THE FEAST OF THE HOLY FAMILY OF JESUS, MARY, AND JOSEPH, December 27, 2015

(There are several options for the readings for this Feast)

Dear Jesus,

As you know, the Sunday that falls between the feasts of Christmas and the octave day of that Feast is dedicated to the celebration of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.  It is a feast fraught with difficulties, isn’t it?  Sometimes I wonder what it is that we are celebrating.  What are the challenges that we are supposed to meet?  What is the conversion that you want the hearts of the Assembly to experience?

It would be easy to have a sentimental, albeit, even a maudlin time imagining romantic crèches with hovering angels and adoring shepherds and Magi.  We are quick to combine Luke’s tradition and Matthew’s.  Depictions of the Holy Family are always serene.  I remember laughing at one rendering of the Family in bronze that I came upon in a church.  There was Joseph in the carpenter’s shop, your mother, looking in from the doorway, at you, as a teenager.  The parents smiled while you made crosses from pieces of wood you took from the floor.  What parents would be pleased to watch their son forming implements of execution?

I am certain you would tell us that if we pay attention, there is nothing sentimental in the readings for the Feast.  Violence and rejection lurk in every line of the Gospel.  Societal conventions are challenged in the other readings.  If we wallow in sentimentality, nothing will happen.  We won’t squirm.  We won’t hear you calling us to reform.  We will miss the Social Gospel that is being proclaimed, the Gospel that is society’s challenge and hope.

The Scriptures are the living word of God.  We make a mistake if as we listen we only look back.  The proclamations touch the now.  They are meant to confront our present situation and us.  In the end, this Feast isn’t an opportunity to experience a day in the life of your family.  We are to be confronted by how the powerful can oppress the little ones, the poor, and the vulnerable.  You want us to see these as very real and present evils.  You want us to recognize that there is one family of which we are all a part.  The poor and the vulnerable are our brothers and sisters.  Alas, so are the oppressors.  God means for us to live in community and love.  That’s the message of this Year of Mercy that pope Francis has proclaimed.

The fourth commandment of the Decalogue demands that children honor their parents.  Shouldn’t that be a matter of doing what comes naturally?  Will a commandment make a difference to one who does not have innate gratitude and respect for the ones who are the source of his life, for the ones who nurtured her from birth to maturity?  Of course all this assumes right relationships, doesn’t it?  Am I correct in thinking that the honor commanded is due for more than simple engendering?  Everyone deserves basic respect.  The commanded reverence and honor is for more than giving birth.  After all, it may not always be the birth parents that are the nurturers.  The father and mother may be the ones who adopt the child and raise him as their own.  They step in and make up for what birth parents might lack in parenting skills and those who are not able to keep their little ones.

There are problems with the second reading that often chosen from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians.  Dare I say that the first part of the reading is fine and ought to be proclaimed often as a guide for how people ought to live in relationships including familial; but also beyond that to relationships in the faith community that is church; and beyond that to include relationships with our sisters and brothers at large?  We are urged as God’s beloved ones, to put on compassion.  Doesn’t that mean that we are called to be willing to suffer with the suffering, the way you did, and not be embarrassed by their plight?  Shouldn’t compassion be normative in a faith community?  These in the church are our brothers and sisters in you.

I read what I have written to you and wonder if I can do this.  I listen to the litany of virtues that Paul urges me to put on and I wonder if I can be that vulnerable.  Where will my defenses be?  Kind, humble, gentle, and patient – I think I can only be all these for others if I am able to admit my own sins, shortcomings, and weaknesses.  I would have to admit that in all humility I would need the kindness, gentleness and patience of my sisters and brothers in Christ as I ask them to bear with me.  Then there is the possibility of imitating you in this way and then winding up on the cross the way you did.

See how these Christians love one another.  That is supposed to be a frequent observation made by those outside the early church.  Is it true that the desire to experience that love was the driving force compelling many who sought to become converts?  Does today’s church have the reputation for being lavish in forgiveness?  Am I a good forgiver?  We will be, I will be, if we remember that we are a community of sinners who have been forgiven.

Shouldn’t we be challenged to reflect our God who is lavish in mercy and forgiveness and so have the reputation for being good at forgiving and reconciling?  Maybe I will do a better job at that if I never forget the joy I feel in being reconciled and forgiven.

All I have written above challenges me.  I look to you for support.  Then, you might ask why I said there were problems with this second reading.  The problem is not with Paul’s admonition: whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.  The problem I have is with Paul’s urging wives to be subordinate to their husbands.  Subordination is wrong where ever it occurs.  There is no place for it in the church.  Pope Francis said that he serves next to, not over others.  You modeled service for us.  I stand in your midst as one who serves.  You washed your disciples’ feet.  As I have done for you, so ought you do for one another.

But that is not subordination.  It is mutuality of service.  Is it true, then, that to the degree that wives are subordinate to their husbands, husbands ought to be subordinate to their wives?  Or better, where is their room for subordination at all, since the two have become one flesh in you?  Paul was obviously acknowledging the attitudes of his day.  Women had no legal standing on their own then.  At least Paul urged love.  Wouldn’t it be wrong to use this text today as a justification for keeping women in their place?  Love is the challenge and the standard.

Come to think of it, it is a good thing the reading stops where it does.  Otherwise, how would we deal with the seeming endorsement of slavery?  I don’t think many use that text to support that horrid institution.  Neither should they use his preceding paragraph to justify the wife’s subordination to the husband.

It is good that we have this Feast of the Holy Family each year.  Help me to recognize that as I gather with my sisters and brothers around your table, that it is as equals and co-celebrants that we gather.  It is as the forgiven that we celebrate and give thanks.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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