Breath of the Spirit Reflection: The Feast of the Holy Family
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December 27th, 2020: The Feast of the Holy Family
Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14
Reflection from Jon Schum
The liturgy for this Sunday, officially titled The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, began as a devotion in the 19th century, when many saw the institution of the family beleaguered and under siege. It was believed the Holy Family could serve as a model and example for families and eventually this feast was incorporated into the Christmas cycle of the liturgical calendar.
Yet the infancy stories of the gospels leave us with scarce details about the family of Jesus. The concept of family and individual in the ancient middle east would have meant extended family, not the compact nuclear family. The extended family not only regulated one’s role but was also the social safety net for the individual.
Today, expanded understandings and configurations of families have enriched its appreciation as a social institution, as LGBTQI individuals and couples clearly witness to their committed love as a foundation for authentic family living. This committed love is increasingly supported and valued by the families and allies of the LGBTQI community, and by many in the larger family of God, as seen in the open and affirming policies of many churches and religious organizations.
The Book of Sirach, in the Wisdom tradition, was written about 180 BCE in Jerusalem and was a kind of handbook for ethical responsibility and righteous living. It was once called Ecclesiasticus (Book of the Church), likely used as a catechetical aid in the early church. It is eminently practical, as seen in the advice of this reading, which outlines the duties of children toward their parents. An adult child who faithfully cares for an aging parent fulfills a sacred obligation. “They obey God who bring comfort to their parents.”
In chapters 3 and 4 of his Letter to the Colossians, St. Paul lays out a description of the ideal Christian life. He offers this formula for virtuous living: “clothe yourselves with heartfelt compassion, with kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience…Above all else, put on love…” Paul may have been speaking metaphorically, referring to the baptismal garment, i.e., shedding the old garment and putting on the new self, in Christ Jesus. These qualities, which are relational in their focus, have universal application to social groupings, including families, which St. Paul specifically addresses in vv.18-21.
Being an observant family, Mary and Joseph bring their child to the Temple for the rites of purification and redemption of the first born. Simeon is akin to the prophets of old and we are reminded three times he is guided by the Holy Spirit. He can be pictured tenderly taking Jesus in his arms and recognizing the child as the fulfillment of his longings and proclaiming the child as “a light of revelation to the nations and the glory of Israel.” Like Simeon, the prophet Anna has spent her entire life in prayerful vigilance. She recognizes the child as the one who has been promised and thenceforth speaks of the child to all who listen.
These two venerable elders look upon Jesus in the context of the wider work of God and the mission of all believers, and while not part of the religious establishment, they are nonetheless voices of liberation and hope. Like Elizabeth and Zachary, Mary and Joseph, and the shepherds in the fields, with neither status nor privilege, they are recipients of God’s great revelation. Immersed in a mystery that is full of grace and promise, in the reign of God presumptions are challenged and the status quo reversed.
This is a season of very mixed feelings around the experience of family. Families can be the source of both greatest joy and deepest pain. We seek and find the familial in circles of friends and faith communities. And we draw from the truth of our life experience as we challenge voices in our political culture which still conspire to deny the rights to marriage and parenthood to those in our community.
The reign of God is always bigger than any one idea, dogma, law, or institution. Jesus’ ministry is witness to this. Jesus eagerly gathers at table with the outsider and the outcast, and extends a healing touch to the unclean, the broken, and the rejected. The incarnation, the coming of the savior as one of us, Emmanuel, God among us, is embodied in every human heart where hope resides and love reigns.
Jon Schum is a long time member of Dignity Boston, has served the chapter in numerous capacities, and is one of it's ordained presiders. He also co-facilitates the Aging with Dignity caucus.