LIVING IN OBEDIENCE TO THE LAW OF GOD
Gen 15:1-6; 21:1-3; Heb 11:8, 11-12, 17-19; Lk 2:22-40
(Please, note the choice of the readings)
Today is the celebration of the Holy Family of Nazareth, a reminder that Jesus, THE WORD, was born into a family. Every Sunday after the Christmas celebration, we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. This feast has no fixed date. It is a movable feast, just like the Easter celebration. Today, the Church presents to us the family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, as a model for each family to follow.
1. OBEDIENCE TO THE TORAH
Like Abraham in the 1st and 2nd readings of today, Joseph and Mary obey the law of God. They do things as the Holy Book prescribes. They presented their first born child in the temple. Jewish law stated that after giving birth, a mother was ceremonially unclean until her cycle had returned to normal. Every firstborn child had to be ‘redeemed’. Every firstborn child was considered to belong to the Lord (this reflects back to the time when the firstborn children of Israel were spared in the Exodus during the Passover). An offering (or “tax” if you will) was paid to the temple that “redeemed” your child. This money supported the Levites who in essence served at the temple in place of all the firstborn children.
According to the gospel, Mary and Joseph made the purification sacrifice. Mary and Joseph took the Infant Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem forty days (inclusive) after his birth, in order to complete Mary’s ritual purification after childbirth, and to perform the redemption of the firstborn son, in obedience to the Torah (Lev 12, Ex 13:12–15).
Joseph and Mary performed one of the basic duties of the Jewish parents in Old Testament Judaism that was to provide for the instruction and education of his children, guiding their first steps towards a religious life and later enabling their children’s education in Jewish schools. Indeed, their obligation to teach their children is set forth in the famous Shema Yisrael or “Hear, O Israel” in these words: Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates (Deut 6:4-9).
This is at the center of Jewish religious pedagogy. We can see that the supreme teachers of children are first and foremost their parents. We are told in today’s gospel: “The child grew, and waxed strong, full of wisdom; and the grace of God was in him.” (Luke 2:40) The family had to constantly rehearse the history and events of God’s doing in the history of the people of Israel. The family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph embraced these outlines of Jewish pedagogy by presenting the baby Jesus in the Temple. Later, Jesus would willingly accompany his parents to the temple. The great harmonious relationship between child and parents is expressed as follows by Luke: “Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:48-51). It is important for parents not to neglect the duty of teaching children about God and his laws FROM THE VERY EARLY AGE. They should keep their religious obligations without delay, just as Mary and Joseph did.
2. LIVING WITHIN THEIR MEANS
In accordance with the law, Joseph and Mary took an offering to the temple. Luke explicitly says that they took THE OPTION PROVIDED FOR POOR PEOPLE, by sacrificing “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” Note that Leviticus 12:8 prescribes that a family could offer A LAMB at such occasions if their means permitted. If they cannot afford that, meaning if they are poor, then they can offer a pair of turtledoves, or two pigeons. We notice that Mary and Joseph stayed within their meagre means.
Many couples and families today live far above their means. They go bankrupt because they want to sponsor a lavish wedding, an expensive baptism ceremony of their kid, or high-class house-warming party. How we wish couples could understand the need to stay within their means, in order that their marriage and family life should not fall into financial and other crisis! Many couples keep postponing the solemn blessing of the marriage in church because they want to do it as “expensively as possible”! Mary and Joseph have a lesson for us today; it does not kill to be simple and to stay within one’s meagre means.
3. MARY SUFFERED WITH JESUS FROM THE BEGINNING TO THE END
Upon bringing Jesus into the temple, Joseph and Mary encountered Simeon. On this day, we are told that the Holy Spirit led him to the temple at the same time that Mary and Joseph were there. Simeon told Mary that “a sword would pierce her soul also.” Simeon spoke only of Mary because it is likely that Joseph died before the ministry of Jesus ever began. Mary would be the only person to witness both the birth and the death of Jesus.
It is an awful thing for a parent to have to bury a child. How much more difficult and perplexing if you knew that your son was the child of God and had come to save the very people who would kill him as a common criminal. God’s love would, at times, excite Mary but at other times it would break her heart. God is faithful but that does not mean there is no pain along the way. Even though this was a joyful occasion, you can see in the words of Simeon a foreshadowing of the sorrows that will be shared between Jesus and his Mother, Mary.
The prophecy of Simeon constitutes one of the “SEVEN SORROWS” of Mary. “A sword shall pierce through your own soul, too” (Luke 2:35). When a child suffers, the parents also suffer. When Jesus suffered, of course, Mary suffered. The prophecy is an explicit scriptural revelation that Mary will suffer with her son, the sign of contradiction for the world. The Mother will indeed suffer with her Redeemer-Son, as the New Adam and the New Eve seek to restore grace to a fallen humanity. Mary knows her child was born to die. She offers her son in perfect obedience to the Father at a place of sacrifice.
No doubt, parents would not like to see their children suffer. But some parents become so excessively “protective” over their children that they spoil them. They make the mistake of thinking that they can “inoculate” their children from life’s difficulties and pain. While taking care of your children, parents always “to permit God to be God!” Know that “in the world you will see trouble and pain”. That is the lot of every family, regardless of their condition. But do not let your hearts to be troubled, for Jesus has overcome the world (cf. Jn 14:27)
4. SOME FAMILY MEMBERS WILL REFUSE HIM
Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” (Luke 2:34–35). Simeon recognized that even though God in His mercy has sent a Saviour, not everyone would respond positively to his coming. Not all would embrace him, even. Unfortunately, the response of some God-fearing parents to these words sometimes is to try to make Jesus “more acceptable” to their children. They soften his words, lessen his demands, and in many ways turn him into a Santa-Claus-like-figure who does anything to get us to believe in him.
There is a story in the Old Testament when Moses went up the mountain of Sinai to receive the Law from the Lord. Moses’ brother, Aaron, was left to oversee the people. By the time Moses came down (some days or weeks later) from the mountain the people were engaged in the worship of a golden calf. They had deserted the true and living God in order to worship a cow which they had fashioned with their own hands! (Ex 32) Moses confronted Aaron. Aaron excused his actions by saying, “I was merely giving the people what they wanted!” As a result, thousands died in an act of judgment. The same is true today. When we “give people what they want”, “when we give our children only what they want” instead of what is true and right, we too are leading them to their spiritual death!
Parents must stop making excuses and take responsibility for their children and for their personal behaviours. They must do more than being emotional. Not everyone in the family is going to embrace the message of God. There will be some who refuse him, and become angry at the message and at Jesus. Some will abandon the Catholic Faith and join some Religious Sect or New Chursh. Nonetheless, these persons remain members of their family and still deserve the love of their parents. But they must be told the truth.
Children are always children, and while they are children, they must be taught certain bitter truth, even if modern society tells us that this constitutes child-abuse. In our society, today, some well-to-do parents shamelessly pay children of poorer parents to do work which they could teach their children to do. Apprentices no longer exist in many workshops because young people cannot persevere through the learning process. They take the short-cut of becoming bike riders and other quick ways of making money. Our families have a great task to teach!
5. THE HOLY FAMILY LIVED AN ORDINARY LIFE
“Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:48-51). After all this, the Holy Family left Jerusalem and returns to Nazareth. There they lived in peace and joy for many years before Jesus began his public life. We are told: “The child grew, and became strong, full of wisdom; and the grace of God was in him.” (Luke 2:40) The Holy Family lived an ordinary life, doing their daily chores, and taking care of every single member of the household. As we can see from Scripture, the Holy Family of Nazareth was a “Father-Mother-Child” relationship. THEY WERE ALWAYS TOGETHER—at the Nativity, at the Presentation, at the Flight to Egypt, at the Search for the child in the Temple, at the Wedding feast of Cana, at the Foot of the Cross, in the Upper Room, etc. Stay close together becomes part of the equation for a holy family. This togetherness is important for every true Christian family!
Some years ago, social scientists discovered the term “dysfunctional” and began applying it to many realities, including the family. The family is made of different components: mother, father, children – and if one of these constituents does not function correctly, it affects the well-being of the other parts. It throws them off and makes them malfunction as well. On the other hand, a functional family provides a safe, nurturing environment for children where love and acceptance lie at the core of their system, despite disagreements and disciplinary problems. They dialogue, express feelings and trust in each other’s love. (From 365 days with the Lord 1998). Many families, all over the world, are dysfunctional. For instance, daddy has a bad temper; sometimes he gets violent; he drinks too much and terrorizes everyone. Mummy is very nervous and fearful; she shouts, and quarrels with everyone. In lots of cases, one of the parents is not there at all, and the remaining one has to try and do double duty, acting as father and mother for the family. This is our daily lot in the family. But on the contrary, Joseph and Mary were never absentee parents.
The problem facing some contemporary fathers is that many of them “GENERATE” children as if they were mere “sperm donors”. They seem to be unconcerned about the consequence of their copulative behaviour. Of course, why should this not be the case, when, in some families, one can find situations of “five children, five fathers”? Each child has a different father, who does not seem to want to take any responsibility over the children. Sometimes, children are left in a no-man’s land. The father simply disappears, thus helping to create the situation of single motherhood.
Mary, Joseph and Jesus were a family much like any of our families today. They knew fear, loneliness, confusion, disagreement and disappointment. Sometimes, in our religious fervour, we may tend to spiritualize away the full and painful impact of the problems that the Holy Family faced by believing that they had direct access to solutions from heaven, through angels and dreams. The fact is that they stayed close TOGETHER; they were close to God; and God who spoke to them through the persons and events of their lives.
Our families, today, have the same access to this same God as the Holy Family did. The God who led them out of crisis is beckoning us also. And he is ready to lead us through life’s challenges. Let us turn to him, following the footsteps of the Holy Family!