By Father Donald Dilger
Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Year B
First Reading: Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14; Response: Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5; Second Reading: Colossians 3:12-21; Gospel: Luke 2:22-40
The first reading is from the Book of Sirach. This is one of five Old Testament books in a class called Wisdom Literature. The others are Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes and the Book of Wisdom.
One finds in them collections of wise sayings, proverbs and historical references. The material is not restricted to Israelite sources. They also relay knowledge of nature, of the skills of scholars and laborers, rules of conduct, and convey the experience that helps cope with life. Piety, as a relationship to God, is not excluded, but is not the chief thrust of Wisdom Literature. Here is the full title of the Book: The Book of the Wisdom of Yeshua ben Eleazar ben Sira. He lived in the late 3rd and early 2nd centuries B.C. The title tells us that the author’s name is Jesus, his father’s name Eleazar, his grandfather’s name Sira (or Sirach). He was a native of Jerusalem, 50:29. He had travelled widely, but was also a scholar of the Scriptures (Old Testament).
The book was originally composed in Hebrew, as Sirach’s grandson states in the foreword. The date of the original composition is about 180 B.C. This may have been a textbook Sirach used in his Jerusalem academy for young men. The Greek version that has come down to us, though in two forms, was translated from Hebrew by Sirach’s grandson between the years 132-117 B.C. in Egypt. The translation was made for the Greek-speaking Jews of the Diaspora, Jews living throughout the Mediterranean world. Back to the academy for young men in Jerusalem: to cope with the world, Sirach’s students needed instruction in all aspects of life as a Jew in a secular world. In today’s liturgy for the Feast of the Holy Family, the instruction is concerned with the honor children owe to their parents. Though our reading speaks more of the honor due to a father, there are also three references to honor due to a mother of a family. Children who honor their parents atone for sins. When they pray, God listens. They will live a long life. If the mind of parents fails, they must still be treated with respect as long as they live. Kindness to elderly parents will not be forgotten by God.
Psalm 128 picks up the family theme. The Psalm is directed to the father of a family and his relationship to his wife and children. If he walks in the ways of the Lord, his blessing will be to eat the fruits of his work. Since a Psalm is a poem, one expects metaphors. For the husband who walks in the Lord’s paths, his wife will be like a fruitful vine (producing children), and their children will be like olive plants around their table. The family is therefore compared with a cultivated garden producing wine and oil — two basic ingredients of Israelite life. The fear of the Lord of which the Psalm speaks is not a servile, cringing fear but reverent awe due to God.
The first part of the second reading can serve as a pattern for a wholesome family life. Its qualities are compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, ready to forgive, love, singing and praying together, admonishing one another, (Does not always work!), and all done in the name of Jesus. The second part instructs individual family members. A husband must love his wife and avoid bitterness toward her. Children must obey parents because this pleases the Lord. Fathers must not anger their children so they do not lose heart. The trouble-maker: “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord.” This expresses a Greek-Roman world in which a husband had even total authority of life and death over his family. We must recall that Paul also taught husbands and wives in Ephesians 5:21, “Be subject to one another, for Christ’s sake.”
Luke’s gospel reading speaks of two Jewish celebrations. The first is the purification of a mother after the birth of a child. The law of purification is found in Leviticus 12:2-8. It must take place 40 days after the birth of a male child, 80 days after the birth of a female child. What was the purpose of this ritual? Through giving birth, a woman became ritually contaminated, probably because of an ancient taboo about loss of blood causing such defilement. According to Genesis 9:4, blood is the life of every creature. All life belongs to God. After spilling blood (life), atonement must be made. An offering was required. Usually the offering was a lamb. Out of compassion for the poor, two young pigeons or turtle doves were offered. The law states, “And the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean.” There is a problem here with later theological development that Mary gave birth as a virgin, which excluded the loss of blood, according to such theology. The catchphrase: “a virgin before, during, and after birth.” Luke wrote his gospel long before theologians went to work on it. Recall that Jesus also underwent John’s baptism “for the forgiveness of sins,” but had no sins to be forgiven.
The second Jewish ritual cited by Luke is the buying back of a child from God. Exodus 13:1-2, “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever opens the womb among the people of Israel is mine.” Exodus 13:15 applies this law only to firstborn males. Why the law in the first place? Exodus 13:15, “When the Pharaoh . . . refused to let us go, the Lord slew all the firstborn . . . in the land of Egypt.” Therefore, the firstborn of Israel belonged to God. In the temple the Holy Family encountered Simeon, a devout man to whom the Holy Spirit promised that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. When he saw the child, he took him in his arms, and sang a hymn, which is to this day used in the official night prayer of the Church, the Nunc Dimittis, so called because of the first two words in Latin. Simeon proclaims that “this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, a sign that will be contradicted, that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” Mary will not escape that contradiction. Simeon speaks to her, “A sword will pierce through your own soul also.” The four gospels all reveal difficulties Mary faced because of her unusual Son. That is the sword. The Holy Family also encounters an elderly widow, a prophetess Anna, who “spoke about the child and the redemption of Israel.”