FEAST OF THE HOLY FAMILY – (26 DECEMBER)
NEITHER DEVALUED NOR IDOLIZED
‘Children are God's gift to the world, and they belong to everyone.’ Here is a phrase that sometimes provokes the jealousy of mothers, jealousy a symptom of a possessive love for their son who is increasingly unique, overprotected, pampered, over-defended. The family is the privileged place of formation and education, but not the only one. There is a community in which the child must be integrated to grow, mature, meet others and learn to be welcoming, freely available, cooperative, tolerant, and forgiving.
Narrowing horizons, complacently retreating into the small world of affections and interests, enclosing oneself within narrow borders that ignore universal brotherhood is a dangerous idolatry of the family institution. The family willed by God is open; it is a stage towards the ultimate goal; it is a springboard from which to project oneself into the family of the heavenly Father.
The moment of separation can be painful—Mary and Joseph experienced it when Jesus left them—and can be interpreted as rejection and exclusion. In reality, it is a leap into life.
To internalize the message, we will repeat: "Children are your gift to the world, Lord. Let us not reject them or take possession of them."
First Reading: 1 Samuel 1:20-22,24-28
In those days Hannah conceived, and at the end of her term bore a son whom she called Samuel, since she had asked the Lord for him. The next time her husband Elkanah was going up with the rest of his household to offer the customary sacrifice to the Lord and to fulfill his vows, Hannah did not go, explaining to her husband, “Once the child is weaned, I will take him to appear before the Lord and to remain there forever; I will offer him as a perpetual nazirite.”
Once Samuel was weaned, Hannah brought him up with her, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of fl our, and a skin of wine, and presented him at the temple of the Lord in Shiloh. After the boy’s father had sacrificed the young bull, Hannah, his mother, approached Eli and said: “Pardon, my lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who stood near you here, praying to the Lord. I prayed for this child, and the Lord granted my request. Now I, in turn, give him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he shall be dedicated to the Lord.” Hannah left Samuel there. —The Word of the Lord.
When God presented to the man the one who was to be the companion of his life, Adam rejoiced with joy and exclaimed: She will be called Eve—in Hebrew hawwah—which is not a proper name but simply means the one who gives life. Life is, therefore, the identity of a woman; everything in her speaks of life, of welcoming, of availability, of life service. In her, life blossoms, germinates, grows and is delivered to the world.
The desire to have a child is rooted in the biological constitution of every woman. Rachel, barren, says to Jacob: "Give me children, or else I shall die!" (Gen 30:1). Like so many other brides in the Bible, Anna could not bear children and therefore suffered immensely. "Why are you weeping," her husband Elkanah asked her one day, "am I not better for you than ten sons?" (1 Sam 1:8). No, not even the tenderness of a sweet and caring spouse was able to compensate for her irrepressible need for motherhood.
God listened to her insistent prayer and granted her a child, Samuel, destined to play a decisive role in the history of the people of Israel. Anne was certainly tempted to consider her only son, the one given to her by heaven, as her own and keep him only for herself. Instead, as soon as he was weaned, she went with her husband to the sanctuary of Shiloh and handed him over to the Lord.
She raised him as long as he needed her, then, happy to have done well in her role as mother, she entrusted him to those who would help him understand the vocation to which God was calling him, to Eli, the priest of the temple. No child belongs to his parents; it is only entrusted to them. It is a precious gift that must be guarded, made to grow, and prepared for the mission to which the Lord destines it. Aware of the arduous task, the parents, grateful to God who deemed them worthy of such trust, do not appropriate the gift received but are happy to hand it over to the Lord so that it may be his instrument in the realization of his plans for the world.
Anna and Elkanah—the narrative notes—came to the house of the Lord in Shiloh, bringing a three-year-old heifer, an ephah of flour, and a jar of wine, and the child was with them (v. 24). They went to celebrate a feast, not to mourn, even though they understood they would return home alone.
With parents so sensitive and attentive to God's plans, it is not surprising that their son Samuel went on to become one of the eminent figures in Israel's history. In the Bible, he is called a seer, a priest, a judge, a prophet, and he wisely guided Israel at a tough time.
Second Reading: 1 John 3:1-2,21-24
Beloved: See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. And so we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence in God and receive from him whatever we ask, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And his commandment is this: we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us. Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them, and the way we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit he gave us. —The Word of the Lord.
The life of God that the Christian receives in baptism is a spiritual, mysterious reality. In speaking to Nicodemus, Jesus used a comparison to describe it: it is like the wind, we cannot see it, we do not know where it comes from or where it goes, yet we know that it exists, we feel it, we notice its effects. The divine life in man cannot be verified with the senses, yet the signs of its presence are unmistakable. Whoever has welcomed it becomes a new man, guided by a spirit no longer of this world.
The passage from John's letter begins with an exclamation of joy: “What great love the Father has given us to be called children of God, and we are truly so!” (v. 1). In the Semitic mentality, children not only gave continuity to the biological life of the father but were considered to make him genuinely present. For this reason, it was expected that the parent would be recognizable in them: by their outward appearance and facial features, certainly, but above all by their moral integrity, their fidelity to God, and the most significant aspects of their character.
The authentic Christian is, in the world, the presence of the divine and, like every son, reproduces the likeness of the Father who is in heaven. The consequence—John explains—is that those who do not know God cannot even recognize the children who he has generated (v. 1). These make choices in harmony with the thoughts and feelings of the Father; they resemble him, they are different from others, they are ‘holy.’ It is not surprising, then, that they are not understood by those who turn their gaze solely to the realities of the earth.
Paul also recalls this truth to the Christians of Corinth. The Lord's disciples, he declares, possess a wisdom, a way to evaluate the reality of this world that is incompatible with the criteria of the judgment of the rulers of this world. It is “a divine, mysterious wisdom that none of the rulers of this world has known ... The natural man cannot understand the things of the Spirit of God. They are foolishness to him, and he is not able to understand” (1 Cor 2:6-14).
After reminding Christians of the dignity of their divine filiation—“we are God’s children”—the author of the letter invites them to contemplate the radiant destiny that awaits them: “What we shall be has not yet been revealed” (v. 2). The present condition is not final. A veil, constituted by our mortal reality tied to the earth, prevents us from realizing what we really are. One day this veil will be removed, and then we will contemplate God as he is and understand what we already are.
In the mother's womb, the child receives nourishment and life from the mother, yet he cannot see her face although entirely dependent on her. Only after birth can he look at and tenderly embrace the one who gave birth to him.
In this world, man lives his gestation while waiting for the moment of birth. He finds himself in the womb of God, who is father and mother. "In him we live and move and exist," Paul reminds the Athenians (Acts 17:28), but we cannot see his face. We know, however, that when he is manifested, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is (v. 2).
Resemblance to our biological parents is an image of the vocation to which we are called: to be like our heavenly Father, “who makes his sun rise on the wicked and on the good, and makes it rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt 5:45).
In the face of such a sublime goal, we are tempted to resign ourselves to failure. Even as we strive to live consistently, we realize that we remain sinners, and John reminds us of this at the beginning of his letter,"If we say that we are without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us" (1 Jn 1:8).
If we take stock of our lives, we are forced to admit that we have made many mistakes, we realize that we have been conditioned by faults and habits that we have not been able to correct; for this reason, we cannot free ourselves from the thought that God also rejects and condemns us, as does our heart. To these perplexities and anxieties, the reading responds with one of the most moving statements in the entire Bible.
If we commit ourselves to concrete love for our brother or sister, we need no longer be afraid of our miseries, our frailties, or even of the severe judgment pronounced by our heart. Whatever our heart may reproach us for, we will be able to reassure it because "God is greater than our heart" (v. 20).
The most devious, the most sinister of temptations is the one that makes us adore a God who, in reality, is smaller than our heart, a God who one day will appear, a severe and inflexible judge, to punish those on whom he does not see the image of his Only Begotten, Jesus Christ, shining clearly. Our heart continually reminds us of our identity as children of our heavenly Father and rebukes us when this identity is disfigured. This rebuke is healthy, but woe betides us when we forget that God is bigger than our hearts.
Gospel: Luke 2:41-52
Each year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, and when he was twelve years old, they went up according to festival custom. After they had completed its days, as they were returning, the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Thinking that he was in the caravan, they journeyed for a day and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances, but not finding him, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man. —The Gospel of the Lord.
Our families, we are sure, cannot be offered a better model of life than that of the family of Nazareth; however, the fact recounted in today's Gospel is somewhat disturbing. Mary and Joseph forget their son in Jerusalem, and for one day, they walk quietly without worrying about him; Jesus leaves his parents without asking for any permission, and when his mother asks him for an explanation of his behavior, he even seems to respond badly to her; Mary and Joseph do not understand his words; only at the end, they remember that Jesus returns to Nazareth and, from there on, he remains submissive to them; this is an excellent decision, but how do we explain his previous ‘disobedience’? It is undeniable that read as a chronicle, this passage presents some difficulties. How to interpret it?
We know that a chance encounter with a person is told quite differently if they are never seen again or have become a best friend. Luke does not write his Gospel the day after the events occurred, but about fifty years after Easter and in every page of his work, he lets faith in the risen Christ shine through. The death and resurrection of Jesus made him and the Christians of his communities understand what Mary and Joseph, seventy years earlier, could not yet grasp. Already in the child of twelve, he recognized the Christ, the Son of God, the Savior, the one who is obedient to the Father to the point of giving his life. After this introduction, let us go into today's passage.
The Israeli law prescribed (only for adult men) a pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year on the main feasts (Ex 23:17; Deut 16:16). For those who lived far away, however, it was practically impossible to observe this precept. Many Jews already considered it a great good fortune to make the holy journey even once in a lifetime. Mary and Joseph, who lived in Nazareth, about three days' journey from Jerusalem, went up there every year to celebrate the Passover.
It was during one of these pilgrimages that the event narrated in today's Gospel occurred. Jesus is twelve years old; he is, therefore, almost of age (at thirteen in Israel, one becomes an adult and must observe all the precepts of the law).
The temple is a splendid building, surrounded by large porticoes under which the rabbis and scribes explain the sacred Scriptures, recite Psalms, and distribute their pious advice to the pilgrims. Jesus is eager to discover the will of the Father, and he knows where to find it: in the holy books of his people, in the Bible. This is the reason why he stops in Jerusalem: he wants to understand the word of God. Walking in the temple during the days of the feast, perhaps he was struck by the explanations given by some teacher who was better prepared and more pious than the others, and he wanted to listen to him again, he tried to ask him questions, he tried to clarify his doubts. The pilgrims who heard him conversing with the rabbis stopped in amazement and admiration for his intelligent and extraordinary intelligence. It is not easy to find a boy of his age who shows such love for the Bible and can raise such profound questions.
The purpose of Luke's account is not to emphasize Jesus' intelligence but to prepare the reader to understand the answer he gives to his mother, who is worried and surprised by his behavior. These are the first words he pronounces in Luke's Gospel; therefore, they have particular importance; they are like the program of his whole life. The answer is formulated with two questions: "Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must attend to the things of my Father?" (v. 49).
Children are wont to ask countless questions; Jesus indeed asked his parents many as well. This is the first time they cannot give him an answer, so their amazement is noted: "They did not understand his words" (v. 50). They realize that he is beginning to distance himself from the narrow family environment and is opening to a broader horizon. He was born into a family, but he does not belong to it. Like every child, he is a citizen of the world and is a gift from God to all humanity.
In apparent contrast to what we are saying, the last part of today's Gospel (vv. 51-52) emphasizes that Jesus returns to Nazareth and is submissive to his parents. It would seem that after the escapade, he gets better at exercising judgment. The meaning of the statement, however, is different. In Israel, there is a commandment to ‘honor one's parents.’ This implies a duty to help them in their old age, but more importantly, follow their religious faith. Parents are charged with telling their children what the Lord has done for his people (Deut 6:20-25). Obeying parents means accepting their teachings and imitating their faithfulness to God. In this sense, Jesus honored his parents, assimilated their deep faith in the God of Abraham and love for God's word to which he would constantly refer throughout his life.
We could end here, but biblical scholars invite a deeper reading of this passage. They are convinced that Luke wrote it to recall, from the very beginning of his Gospel, the facts of the death-resurrection of Jesus in a symbolic way. Which ones? I shall recall some of them.
First, both episodes take place in Jerusalem on the feast of Passover. Both times Jesus goes up to Jerusalem to fulfill the will of the Father, and both times everyone returns to their homes and leaves him alone: his parents go away. They do not understand that he must take care of his Father's affairs; the apostles abandon him and do not understand how the gift of life leads to the glory of the resurrection (Lk 24:12).
As in today's Gospel, in the Easter stories, Jesus must do the Father's will (Lk 24:7,26, 44). The women desperately seek him, do not find him, and hear the same question, "Why do you seek?" (Lk 24:5). Jesus (risen) is encountered ‘on the third day’; the disciples (like Mary and Joseph) understand neither what has happened nor the words that are addressed to them. On Easter Day Jesus sits as a teacher and asks questions about the Scriptures (Lk 24:44), teaches the word of God in a way that ‘warms the heart’ and enraptures his hearers (Lk 24:32), just as he did as a child.
In the temple, the rabbis ask Jesus questions. Although they know the Bible well, they cannot grasp its ultimate meaning. There is only one person who can illuminate the darkness of those texts: Jesus. For it is he who, after the Resurrection, opens the minds of his disciples to the understanding of the Scriptures (Lk 24:32). The Old Testament becomes comprehensible only when it is read in light of Christ's death and resurrection.
If these references to the events of the Passover are intentional—as biblical scholars believe—then the purpose for which Luke included this episode in his Gospel becomes clear: he wants the Christians of his communities not to be discouraged if they are still unable to understand or accept the Father's plan. It is not easy to accept the idea that life passes through death. He invites them not to flee; he wants them to return to Jerusalem where, by observing and listening to the Master, they will gradually allow their hearts to open to the Father's will.
In the face of events that are often inexplicable and incomprehensible, there is only one correct attitude: ‘Keep all things in our hearts,’—as Mary did, and meditate on them in the light of God's word. Even for her, it was not easy to understand and accept the path on which God wanted her son to set out.