Feast of the Holy Family – Year A (December 26th)
Readings: Ecclesiasticus 3:2-6, 12-14
Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
Next Sunday, as always on the first Sunday after Christmas, is the feast of the Holy Family; it is perhaps the Church’s attempt to mend any breaches in our families that may have occurred during the celebration.
It is an interesting take on the family that the readings for next Sunday provide. The first reading is from ben Sira’, and emphasises the privileged place that God gives to parents, “He has glorified a father over and above his children, and confirmed a mother’s judgement over her son. Honouring your father means atonement for your sins”. The author, who always gives the impression of having seen everything, adds the rider that such respect will pay off in the next generation “honour your father, and you’ll be celebrated by your children”. The author is also aware of potential difficulties, very familiar to us today: “Look after your father in his old age…if he loses his mind, be compassionate”.
The psalm for next Sunday paints a beautiful picture of family life; but it starts, as all our family living must start, with God, “Happy are all those who fear the Lord”. Get that right, and your wife will be “like a vine that bears fruit in your home, your children like olive-shoots round your table”. The reader may pause to wonder how pleased either spouse or offspring might be by this comparison, but they are clearly understood as A Good Thing. The psalm then concludes with a blessing “from Zion: may you see Jerusalem’s prosperity, all the days of your life”. The sense here is very much that if you get families right then society is likely to follow. You may feel that there is evidence, even negative evidence, for this point of view in this country today.
The second reading for the feast is a notorious passage; those who read it carelessly have been inclined to see in it a justification for men to exploit women, for parents to abuse their children, and for slave-owners to maltreat their slaves. Look carefully, however, and you will see that it is a far more subversive passage than it may appear at first sight. The heart of the matter is what the Colossian Christians are to wear: “put on…instinctive compassion, kindness [this word would have sounded like “Christ-likeness” to those who heard the letter]¸humility, gentleness, patience, putting up with each other, and letting each other off, if anyone has grounds for complaint”. There is no room here for exploitative relationships. Finally, the top item of clothing is to be “love, which is what links perfection together”. There is more: “Let the peace of Christ referee in your hearts…be grateful. Let Christ’s word live richly in you”. Only then does the author descend to precision about the interaction of wives, husbands, children, and parents. If they have been reading carefully, there is no room here for abusive power-plays.
Finally the gospel speaks to us of the slightly unusual family which the feast celebrates: a reluctant step-father, a single mother, and a child who is said to be the culmination of Jewish history. This makes it all the odder that when Joseph has his dream, and a message from the angel of the Lord, his instructions are to “flee to Egypt”, and, what is more, Joseph does this “by night”. We are sadly ignorant of the Bible, and so we do not immediately get the point, but what is going on here is a reverse of the Exodus: Egypt is a place that you should flee from, and not to. A second angelic dream, after the unlamented death of Herod, restores them to the Holy Land, and even uses the phrase, “entered the land”, which for Jewish readers would immediately have signified Joshua and the People of God coming in from the Eastern desert. They get to Nazareth; but notice what is most attention-catching about this family, that they are under threat, and people are trying to kill the child. At the end of the story, of course, they are going to succeed in their murderous plans; but the whole point of the story is that God is in charge, and so the family will not be ultimately be destroyed, but restored. May that blessing come upon all your families at this Christmas season.