms makes up the first of the writings in the Hebrew text. One of the most powerful things we know about the Psalms is that this is how Jesus Himself prayed.

The Letter to The Colossians, addresses a unique situation in the early Church and its theology is equally unique, concerned with stressing two main themes against errors reported about the Church in Colossae (2:4, 8, 16, 18-22). Paul stresses the supremacy of Christ and the completeness of Christians in Christ. One of the main areas of study with regard to this epistle has been the attempt to identify the opponents who were misleading the community in Colossae. According to the epistle itself, the false teaching is a philosophy and an empty receipt (2:8), a human tradition (2:8); it concerns the elemental spirits of the universe (2:8) and angels (2:18); it demands the observance of food regulations and festivals, new moons, and sabbath (2:14, 16, 20, 21); and it encourages ascetic practices. Since the opponents are charged with "not holding fast to the head," the error must have arisen within the believing community. Jewish and Hellenic influences seem to be interwoven in what can be inferred of the error. A complex syncretism that incorporates features of Judaism, Paganism, Christianity, magic, astrology, and mystery religions forms the cultural background of the letter and consequently it may be impossible to identify the opponents in Colossae with any particular group.

This week: Paul drives home the message that Gentile believers are now part of the Covenant people of God (cf. Rom 11:17-24). Paul explains how we express gratitude to the LORD by imitating His mercy in our relationships with others. In fact, extending forgiveness to others is necessary if we hope to receive the ingoing forgiveness of the Father. In this way, we can understand how the crowning virtue of the Christian life and the one that holds all others togethers is love (Latin: caritas (charity), Greek: agapē, (ἀγάπη)). This is the love that brings forth caring regardless of the circumstance. It is the greatest of loves, and a specifically Christian virtue. (CCC 1827). The most relevant element of this reading is Paul's pastoral instruction on family life. He is challenging every household to be transformed with the peace of Christ (3:15). The Apostle's vision for domestic life stands in stark contrast to the godlessness of the pagan society, especially the tyranny of husbands and fathers, as well as the inhuman treatment of household slaves.

The Gospel According to St. Luke: Luke is not only a theologian; he is also a “consummate literary artist with a mind that is tuned to the aesthetic”[1]. Luke begins his Gospel with a clearly stated aim: “to draw up an account of the events that have happened”[2]. Luke’s Gospel is the longest of the four gospels, this despite the fact that it only represents half the Lucan writings; Luke’s Gospel was originally joined to Acts as part of a two-volume work [3]. This is evident in the Gospel itself, which frequently looks forward to Acts and Paul’s mission.

Brown indicates that the Gospel was written for churches in Greece and Syria, areas affected by Paul’s mission either directly, or indirectly [4]. Lucan thought and proclivities can be detected in the extent to which the author changes the Marcan material, which makes up about thirty-five percent of Luke. Luke certainly improves Mark’s Greek, bettering the grammar, syntax and vocabulary, as evidenced in 4:1,31 and 38. Luke alters the Latinism kēnsos (= census) in 20:22 from Mark 12:14 and substituting the more exact “craftiness- treachery” for “hypocrisy” in Mark 12:15 [5]

Luke alters the Marcan sequence to accomplish his goals as stated in the prologue: to write carefully and in an orderly manner [6], for example he puts Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth at the opening of the Galilean ministry (Luke 4:16-30) rather than after some time had elapsed (Mark 6:1-6) in order to explain why his Galilean ministry was centred at Capernaum.

Christologically, Luke is more reverential about Jesus than Mark and he avoids Marcan passages that might make Jesus seem weak, harsh or emotional (e.g. Mark 10:14 where Jesus is indignant). He also stresses detachment from possessions (Luke 5:11,28), the Twelve are even forbidden to take a staff [7]!

Adrian Hastings, in his book Prophet and Witness in Jerusalem, makes particular capital over Luke’s allusion to the guilt of Jerusalem. Hastings suggests that this is because Jerusalem represented the old, exclusive Israel. Brown also draws attention to this point in An Introduction to the New Testament, where he asks if Pilate’s triple declaration of Jesus’ innocence[8] represents an attempt to convince Greco-Roman readers that the Jews were totally responsible for the crucifixion [9]. For Hastings, Luke demonstrates a strong affinity for the universality of Christianity and its apostolate to the Gentiles [10] and points out to the Jews that they are the ones who have constantly rejected the messengers of God:
“Hence it is not surprising if they now find themselves cut off from the new church and Holy People of God”[11]
Hastings states that this demonstrates that Luke was writing so that Christians might understand that Jerusalem had rejected Our Lord and thus had been rejected and was no longer the centre of God’s church, which had turned to the conversion of the Gentiles [12]. It would seem to me that this idea would have been greatly aided by the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Brown however, notes that Acts 4:25-28 clearly blames Pilate and mitigates that this may have been an attempt to persuade Roman officials to deal fairly with Christians [13]. Brown eventually concludes that the description of Jewish leaders resisting the spread of Christianity springs from a desire to explain why Christian preachers and especially Paul turned to the Gentiles [14].

The fact that the last half of Acts concentrates on Paul’s career raises the likelihood that Luke-Acts was addressed to the churches descended from the Pauline mission [15]. Talbert concludes his study of Luke-Acts with the finding that the Gospel was indeed motivated by the “churchly situation” [16]; The community was troubled by a concern for the true Christian tradition [17]. Luke writes to aid Christians in these communities in their self-understanding, helping them to know that there was nothing subversive in their origins that should cause them to come into conflict with their Roman rulers.

The Lucan Gospel differs in many ways to Matthew making it seem likely that this Gospel was addressed to a different church (q.v.) [18]. The end of Acts attributed to Paul also indicates that the future of the Gospel lies with the Gentiles, which makes the intended audience unlikely to be Jewish Christians [19]. This is corroborated by the way that Luke drops Marcan Aramaic expressions and place-names in his work.

Luke intends to trace the history of God’s plan from the coming of Jesus, to the fulfilment of the mission He gave to His disciples to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth [20]. The earthly ministry of Jesus and all the events before the Ascension are the turning point in human history for Luke.

Footnotes.

[1] Talbert, C.H., Literary Patterns, Theological Themes and the Genre of Luke-Acts, (SBLMS, Montana, 1974) p.1.
[2] Dodd, C.H., The Founder of Christianity, (William Collins and Sons, London, 1971) p.39.
[3] Brown, R., An Introduction to the New Testament, (Doubleday, USA, 1997) p.225.
[4] Ibid, p.226.
[5] Ibid p.264.
[6] Acts 1:3.
[7] Luke 9:3.
[8] Luke 23.
[9] Brown, R., op. Cit., (Doubleday, USA, 1997) p.271-2.
[10] Hastings, A., Prophet and Witness in Jerusalem, (William Clowes & Sons, London, 1958) p.176.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid p.183.
[13] Brown, R., op. Cit.,, (Doubleday, USA, 1997) p.271.
[14] Ibid p.272.
[15] Ibid, p.270.
[16] Talbert, C.H., Ibid, p.141.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Brown, R., Ibid, p.270.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Léon-Dufour, X., The Gospels and the Jesus of History, (William Collins and Sons, London, 1968) p.150. 

If this post on Luke sparked your interest, there's a post on the historicity of the Synoptics here.

This week: Possibly, the passage in Luke that has spoken to me most deeply over the years. Of course this story forms one of the joyful mysteries of the Holy Rosary as well, the finding of the child Jesus in the Temple at Jerusalem. It is utterly tantalising, posing so many more questions than it answers; "Jesus increased" (2:52) leads us to ponder all kinds of Christological mysteries about the human and divine in Jesus. As God He is creator of the universe, but as man, His human development was a process of building character and acquiring experiential knowledge that kept pace with His physical and physcological growth (Prov 3: 3-4). At the end of these developmental stages, Chrit's life as a man was a perfect reflection of His divine Sonship: This human soul that the Son of God assumed is endowed with a true human knowledge. As such, this knowledge could not in itself be unlimited: it was exercised in the historical conditions of his existence in space and time. This is why the Son of God could, when he became man, "increase in wisdom and in stature, and in favour with God and man", and would even have to inquire for himself about what one in the human condition can learn only from experience. This corresponded to the reality of his voluntary emptying of himself, taking "the form of a slave". (CCC 472). This description in Luke brings to mind Samuel's maturation in 1 Sam 2:26, the text of which provides an alternative first reading for this week's Mass.

Jesus also is obedient to Mary and Joseph (2:51), demonstrating the importance of their part in His mission. The reality of the submission of God's Son to them foreshadows the Cross by insisting that Jesus preserved His identity in the role of a servant. Mary, the model believer, continues her journey of faith as she ponders the meaning and destiny of her son. Verse 49 records Jesus first words in the Gospel. No longer does Gabriel, or Mary, or Zechariah, or Angels, or Simeon, pronounce who Jesus is, rather Jesus Himself announces pronounces who He is. The Greek word dei conveys the theme of necessity; a sense of divine compulsion, often seen in obedience to a scriptural command or prophecy, or the conformity of events to God's will. Here the necessity lies in the inherent relationship of Jesus to God which demanded obedience.

Pious Jews would go to Jerusalem for the Passover so that they could bring a lamb to the Temple to be sacrificed at the right moment on the right day. The piety of Jesus' parents comes to the fore again in this account, just as it did in the temple presentations of Jesus (2:21-40). The annual character of the family's journey to celebrate the Passover is indicated. Jesus' parents were clearly devout adherents to the traditional faith. Men were required to go, but the journey was not a requirement for women. Thus, for a woman to go was a sign of great piety. This note of piety is reinforced in 2:42. The parents' taking the twelve-year-old Jesus on the Passover journey is, once again, a picture of faithful Jewish parents instructing their child in the faith on a very important holy day.

Strikingly, Jesus Himself would be nailed to a Cross and die during the slaughter of the lambs in the Temple, whilst the priests lined the stairs to the altar and sang Psalms. In the quiet of the ancient world, when Jerusalem was still on that holy day, Jesus could possibly have heard the crying of the lambs and the psalms being sung. Could Jesus have pictured the scene as He was dying? He knew the Temple well, after all. The Holy Family travelled to the Temple at least once during the childhood of the Lord and Jesus spent three days there. Few hints of Jesus' childhood remain in the Canon of Scripture, although there are numerous apocryphal accounts; The Infancy Gospel of Thomas for example. The Fathers saw how filled with meaning the snippets in Scripture are. St Ambrose of Milan (+397) wrote:
The beginning of the Lord’s disputation is takem from His twelf year. This number of the evangelists was intended for the preaching of the Faith. (cf. Mt 10:1-2,7) Nor is it idly that, forgetful of His parents according to the flesh, he who according to the flesh assuredly was filled with the wisdom and grace of God is found after three days in the Temple. It is a sign that He who was believed dead for our Faith would rise again after three days from His triumphal Passion and appear on His heavenly throne with divine honour. —Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 2.63
Drawing them all together...
Obviously, the theme of the family runs strong in the Scripture we hear this week. Have you ever wondered why it is that the Church refers to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as the Holy Family, when the history of the chosen people is replete with holy families who loved the Lord and kept his Commandments? What made the Holy Family different was Jesus—Emmanuel—God-with-us. His very proximity to the persons he was in a familial relationship with would have made an extraordinary difference to them, just as the individual members of each of our families make all the difference to each of us.

The Octave of Christmas dwells in loving awe on the mystery of the Incarnation. God was present in this Holy Family as he had never been present in a human family before. What makes every Christian family different is the presence of Jesus Christ. God is present in the Christian family in a way that the holy families of the Old Testament would never have imagined:
The Christian family is called to experience a new and original communion which confirms and perfects natural and human communion. In fact the grace of Jesus Christ, the first-born among many brethren is by its nature and interior dynamism a grace of brotherhood as St. Thomas Aquinas calls it. The Holy Spirit, who is poured forth in the celebration of the sacraments, is the living source and inexhaustible sustenance of the supernatural communion that gathers believers and links them with Christ and with each other in the unity of the Church of God. The Christian family constitutes a specific revelation and realization of ecclesial communion, and for this reason too it can and should be called the domestic Church.—Venerable John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation on the Human Family: Familiaris Consortio, (November 22, 1981) § 21.
Jesus presence in the family does not mean that life will be euphoric and problem-free, but rather, that it will be meaningful. God is a member of every Christian family. He is mysteriously, but really, present in their midst, working out His plan of salvation. This does not mean that bad things will not happen, but it does mean that when they do, the Christian family has God truly present in their midst to help them cope.

The members of the family are signs for one another of the presence of Christ. My family are those people that Christ has chosen for me, those people through whom He has decided to come to me. The experience of mercy in family relationships, whether it be given or received, is an experience of the presence of Christ which invites the family members into a deeper love than would probably have been possible before mercy was called forth. And so, problems and difficulties cannot obscure the presence of Christ. In his mercy, Christ reveals himself in moments of trial and weakness even more powerfully and clearly. As Michael Duggan (q.v.) so pertinently puts it:
"Human frailty is primarily manifest in the most intimate relationships and wounds most deeply those whom we are to love most fully."

The delight and wonder provided to us by the extraordinary glimpse into Christ's childhood by the Gospel today, shows us the unity, diversity, and potential for good and evil in family life. It is fascinating for the hints it gives of Jesus' divine nature, His link with His Father, His awareness of Himself. But it also shows us patience, kindness, tolerance, obedience, submission, and respect born of the Word stored in one's heart. This extraordinary glimpse into the private world of Mary is the focus of our faith. Families grow in love and strength if there is respect; respect grows in if there is a proper context in which it can take root and be fostered.

This has always been the ancient teaching of the People of God. We are God's children, and human parenting reflects His creative power. Parents must also imitate His loving regard, while children are instructed to honour and obey their parents. Also, a promise is attached to such obedience; some of the implications of this are spelled out for us in the teaching of Sirach. Patience and respect centre on the value of the individual and his place in creation (very Sirach this, focused on wisdom in the Law). Where this respect is lacking, then trouble and danger begin: violation of respect leads to violence, rape, killing, and repression of all kinds. The deeper spiritual implications are spelled out by St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians. This practical advice cuts to the heart of our Christian witness in gentleness, tolerance, forgiveness, and love. Every member of the family has their part to play, every word can count. All is possible if the message of Christ in all its richness can find a home in our hearts, as it did with Mary. Can we be open to God's prompting as St. Joseph was? "Never say or do anything except in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him."

As we celebrate the Holy Family, let us honour them as the first place in which God chose to reveal the unimaginable Good News that He loves us as a father. Let us rejoice in the fact that God desires so much that we become members of His family that, through the real presence of his Son, He has become a member of ours.


Bibliography:

Baker, K., SJ, Inside the Bible, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1998.
Boadt, L., Reading the Old Testament, New York: Paulist Press, 1984.
Brown, R. E., An Introduction to the New Testament, New York, Doubleday, 1997.
Brown, R. et al (Ed) The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, (London: Chapman, 2000).
Catechism of the Catholic Church, New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Duggan, M., The Consuming Fire, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1991.
Fuller, R.C., Johnstone, L., Kearns, C., A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, London: Nelson, 1969.
Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, Second Edition RSV, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2001.
Kreeft, P., You Can Understand The Bible, San Francisco, Ignatius, 2005.
Letellier, R., Sunday & Feastday Sermons Cycles A, B, and C, New York: St. Pauls, 2011.
Magnificat Monthly Vol. 3, No. 2/ December 2012.
McKenzie, J.L., Dictionary of the Bible, New York, Touchstone, 1995.



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