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DECEMBER 28, 2008: HOLY FAMILY

Readings: 

Genesis 15:1-6; 21:1-3
Hebrews 11 :8,11-12,17-19
Luke 2:22-40

Things don’t always work out as planned, even for biblical families. If our image of the “Holy Family” was created by the holy cards we were exposed to as children instead of the scriptural picture of them, we’re really in trouble. “Things” simply weren’t as ideal as the holy cards implied. Scripture offers us a much more nuanced picture of the relationship among the holy three.

One example from today’s gospel pericope: though Mary received an angelic annunciation in Luke 1, things happen in chapter 2 implying either her annunciation was simply a literary device to convey the meaning of her pregnancy to us the readers, or she forgot what Gabriel told her about Jesus. Notice that after Simeon takes Jesus in his arms and proclaims those oft-repeated hopeful words over him, Luke tells us, “The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him.” If they know Jesus is God’s son, why would they be amazed at anything said about him?

Even more interesting is the next story in chapter 2. Not only is Jesus left behind during a family pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but Luke informs us that when he’s eventually found in the temple his mother asks, “Son why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” I don’t know about you, but if I knew my child was God, I don’t think I’d have great anxiety about his whereabouts. As the late Raymond Brown stressed in his book The Birth of the Messiah, Luke must be employing a source in chapter 2 different from the source he uses in chapter 1; a source which knows nothing of an annunciation to either Mary or Joseph, a source which presumes Jesus’ parents daily had to discover their child’s unique personality. They couldn’t just sit back and watch predictions about him come true.

Some Lucan scholars believe Simeon and Anna are temple mainstays, often on the premises, saying these words and performing these actions on every child before or after his purification ritual. But this time, as people later discovered, they’re said and performed over the child Christians believe really is the Messiah.

We also see some of this “hindsight theology” in our Hebrews passage. It’s easy for the author to hold up Abraham and Sarah as paragons of faith, yet on the other hand, there’s a reason those who chose today’s Genesis reading abruptly jump from chapter 15 to chapter 21. Something significant happens in those five omitted chapters. Though Abraham is assured he’s going to have a son through whom Yahweh will carry out his promises to the Chosen People, the first Jewish couple doesn’t immediately engage in the intimacies which normally produce a pregnancy. Instead, Sarah tells her husband to have sexual relations with her slave girl Hagar, and she’ll adopt the child Hagar bears. Only when their surrogate mother plan proves unsatisfactory will Abraham and Sarah do what’s necessary to produce their own child.

I presume no family has ever turned out exactly as the couple projected on their wedding day. It takes lots of faith simply to “start” a family. Perhaps that’s the message we should take from today’s two biblical families. For neither of them was life just a matter of sifting back and watching God’s predicted plan work itself out. More than likely, each only understood God’s plan after their children were long grown.