In the family we learn our Father’s business

Holy Family (Year C) Dec. 30 (1 Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28; Psalm 84; 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24; Luke 2:41-52)

God did not disappoint Hannah. Those who were childless were often thought to be cursed by God, but her faith was stronger than that. She had struggled for many years with the pain and disgrace of not having children but she was also confident that God would hear and grant her prayer. The previous year she had prayed at the shrine in Shiloh and promised that if she were granted the gift of a son he would be consecrated to the Lord. Hannah even had to endure the misogynist mockery of Eli the prophet as he accused her of public drunkenness but she was unwavering and clear in what she asked of God and what she promised in return. Having been blessed with a child, she was later willing to relinquish him for a higher purpose.

Now everything had come to pass and the child Samuel was taken to Eli for instruction and training. Samuel became a Spirit-filled prophet during the tumultuous reigns of Saul and David. He was to be a nazirite or one set aside for special service to God. This designation was accompanied by a strict spiritual and ascetical regimen. Barren women and special sons are a recurring theme in the Old Testament. This story provided the evangelist Luke with a literary pattern for the story of Zechariah, Elizabeth and John the Baptist. Zechariah and Elizabeth were advanced in years and childless but the angel that appeared to Zechariah in the temple assured him that Elizabeth would soon bear a son. As in the case of Samuel and so many others, John was to be set aside for a higher purpose — preparing the way for the coming of the Lord.

The twin themes of barrenness and special purpose illustrated two very important biblical themes that still need to be taken to heart. The first is the sovereignty of God’s will and providence, which is seldom the same as human will and desire. Great patience and openness to the Spirit are necessary. The second is the whole purpose of a human life. We might have grand plans for ourselves and parents often imagine a particular future for their children, but each soul comes into this world marked for God’s purpose. A successful life is not measured by worldly standards but in how it has served God and others.

In John’s theological language, humans are not born as children of God but become so by their faith in Jesus and their reception of the Spirit. While we would probably qualify that statement today, it is still true that living in Christ and encountering Him in a personal way transforms an individual to such a degree that it seems like a new birth. Love and faith are the catalysts for this transformation. A person thus transformed enjoys a personal relationship with God. For John, this is the difference between superficial religious observance and a transformative spirituality.

The worst nightmare for parents is that their children will disappear or be harmed. The Gospel reading from Luke is especially poignant as we mourn the loss of innocent children in Newtown, Conn. The dread and anxiety of Mary and Joseph must have been unbearable as they frantically searched for Jesus and all sorts of dark scenarios probably ran through their minds. We do them a disservice if out of a misplaced piety we attribute to them superhuman foreknowledge and self-control. Mary’s fear turned to irritation and anger when Jesus was found in the temple calmly engaged in theological discussion. She asked Him what they had done to deserve such treatment and to have been put through such an ordeal. His reply was not contrite nor was it what we might expect from a child. He asked them why they had bothered looking for Him — after all, His mission had already begun to lay hold of Him and He had to be about His Father’s business.

In the few years Jesus had been with Mary and Joseph they had taught Him much and they were instrumental in forming His human personality. Soon He would begin to listen to a much higher and more persistent call. Just as in the life of Jesus, the family is where our humanity should be nurtured and developed and where we learn to be about our Father’s business.


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