THE HOLY FAMILY (A) December 29, 2019

Sirach 3:2-7,12-14; Psalm 128;

Colossians 3: 12-21; Matthew 2: 13-15,19-23

By: Jude Siciliano, OP

We still have Christmas crèches in full view in our churches and under our Christmas trees at home. They depict idyllic scenes that fit well with almost everyone’s favorite carol, "Silent Night, Holy Night" – "all is calm, all is bright." Really? Today’s gospel suggests anything but "calm and bright" for the Holy Family. What they are experiencing is more about turmoil, fear and haste.

Matthew moves us quickly from the stable of Jesus’ birth, to the visit of the Magi and then rapidly to today’s scene – the need for Jesus’ parents to flee to protect their child. Today’s passage, with its strong undertones of the dangers the child faces, suggests the threats to his life he will encounter when he is an adult.

What drastic steps Jesus’ parents must take to keep the child out of Herod’s hands! Imagine how difficult it must have been for this simple couple to break family and village ties, take the child and flee to a foreign land. Does it sound like what is happening in South of our border these days? We can also draw images from the newspapers, television and Internet of families doing the same things today all over the world: fleeing civil war, natural disasters, cruel oppression in their land, or the need to cross borders illegally to find work to support and feed their families. Today could easily be dedicated as the feast of refugees and migrant families, for God’s heart is squarely in the midst of these poor and rejected families who have had to uproot themselves, as Jesus’ family did, just to survive.

What Matthew makes clear in today’s account is that God is concerned and is guiding this family – just as God protected and guided the people of Israel out of the grip of previous tyrants. This should not surprise us because the infancy narrative and indeed, all scripture, is one continuous story of God’s love and concern for society’s least. The Holy Family symbolizes God’s hopes for the well-being of all families, especially those victimized by outside, oppressive forces.

Joseph and Mary exhibit what all families should: the loving care and protection for their younger and more vulnerable members. Tragically that is not always the case and there are emotional and physically wounded members in our congregations; people carrying hurts they received in their homes that have stayed with them all their lives. The notion of a "holy family" is a contradiction in terms for them. I wonder if there couldn’t be a prayer for healing, or an inclusion in the Prayer of the Faithful, for such people today, invoking the help of the Holy Family?

It’s not just families undergoing exceptional stress that concern us today. "Ordinary families" have more than enough pressure on them in their daily lives. Many of our members are part of two-career families. Many poor parents have more than one job. Children also have early pressures on them to over achieve and be involved in multiple extra school activities. Just having a dinner with all the family members around the table together may be more the exception than the rule of modern family life. Thus the preacher needs to be careful not to paint an unrealistic and idyllic picture of the Holy Family and hold that ideal as a model for the modern family. Remember, except for married deacons, celibate preachers probably have little up-close experience of what family life is like these days.

There are plenty of internal pressures on family life. What Paul advises for the first Christians of Colossae would be good advice for how family members should treat one another.

"Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, bearing with one another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do."

The biblical reader will note how Matthew depicts Jesus. Jesus is reprising the history of his people, especially the chief events of Israel’s past leaders and patriarchs, David and Moses. Matthew briefly dispatches Herod from the story. One earthly king is put aside because the true King of the Jews has been born. The Magi had been searching for the King of the Jews and they found him. Matthew links Jesus to David, for he is taken by his parents from Bethlehem, the home of Israel’s shepherd king. Jesus leaves Israel for Egypt and we are reminded of Moses, the infant, who was protected from the murderous pharaoh. Events in Jesus’ life are not just coincidental, for Matthew is following a "fulfillment theme" throughout the gospel. Who Jesus is and what happens to him are meant to remind the reader of the prophecies about him. God has not forgotten the chosen people, their new king has arrived.

Finally, this King of the Jews is not brought back from Egypt in royal splendor and placed on a throne. When the danger is past the family returns in obscurity to settle in Nazareth, an insignificant village. Once again Matthew reminds us how Jesus fulfills the Scriptures, "...so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled. He shall be called a Nazorean." All through this narrative Matthew makes it clear that through the angelic messengers, God is protecting this new ruler of Israel.

At the beginning of Christianity believers met in each other’s homes to pray and worship together. We were, what our tradition calls, a "domestic church." The American bishops, in their National Catechetical Directory entitled, "Sharing the Light of Faith," reminded us that the Christian family is "the basic community within which faith is nurtured."

Certainly in Jesus’ life that was true. He was born a Jew and raised in a Jewish family. Judging from what the Gospels tell us, this was a devout family that followed the practices of the Jewish faith. At home he first learned his Scriptures and religious values and observed religious rituals. As devout Jews the family would have prayed together. I grew up among Jewish families and it was obvious to us observers that the Jewish faith, besides being practiced in the local synagogues and the neighborhood temple, was an "at-home religion." Perhaps that’s how they were able to survive so many centuries of persecution. When they couldn’t worship publicly they could still worship together in their homes. Remember that some of the most important Jewish feasts, especially Passover, are celebrated at home.

We Christians stress our communal worship, especially our Sunday Eucharist. But we are also encouraged to take our faith home with us. Thus, for example, this past Advent season we had Advent wreaths in our homes with accompanying prayers we could say with our family. Most of our homes also display crucifixes, religious images, statues, candles, holy water, etc. What we do together on Sundays should have its roots in what we have done together at home – sharing food, prayers and simple rituals. In numerous ways we learn in our homes what we express at each Sunday worship – that we are the body of Christ. What we begin in the church of our homes, we gather here in church to express. We are a family who are nourished by our God through Word, Sacrament and one another.

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings: