Holy Family gave Jesus a home

  • December 21, 2007

Holy Family (Year A) Dec. 30 (Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14; Psalm 128; Colossians 3:12-21; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23)

So many of the teachings in both the Old and New Testaments are intended to preserve and enhance the quality of human community. Care and honour of one’s parents is an important element of that, for it is a concrete way of expressing gratitude for the gift of life. It also forms a firm link between past generations and a nation’s future.

But at first glance, Sirach’s advice to honour and respect one’s parents seems a bit calculating and insincere. The love and honour that we show to our parents should not be seen as a way of reducing our “sin account” as the passage implies. In a manner of the ancient wisdom tradition it seems to be saying, “What goes around comes around.” Gratitude, respect and compassion are learned — or not learned — by each generation in part by the behaviour they observe in their elders. Unfortunately, our culture worships youth and glamour and all too often people are simply cast aside when they have outlived their usefulness or their powers have diminished.

Indifferent or contemptuous attitudes towards our parents will be mimicked by our children. We should not be surprised if we are treated in a similar fashion when we find that we have ourselves become the older generation. But this is certainly not a free pass for abusive or loveless forms of parenting, for the respect must flow in both directions. Respect and honour for one’s parents — and all those who have played a role in our development — can do much to create a culture of gratitude and respect.

The early Christians created familial relationships within their own communities — something that is missing in so much of modern Christianity. In fact, it is the churches that are successful in creating a familial atmosphere that are thriving. In the ancient world “clothing” was often a metaphor for one’s personality and inner qualities. How you clothed yourself was how you presented yourself to the world. In the Bible, it also included spiritual qualities. The community described in this passage is transformative indeed — it is where one can learn the art of being a genuine human being. It is not the abode of superficial, bottom-line religion: its members are to let Christ rule — not play an advisory role — in their hearts. The word must not just dwell in the community, but dwell richly. Its fruits are easily recognized: compassion, love, humility, kindness, patience and harmony. These are fine attributes for any family, real or metaphorical, and they show us what our homes and church communities should be.

Jesus begins His life as a refugee and His family shared the plight of so many families today: insecurity, danger, poverty and all because of the murderous rage of a tyrant. Unfortunately, some things never change. We know the story of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt so well, but we know almost nothing about the flight itself and the sojourn in Egypt. But poetry and fiction can grant us access to the religious imagination. Anne Rice’s beautiful and thoughtful novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt views the Egyptian sojourn and return to Judea through the eyes of the seven-year old Jesus. Overheard whispers of adults, His initial shock at His own powers, and the events swirling around Him guide Him into a dawning awareness of His identity and His special relation with God the Father.

Judea after the death of Herod was in chaos, torn asunder by rebellion, terrorism, pillage and robbery. It is through this nightmare that the Holy Family — and the story includes other relatives too — must carefully wend their way. Certain scenes make an indelible impression on the child Jesus: hundreds of crucified people lining the roads outside of Sepphoris, as well as the many unburied dead and the wandering homeless. These experiences were important elements in the formation of Jesus’ human personality and consciousness. But the loving and supportive environment of the extended Holy Family was the crucial element in His growing consciousness of His status and mission to the world. A true family, whether related by blood or spirit, is characterized by trust, respect, joy and encouragement. It is a place where we can discover who we are and our relationship to God.