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


December 28-29, 2002 Holy Family, Cycle B

What image comes to your mind when you hear the phrase “Holy Family”? I think for most of us, the picture that we get is one that I saw several times this season on a Christmas card. It is a picture of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus arranged in a setting that probably has Silent Night as the sound track. All is calm; all is light. We tend to think of the Holy Family as the perfect family, no problems, no stress.

Today’s readings give us a glimpse of the Holy Family that is deeper, wider, and more realistic than that Hallmark card image we have for the most part.

In these readings we see a holy family that extends back in time almost 4000 years to Abraham and Sarah, forward to this family who gather today as the spiritual descendents of Abraham and Sarah. When I started to think about how we are connected in faith to these two Middle Eastern nomads, I was really amazed at the power of faith to bridge the generations that separate us. I am here today, as are most of you, because of the faith of my parents and grandparents that was passed down to me. All it would have taken is one break in that chain of hundreds of generations, and I might not be here.

Mary was able to respond with her wonderful “Let it be done to me according to your word” because of the faith that had been handed down to her, preparing her to say yes to God’s offer of salvation. Joseph was able to say yes to his call to nurture and protect Mary and Jesus because of the faith that had been handed down to him over generations.

We also see a holy family that is wider than just the hallmark image of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. It includes Simeon and Anna, who are very much grandparent figures in this scene that Luke paints for us in the Temple. Simeon takes the child in his arms, and blesses God for the privilege of being able to see Jesus. How many of you grandparents here have done that with your grandchildren when you first got to hold them in your arms? And Simeon reminds Mary and Joseph, and us, that this holy family includes all people, even those in far distant lands, regardless of race or religion or nationality.

When we blink our eyes and step back out of the hallmark scene of this perfect holy family, we see a family that much more closely resembles the messiness that we experience in our own families.

This holy family starts out with two aging nobodies. Well past the time they should have been collecting social security, they have a son and are called to move away from where they had lived their whole lives. They move to a new land far away from friends and family, and start a family that will survive feast and famine, exile in Egypt for 400 years, 40 years of wandering in the desert, and then centuries of struggle to establish themselves as a nation in the midst of hostile neighbors. They are conquered and dragged into captivity, and then return only to be conquered again and again.

Fast forwarding almost 2000 years to Jesus’ birth we see a holy family that starts out with a young pregnant unwed Mary; it takes in a Joseph who was ready to divorce Mary quietly when he learns of her pregnancy. It is a family that brings their first child into the world far from their own home and beds, in the messiness of a stable in a town they were forced to travel to because they live in a conquered nation, occupied by foreign troops. Again, it is Simeon who bluntly rejects any false notion we have that this holy family is without stress or problem. He points out to Mary and Joseph that Jesus will be opposed and that he is destined to be the salvation and the scandal of many during his life. He warns Mary that her heart will be broken by the things that will happen to them as a family.

Fast forward another 2000 years, and here we are gathered as a family that has experienced salvation and scandal ourselves, our hearts pierced over and over again in the past few months alone.

Today’s readings make it very clear that what sustains us in the face of all this messiness is faith in the promise of God to bring salvation to this world, and to do it through this holy family. As I read these readings over and over, I began to realize how important the family is as a model and fundamental building block of the Church. Rather than being a island of peace and tranquility, isolated from the chaos of the world around it, the holy family depicted in Luke’s gospel is a family that in faith is called to serve the world, to be an effective instrument in God’s plan to bring salvation to the world. It is the faith leading to obedience in Mosaic law that drives Joseph and Mary to bring Jesus to the temple where even as an infant only 40 days old, Jesus goes about his Father’s work, bringing a message of hope and consolation to Simeon and Anna.

As we struggle to cope with the messiness of our own lives, I suggest that this is a powerful message of how we are to move forward. Just as God gave Jesus the immediate family of Mary and Joseph as a gift to help him carry out his role as savior, he gave Jesus the framework of the Jewish faith with its practices and prayers and scriptures. So to has God given us our immediate families, and the framework of our Catholic faith with its practices and prayers and scriptures to help us carry out our role as the Body of Christ here and now. By leaning on this tradition and the faith of those around us, we too will grow in wisdom and strength, and God’s favor will rest on us.



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