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ACTA COMMENTARY

LECTIONARY

THE SEASON OF CHRISTMAS

Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph

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READINGS

A reading from the first book of Samuel         1:20-22. 24-28

                            

Responsorial Psalm               Psalm 84:2-3. 5-6.9-10. R/. v.5

A reading from first letter of St John                   3:1-2. 21-24

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke    2:41-52



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These days families come in all shapes and sizes.  In our time we have moved from a society in which, for the most part, families were more or less the same to a variety of shapes and sizes. When we meet families in the Bible they resemble the profile of many of our families today - disjointed, lob-sided, and brittle.  

The first family in our Bible, admittedly a mythological one, did not fare well.  Having been thrown out of their idyllic home in up-market Eden, they faced having to dig and delve and to deal with a son who murdered his brother.  Not what we fastidious Christians would call a holy family.

  Noah started out well.  He walked with God and had three sons and he entered the boat building trade, thus giving God an opportunity to introduce Plan B, having not had much luck with the Adam and Eve experiment.  However, when the rains stopped, Noah planted a vineyard and did what no businessman would advise. He over-indulged on his own product and gave a very bad example to his children.

  Abraham proved to be a very good egg and obeyed God in most things, even exiling himself from his native land and becoming a pilgrim at God’s bidding.  But his was not a happy house. Twice on his travels he loaned out his wife Sarah to the harem demands of a Pharaoh. She remained childless into old age and laughed in the face of God when God said she would have a child.  The secondary wives occupying Abraham’s tent bore children and caused dissension in the women’s quarters. Poor Hagar and her child got chucked out into the desert and God had to come to rescue the mother and child.  Another secondary wife, Keturah, got pregnant every time Abraham looked at her and that led to inheritance issues (Genesis 25:1-6).  Still, Abraham and Sarah had Isaac and that rather God-help-us individual managed to be married off to the very capable Rebekah and that is how Isaac and then Jacob came into our story.  Jacob did not believe in monogamy and his large family was a mixed bunch, what with Leah having a bunch of kids and her sister, Rachel, an empty womb. But, in the LORD’S good time Rachel bore Joseph who became the star of the show for “the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love”.  Then Rachel had another son, Benjamin, but she dies in bringing him into the world. She was buried in Bethlehem. Jewish women longing to have a child go to the little synagogue there to pray that God may come to their aid.

  God manages to cope with all the varieties of family relationships that cause so much fuss and bother to God’s efforts to get the human story on the right lines.  Think of David and Solomon:

King David and King Solomon led very merry lives,

with very many concubines and very many wives.

And when they both grew older

and they were full of qualms,

King Solomon built the Temple

and King David wrote the Psalms.

  What is amazing is that from all this sideways begetting comes Jesus of Nazareth.  The first chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel provides us with a family tree of Jesus. So does St Luke’s Gospel in his chapter 3.  But Luke leaves out the women.

  The first woman mentioned in Matthew’s list of names (Matthew 1:1-16) is Tamar, a woman forced to become a  prostitute to make her way in a man’s world that robbed her of her rights (Genesis 36). Rahab, the brothel keeper of Jericho (Joshua 2), is not only in the family tree of Jesus.   Astonishingly, the lofty theology of the Letter to Hebrew Christians lists saints with the command “whose faith follow”, and there she is, “Rahab the prostitute … because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies”.  Not a bit wonder they stayed overnight. Ruth, a seriously capable young woman, puts on her little black dress, goes to the harvest festival being held by Boaz, and, when he was drunk and gone to bed,

… she came softly and uncovered his feet, and lay down.

Book of Ruth 3:7

She thus became the grandmother of David the King.  He committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered her husband, a very honourable man, Uriah the Hittite, a loyal soldier in David’s army (2 Samuel 11).  From these two dishonourable people, in the fullness of time, was born in the city of David “a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” (Matthew 2:6).

  But there is another woman in Matthew’s story.  Mary’s intended husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce his pregnant fiancée.  Thank God, there was angel sent to explain.

  So by indirections we find directions out and we come to today’s feast of The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.  And that is very strange.

  When we turn the pages of Scripture and come to the first Gospel to be written, we read what the neighbours say when Jesus returns home,

Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joseph and Judas and Simon?  And are not his sisters here with us?

Mark 6:3

Joseph, the head of this family, is not mentioned.  Perhaps he was already dead. But this is a family of five boys and at least two girls that were the God-given responsibility of Joseph and Mary.  Why do we not include all of them in ”the holy family”? Why three and not the whole family of nine who lived together in Nazareth?



Brothers and Sisters

It is important that we know what the Bible says and, if that causes us to be concerned, then it is a concern caused by “the holy words of God” and, therefore, a blesséd calling to reflection.

  St Mark did not hold the family of Jesus in high regard.  He tells his readers/hearers that the family of Jesus came out “to seize him, for they were saying, ‘he is out of his mind’” (Mark 3:21).  In the same chapter he narrates a very telling incident:

And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother”.                            Mark 3:31-35

For Mark the new family of Jesus is not the one he left behind in Nazareth but the crowd sitting around him and listening to his every word.  Notice that Luke takes the sting out of Mark’s text when he tells the same story:

Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.” But he answered them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.

Luke 8:19-24

Matthew also takes the sting out of Mark’s words as we learn from his account (Matthew 12:46-50).

In the Gospel of John

If we trace the passages in our Gospels that mention the “brothers” of Jesus (the sisters in the Nazareth family have just one mention), their exclusion from our Holy Family becomes even more confusing.  After the wedding at Cana in Galilee, John’s Gospel tells its readers and hearers,

After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples, and they stayed there for a few days.                            John 2:12

Note also that when Jesus speaks to his mother in John’s Gospel he never calls her “Mother”. She is always “Woman”, never “Mother”, even at the foot of the cross.  

  There is, too, a puzzling mention of brothers in chapter 7:1-9 in this Gospel,

After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He would not go about in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him. Now the Jews’ 'Feast of Booths was at hand. So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing.

His brothers advise him to go south into Judea (to Jerusalem?) for the Feast of Booths.  But then we are told why they urge this strategy on Jesus:

For not even his brothers believed in him.

Jesus himself does not accompany these brothers when they set off for the feast.  Instead he makes his way there “not publicly, but in private”. “My brothers” are mentioned when the Risen Lord addresses Mary Magdalene but it is clear that Jesus is referring to his disciples (John 20:17).

  It is, then, clear that the family of Jesus to all the neighbours in that little village were an ordinary family.  Jesus was a carpenter and his brothers and sisters were known to all. What caused astonishment, even offence, when Jesus spoke to the synagogue, was this:

Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands?                                         Mark 6:2

Clearly, in our four Gospels the brothers and sisters of Jesus did not play any significant part in his ministry of preaching and healing.  But they were his family, whatever the relationship of Mary’s son to the boys and girls he grew up with.

 One other matter needs to be mentioned.  The man who was leader of the first Christian community in Jerusalem, the man who guided our first fathers and mothers in Christian faith was named by St Paul:

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter] and remained with him fifteen days.     But I saw none of the other apostles except James the brother of the Lord.

Galatians 1:19

This James directed the discussion in Jerusalem concerning the demands to be made on Gentile pagans who became Christian.  Was it to be demanded of them that they observe all Jewish laws and customs in every detail? It was James the brother of the Lord who came up with the solution that opened the Christian message to the whole of humanity.  (Read Acts of the Apostles, chapter 15 and note this sentence,

After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me …”.                   Acts 15:13

This James was put to death in 62 A.D.  Is he the writer of the letter of James in the New Testament?  I think so.)

Solutions

The teaching of the Churches, in the East (Orthodox) and the West (Latin), is that Mary remained a virgin in conceiving and bearing her child.  She did not subsequently give birth to further children. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, §500, declares:

Against this doctrine the objection is sometimes raised that the Bible mentions brothers and sisters of Jesus The Church has always understood these passages as not referring to other children of the Virgin Mary.  In fact James and Joseph, ‘brothers of Jesus’, are the sons of another Mary, a disciple of Christ, whom St Matthew significantly calls ‘the other Mary’. They are close relations of Jesus, according to an Old Testament expression.

This is a paragraph that needs some revision, not to say correction.  In the third and fourth centuries relationship of these brothers to Mary and so to Jesus was a matter of serious debate and there were many theories put forward to explain the words found in our Gospels and elsewhere.  Three views were among the most plausible and, to this day, the most frequently discussed:

  1.  The “brothers of Jesus” were not the children of Mary but were the children of Joseph by a former wife, before he became the wife of Mary.  Thus they were called brothers because of their closeness within the family that lived in Nazareth.

 

This was the most common view, espoused by many and especially by a man named Epiphanius (c.320 - 410 A.D.) who became Bishop of Salamis in Cyprus.  He is honoured as a saint in both the Orthodox churches of the East and by the Latin Christians of the West.

  1.  Others were not so sure, especially a scholar named Helvidius who lived in Rome and who wrote a counter blast against the belief that Mary was, as our prayer says, ever-virgin.  He stated that the texts in Scripture mean what they say and that the obvious conclusion must be that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were just that. They were the children of Joseph and Mary, Jesus being the first-born.  The famous Christian scholar Tertullian agreed with him.

  1.  Saint Jerome’s translation of the whole Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin is still the official Bible of our Latin Church. But before emigrating to Bethlehem to undertake his life’s work, he wrote a treatise in Rome that made the young man’s name. It was entitled Against Helvidius: On the Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary and written about 383 A.D. He examined every relevant sentence in the Gospels and elsewhere to establish that the brothers of Jesus were his cousins being the children of another Mary, the wife of Alphaeus.  Alphaeus is mentioned in the list of the Twelve Apostles as being the father of James (Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15, and Acts 1:13). The wife of Alphaeus was named Mary and she was the sister of Our Lady.  This means, Jerome affirms, that the children of this couple were first cousins of Jesus. Incidentally, Jerome was convinced that his explanation of the facts proved that St Joseph remained the virgin husband of Mary throughout his life.

  Jerome’s understanding has entered Christian belief.  But this does not justify papering over the lively and informative discussions that eventually came to establish Christian faith.  The value of heated and earnest discussion in the Church must not be relegated to the pages of past centuries. The passion with which our fathers and mothers in faith discussed what was close to their hearts and minds is a passion that belongs to every age of Christian worshippers and faith is diminished when discussion is silenced.

A Holy Family

There is, moreover, another reason for extending the Feast of the Holy family to include the whole family who lived in the little village of insignificant Nazareth.  It is more than possible, surely, that the faith of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus rubbed off on everyone in that household of young men and women. Given the many kinds of families that struggle in our time and place, would it not be appropriate to honour all in that  mixum-gatherum family of Nazareth? Is it not possible to say to families, whatever the shape and size, whatever the parentage, that God is present to them, that Jesus knows them? Is it not in keeping with the family in Nazareth to say that, however they may be regarded in the forum of human judgement, fathers, mothers, children never cease to be God’s concern. God gives as much attention to every family as he gave to the family of Joseph and Mary.  God does not do favourites.



A reading from the first book of Samuel         1:20-22. 24-28

   In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, “I have asked for him from the LORD.”  The man Elkanah and all his house went up to offer to the LORD the yearly sacrifice and to pay his vow. But Hannah did not go up, for she said to her husband, “As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, so that he may appear in the presence of the LORD and dwell there forever.” Elkanah her husband said to her, “Do what seems best to you; wait until you have weaned him; only, may the LORD establish his word.” So the woman remained and nursed her son until she weaned him. And when she had weaned him, she took him up with her, along with a three- year- old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine, and she brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh. And the child was young. Then they slaughtered the bull, and they brought the child to Eli. And she said, “Oh, my lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the LORD. For this child I prayed, and the LORD has granted me my petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord. As long as he lives, he is lent to the LORD.” And he worshipped the LORD there.

The word of the LORD.

The story of Hannah is the story of a woman who knew the heart of God.  Her husband Elkanah looked down on his childless wife and favoured his other wife Peninnah who had children.  In her rejection she turned to the LORD who did not reject her, even when the priest of the temple at Shiloh mocked her prayers and her tears.  Of course, Hannah prayed for a son - that was the way of the world in which she lived - pouring out her anxiety and vexation before the LORD. And listen to the words:

Hannah conceived and bore a son and she called his name Samuel.

1 Samuel 1:20

Luke remembered her when he wrote the words the angel spoke to Mary:

And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.

Luke 1:31

Hannah gave her son Samuel to God’s service and she gave her Magnificat to Mary.  Who remembers Elkanah?  Who remembers Peninnah? Who remembers Eli the priest?  Everyone who prays the prayer of Hannah that became the prayer of Mary, remembers every day that wonderful woman.  And her son? He has two books of the Bible named after him.

 

Responsorial Psalm               Psalm 84:2-3. 5-6.9-10. R/. v.5

R/.  Blessed are those whose strength is in you, O LORD.

How lovely is your dwelling place,

O LORD of hosts!

My soul longs, yes, faints

for the courts of the Lord;

my heart and flesh sing for joy

                           to the living God.                  R/.

Blessed are those who dwell in your house,

ever singing your praise!

Blessed are those whose strength is in you,

             in whose heart are the highways to Zion.      R/.

O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer;

give ear, O God of Jacob!

Behold our shield, O God;

   look on the face of your anointed.   

R/.  Blessed are those whose strength is in you, O LORD.



Psalm 84 has been chosen to be in harmony with the Gospel we hear proclaimed on this blessed day.  For in this song we join pilgrims making their way to the Temple in Jerusalem, yearning to be where the Presence of the LORD resides.  The very soul of the pilgrim yearns for the Presence that is there. As the tired pilgrims make their way from Galilee to Jerusalem this will have been their song.  As Psalm 46 declares,

The LORD of hosts is with us,

The God of Jacob is our fortress.

To dwell in the House of the LORD is to be truly blessed.  From that Presence strength comes and the pilgrim is empowered to walk the way of the LORD.

  The pilgrims from Galilee did not know who it is who is walking with them.  Even Joseph and Mary have not fully unwrapped the secret of the child, now near man’s estate, who walks to Jerusalem for his second visit.  It will not be his last visit to the Holy City.




A reading from first letter of St John                   3:1-2. 21-24

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.

Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.

The word of the LORD.



  There are three letters that express the thinking of an extraordinary group of early Christians who espoused a very

particular understanding of Jesus of Nazareth.  They had their own vocabulary and a rich poetic imagination.  They thought in contrasts: light and darkness, truth and untruth, above and below, seeing and not seeing, and flesh and spirit.  We can be sure these letters were not written by John the apostle, or even by one called the Beloved Disciple. But they come from the same Christians who produced the Gospel of John and lived according to the vision of the Jesus, the Word made flesh, who had pitched his tent in the midst of an unbelieving world.

  Our reading concerns itself in walking the way. Remembering from the Gospel that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, this letter reminds its readers that the way of Jesus is love.  The truth that Jesus pronounces is love. The life that Jesus lives is a life of love. For God is love. If we are to believe in God, we must believe in love. The Spirit is the Spirit of love that enters our hearts and inspires love. To love one another is the only commandment there is.  Everything else is a footnote to that great commandment. The one who loves lives in God and God lives in the loving heart. What we learn in the poetry of this letter is that when God pitched his tent among us, he pitched it in human hearts.



A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke    2:41-52

Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the group they went a day's journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when his parents saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?” And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart.

And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favour with God and man.

The Gospel of the LORD.

  The final episode in Luke’s infancy story is the pilgrimage of Joseph, Mary, and the twelve-year old Jesus to Jerusalem.  That they travel to the Holy City for the feast of Passover is ominous, for Jesus and his followers will come to Jerusalem “where I may eat the Passover with my disciples” (Luke 22:11).  The shadow of the Cross is never far from the pages of our Gospels. This is especially clear in Luke’s account for he stresses that the family made an annual pilgrimage in order to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem.  While there is no emphasis in Luke’s account of their celebration of the most important feast in the Jewish holy year, nonetheless, the image of Jesus “in the Temple, seated with the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” foreshadows the encounters which mark the last days of his life.  

  You may recall that Hannah and her husband made annual pilgrimage to offer sacrifice in their temple in the city of Shiloh:

Now this man used to go up year by year from his city to worship and to sacrifice to the LORD of hosts.                                        

1 Samuel 1:3  

The man Elkanah and all his house went up to offer to the LORD the yearly sacrifice …

1 Samuel 1:21

So in Luke we read,

Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover

Again, Luke is determined to link his Gospel of Jesus to what happened in the past of God’s people as told in the Jewish Scriptures.  

 As if by divine guidance (“I must be …”) Jesus is drawn to the Temple and especially to the teachers, another intimation of things to come:

And he was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him, but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were hanging on his words

Luke 19:47-48

And every day he was teaching in the temple, but at night he went out and lodged on the mount   called Olivet. And early in the morning all the people came to him in the temple to hear him.

Luke 21:37-38

Those appointed by Jesus to proclaim the gospel of God to the world, did as Jesus did:

And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.

Acts of the Apostles 4:1-4

      “Look! The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people.

Acts of the Apostles 5:25  

It is a feature of Luke’s second book, the Acts of the Apostles, to present the whole community of the first Christians, on whom had descended the Holy Spirit, as doing what Jesus did.  These Christians were given to calling themselves “people of the Way”, by which they meant the way of Jesus. Pope Francis is of the same mind as St Luke:

Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus: we no longer say that we are “disciples” and “missionaries”, but rather that we are always “missionary disciples”.  If we are not convinced, let us look at those first disciples, who, immediately after encountering the gaze of Jesus, went forth to proclaim him joyfully.

 Pope Francis: The Joy of the Gospel, §120.

  While Jesus listened to these “teachers”, he is emphatically “asking them questions”, a habit he would develop in later life.  That all were amazed and “his parents … astonished” is a sign of things to come.

  The rebuke of Mary is that of a very worried and angry mother.  It is also very ironic. Notice what she says, and with that very emphatic “Behold!”:

Son, why have you treated us so? Behold! Your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.

Luke 2:48   

As Jesus offers a reason for causing Mary and Joseph such anxiety, it is the irony in that “MY Father” that jumps off the page.  Mary’s “your father” does not truly identify who Jesus is. No wonder that “they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them”.

 Yet however severe the rebuke Mary gives to her son, no matter how pointed the reply of Jesus to his distressed mother, there are two beautiful and instructive outcomes.

First, Jesus:

And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and submitted himself to them.

A hymn comes to mind, a sentence in that wonderful hymn in St Paul’s letter to Philippian Christians:

… being born in the likeness of men, being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient …

Philippians 2:7-8       

Then Mary:

And his mother treasured all these things in her heart.

In two sentences we have the whole Christmas story and we have all that God wishes to teach humanity in sending his Son, his messiah, born of Mary, swaddled by her hands, and sung into the world by angels.  What we have heard calls us. We are called to treasure all these things in our hearts, to do in our time and place what Mary did in hers.

Joseph O’Hanlon  





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