Brief synopsis of the readings: Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family and we are given a choice of first readings. I have chosen Genesis over Sirach as the book of Sirach is not accepted by Protestant Christians. In Genesis, God promised Abram a great reward. This puzzled Abram as he had no children. But God led him outside and pointed to the stars in the sky. He then told Abram that his descendants would number more than the stars. This is where Abram’s name was changed to Abraham, and he and Sarah were blessed with a child, Isaac. Luke’s Gospel continues the birth narrative. As was the custom, Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple to present him. While in Jerusalem they encountered Simeon, an old man who had been promised he would like to see the Christ (the anointed one). Upon seeing the infant Jesus, Simeon proclaimed that he can now die in peace for he saw the anointed one. After that they encountered Anna who had been widowed for 77 years and spent her days in the Temple. She also gave thanks for seeing Jesus and spoke to all who awaited the deliverance of Jerusalem.
Many of us confess to mixed feelings about the Feast of the Holy Family. As much as know about Jesus, we know relatively little about Mary, and next to nothing about Joseph. Of the four Gospels, two of them (Mark and John) make no mention of the Holy Family, or, for that matter, Jesus as a child.
And of the two Gospels who do feature the Holy Family (Matthew and Luke), they give dramatically different accounts. In Matthew the Holy Family finds themselves in danger for their lives as Herod was warned about Jesus and decreed that all male infants should be murdered. The fled to Egypt and stayed there until Herod died.
But in today’s Gospel from Luke we find a much less violent story of Jesus’ first days. Here Joseph, Mary, and the newly circumcised Jesus come to Jerusalem to be purified, and take takes some explanation. Jews at that time (and even today among Orthodox communities) could be “unclean” and needed to be purified. While unclean they could not touch other people (hopefully excluding her newborn child). This may sound strange to modern sensibilities but women were deemed unclean during their periods and seven days after. Also anyone is unclean who touches a dead body. There are many more examples, but you get the point.
But today’s presentation of Jesus in the Temple gives us only a backdrop for the encounters with Simeon and Anna. Given the bewildering circumstances of Jesus’ conception and birth I suspect that at this point Joseph and Mary must have felt ready for anything. When she was growing up I imagine that when Mary thought about presenting her first child at the Temple this wasn’t what she envisioned.
And let’s face it: a year ago none of us envisioned what Christmas 2020 would end up looking like. As has been said over and over, this has been a difficult and painful year.
Perhaps it’s also called us to look anew not only at the Holy Family but at our own families as well. This year we’ve been blessed with a newfound awareness of frontline workers in hospitals and nursing homes. Not just doctors and nurses (though certainly them) but also home health aides, certified nursing assistants, and housekeeping staff. By the way, I wish to give a particular shout out to the housekeeping staff. They are the ones who sterilize rooms and linens and dispose of medical waste. In a society when we think nothing of throwing something away, they are the ones who catch what we throw.
And yes, I’m aware of others on the front line: grocery workers, restaurant workers, and everyone who comes in close contact with the public.
Those people in our lives who we’ve seen this year with new eyes aren’t family in the strictest sense. They are not coming over for Christmas dinner and we don’t exchange Christmas cards, but in another sense they are. Because of COVID they’ve come into our lives in a new way and we’ve gotten closer.
Families have always been more complex that we’ve imagined. I have to confess a frustration with the sanitized version of the Holy Family that we’ve all seen. Many of us were told that our families paled in comparison with Joseph, Mary and Jesus. They never fought and were so holy they practically glowed.
Right. In my time tracing my family tree I’ve seen countless fractured, blended, and alternative families. When I lived in San Francisco I met several people who formed new families after their biological families rejected them over issues of orientation. I knew an otherwise well respected man who rejected his adoptive grandchild because she was of a different race.
When that happens we need to reimagine what family means to us, and sometimes it calls us outside of our comfort zone. It also calls us to heal, forgive, and reconcile. We also need to understand that the Holy Family was itself a blended family. Technically, Jesus’ biological father was the Holy Spirit. We don’t know what people of his time knew about this, but they had to know that Jesus was conceived out of wedlock, as Joseph and Mary weren’t married.
But getting back to our friends Simeon and Anna, they did look beyond this and found something life changing in meeting Jesus and they communicated this to all gathered. We can only imagine how many lives they changed that day.
My prayer for all of us is that somewhere in our lives we have a Simeon and Anna to speak the truth about us. And I pray that we can be the Simeon and Anna for someone else and tell the truth about them.