Sunday, December 27, 2009

Year C Feast of the Holy Family

Readings: Sir. 3:2-6.12-14; Ps. 128:1-5; Col. 3:12-21; Luke 2:41-52

According to Jewish practice during the Second Temple period, the time in which Jesus lived, every male was required to go to Jerusalem to make an offering to the Lord three times a year: on Passover, which commemorates Israel’s deliverance from Egypt; Pentecost, which recalls God’s giving the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai; Tabernacles, which marks Israel’s forty year sojourn in the desert. In today’s Gospel Jesus had just reached the age at which he was required to fulfill these obligations.

Like the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, eight days after his birth, St. Luke uses this episode to highlight the Holy Family’s fidelity to the Torah. Like so many episodes in his life, this observance results in a surprise, a very early manifestation of Jesus’ messianic and divine identity. What is surprising about this narrative is what appears to be our Lord’s impertinent answer to his mother’s question, "Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety," an anxiety that any parent would feel upon realizing a child was missing or lost (Luke 2:48). Jesus responds, "Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?" (Luke 2:49)

Our Lord’s seemingly impertinent response to his mother leads us to consider our reading from the Book of Sirach, which is seen by many scholars as a commentary on the fourth commandment that enjoins us to honor our father and our mother. This commandment is a bridge between the first three commandments about loving God and the final six about loving our neighbor. In this schema, parents are rightly situated between God and other people. This unique place parents occupy in our lives entails mutual responsibilities. We should honor our parents because they gave us life and our elders because they are the repositories of life’s wisdom. Very often it is their hard work and self-less sacrifice that earned the benefits we enjoy.

There is much said and written today about the Church’s magisterium, her teaching authority. Most of this speaking and writing focuses on the authority of the papacy or the episcopacy. On this feast, we are reminded that parents, because their authority is also divinely derived, constitute part of the Church’s authentic magisterium because in "Christ the family becomes the domestic church because it is a community of faith, of hope, and of charity" (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church par. 456).

With authority comes tremendous responsibility. Hence, the responsibilities of parents exceed the duties of their children. When presenting a child for baptism, after requesting the sacrament for her/him, Christian parents willingly accept "the responsibility of training [them] in the practice of the faith" (Rite of Baptism for Several Children par. 39). They assume the "duty" of bringing their children "up to keep God’s commandments as Christ taught us, by loving God and our neighbor" (par.39). Indeed, much of any child’s image of God is derived from his/her parents. Therefore, Christian parents must be mindful that their authority, like that of the Church, "is not above the word of God, but serves it" (Dei Verbum par. 10)." In order to serve the word of God, parents must listen "to it devoutly" (par. 10).

In our second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, the apostle provides us with a list of values that are to be nurtured in the family. More fundamentally, the family has a value that itself needs nurturing, especially at a time when it faces such danger brought about by radical attempts to redefine it in ways that accord neither with nature nor revelation.

Pope Benedict has observed that "[t]he family is the indispensable foundation for society and a great and lifelong treasure for couples." The family is also "a unique good for children," the Holy Father continues, "who are meant to be the fruit of love, of the total and generous self-giving of the parents." Recently a document called the Manhattan Declaration was issued. It is an ecumenical document signed by several Catholic and Orthodox bishops, as well as by many Protestant leaders in the U.S. In the section on marriage it states forthrightly that in order "[t]o strengthen families, we must stop glamorizing promiscuity and infidelity and restore... a sense of the profound beauty, mystery, and holiness of faithful marital love. We must reform ill-advised policies that contribute to the weakening of the institution of marriage... we must work in the legal, cultural, and religious domains to instill in young people a sound understanding of what marriage is, what it requires, and why it is worth the commitment and sacrifices that faithful spouses make." This is no small chore, but one that can be accomplished by Christians, strengthened by sacramental grace, who seek to make known the great mystery of God’s love by living matrimony as a holy state of life, as a sacrament.

Getting back to Jesus’ response to his mother, we see, on closer examination, that Jesus is not being impertinent or disrespectful. While he is and will always be the son of Mary and was beholden to Joseph as to a father, he is most profoundly the Son of God. His words, therefore, are a reminder to Mary and Joseph to recognize the reality of who he is and how he is constitutive of reality, a recognition that forces them to confront the great mystery of God-made-man for us.

Our Gospel ends with a portrait of family life that gives us a little insight into the life of Jesus between the age of twelve the beginning of his public ministry: "He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man" (Luke 2:51-52). By humbly submitting himself to the parental authority of Mary and Joseph our Lord made known to them what they were not able to understand that day in the Temple. Likewise, it is by our humble obedience to the Father, whose perfect will is expressed through his Son that we make the Lordship of Jesus Christ known to those who do not understand. As you continue your joyful celebration of Christmas, along with all the goodies and sweets may all of you enjoy the sweetest fruit of all, which we contemplate as the fifth and final Joyful mystery of the rosary: the joy of finding Jesus, who is Christ the Lord.

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