Feast of the Holy Family

Monday, December 27, 2021 - 14:45

Fr. Patrick Fitzgerald-Lombard, O.Carm., is parish priest of the parish of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Mayfield, Sussex. He is a member of the Aylesford Community. Today, Fr. Patrick is reflecting on the readings from yesterday's Mass. Please read Fr Patrick's introduction and please re-look at the readings for Sunday before continuing (these will open in a separate window for ease of reading):

At this Christmas time, we have been following Luke’s story introducing his Gospel. The first
part of this story tells about the events leading up to the birth of Jesus; this is followed by the
second part which tells his birth and childhood. This is the story which we listen to every
year at this time during the last days of Advent and the first week of Christmas-tide. Every
year we will hear this story slightly differently especially as the presentation at Mass varies
somewhat each year. This year with Christmas on a Saturday and the Sunday cycle following
the Gospel of Luke, there was over three days an unusual but significant coincidence of
Gospels. On Friday, Christmas Eve, there was the canticle from Zechariah the Father of John
the Baptist which we call the Benedictus. His praise concludes the first part of the story while
also announcing the second. On Saturday, Christmas Day itself, we hear of the birth of the
child and the greeting by the shepherds. Then on Sunday, the feast of the Holy Family, there is
a dramatic change as we hear the story of the parents searching for their lost child and finding
him in the Temple. Taking the three Gospels together will give us an overview of the second
part of the story. Each incident is a well told story on its own but they have been assembled
by the evangelist into an overall tale. As I said last week, this two part story provides an
overture to the whole Gospel. It outlines Luke’s message, his particular presentation of the
Good News of Jesus.

We begin with the Benedictus, the Song of Zechariah which we hear on Christmas Eve as an
announcement of the coming of our Saviour. In the Gospel itself, Luke has placed the canticle
more as a conclusion to the arrival of John the Baptist. The canticle is introduced by the
wonderment of the crowd and is followed by a concluding verse moving John off-stage before
the arrival of Jesus. The Church though presents the canticle without this context on
Christmas Eve. In the same way, the Benedictus is also the Gospel canticle for Morning Prayer
of the Church every day. On the day before Christmas and at the beginning of every day, the
Benedictus becomes the song of the watchman awaiting the dawn from on high to break upon
us. Waiting for the dawn, the watchman reflects on all God has done for his people in the past.
Zechariah then continues with the future role of his new born son, a role which can also be
seen as our role too. Throughout, there is an emphasis on salvation. At this point we can
recall the psalm “De Profoundis”, “Out of the Depths” which is so important for the Church at
this season: Let the watchman count on daybreak and Israel on the Lord. Because with the Lord
there is mercy and the fullness of redemption.

There follows the story of Christmas night which proclaims the beginning of this fullness of
redemption and salvation. It is a story firmly anchored in the time of a powerful man,
Augustus, and his governor in Syria. The traditional Proclamation of Christmas this night
speaks of the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus with “the whole world being at peace”.
Ironic no doubt, the peace of this world is always a peace of force and control. Even in a well
ordered country like ours we have the police and armed forces. Yet the true peace is that
proclaimed by the angels announcing the birth to the shepherds, shalom as a harmonious
way of life. There is the great contrast between the powerful emperor of this world and the
saviour born in a stable who will bring true peace.

There follows a brief mention of the circumcision and naming of Jesus, straightforward unlike
that of John the Baptist. Jesus will live as an ordinary Jew. The next major scene is the
presentation of the child in the Temple. Again the Jewish atmosphere is strong, all is done
according to the law of the Lord. The centre piece of this scene is the appearance of Simeon.
He is carefully presented as a well qualified and reliable guide that this child is indeed the
longed- for Messiah. The gift to him is peace because his eyes have seen the salvation of God.
Notable too is the appearance of Anna, male and female pairs being a feature of this Gospel.

And so we come to the Gospel for this Sunday, the feast of the Holy Family. The loss and
finding of Jesus is a remarkable reminder on this feast of the realities of family life. 12 year
olds may better able to look after themselves but all parents will know the anxieties of losing a
younger child even for a few minutes. Yet in the Gospel the evangelist has other interests.
What marks this incident and separates it from what precedes is that it is bracketed by two
comments about Jesus growing up. The first comment about Jesus growing in wisdom is
usually placed as the conclusion to the scene of the Presentation so it is not included in the
Gospel this Sunday. Yet it clearly forms a pair with the final comment which is also about Jesus
growing in wisdom. Human wisdom and divine favour are therefore the background to this
story at a time when a 12 year old would have been on the cusp of manhood. It was a time
when he could have been exploring his independence and his future in life, similar to a
teenager today.

Three pilgrimages a year to Jerusalem were prescribed and they would have been social
occasions too, journeying with others from the same village. These details heighten the
portrait of Mary and Joseph as observant Jews. Jesus therefore lets his parents leave
Jerusalem whilst he stays behind. We can note that it is Mary not Joseph who speaks about
her distress and rebukes her son. The earlier scene in the Temple for the presentation might
have made them more aware of Jesus' special role.

Once found, Jesus is shown as a full participant in the debate; he is not there as a disciple. His
first words in the Gospel follow. These are important because Jesus is recognising his calling,
that he must be about his Father’s affairs.

While Mary and Joseph did not understand, we are also told that Mary reflected as she had
done earlier in the story. “Stored up” may be better than the traditional "treasured". She
becomes for a model disciple of her son whose example we can follow. For Jesus himself, this
episode shows us that he is growing as a human being. He lives in Nazareth and is obedient in
his human family. Yet he is not beyond pushing his boundaries rather far as he seeks his
future, despite the understandable anxiety for his parents. Just like any other child.

Yet that future is also an awareness of his vocation and his calling from God. We hear this
Sunday part of the story of Hannah and her child from the book of Samuel. Hannah having
received the gift of her son from God after much prayer and entreaty is now willing to hand
him back to God. This Sunday may be the feast of the Holy Family but there must always be
our awareness that God’s call comes first. Zechariah too had to yield his child to God’s call.
Only with this openness to God’s plan for our salvation can we proclaim: “Blessed be the Lord,
the God of Israel…. He has raised up a mighty Saviour for us.”