Holy Family 27th Dec 2020
In this year, YEAR B of the Lectionary Cycle, we may be forgiven if we are a bit surprised at the Gospel reading for the Feast of the Holy Family for it tells us of Our Lord being Presented in the Temple at Jerusalem when he was just forty days old. Mary and Joseph were, as good Jews, properly complying with the Mosaic Law and the story is significant for a number of reasons and Luke tells it in its fullness. The Law required that every first-born male must be consecrated to the Lord and, to redeem their offering, the Holy Couple had to offer in sacrifice a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons – this was the minimum offering required and indicates that Mary and Joseph were poor in terms of this world`s property and goods.
It is significant too that the devout man Simeon was in Jerusalem at the same time and was prompted by the Spirit to visit the Temple and it had been revealed to him that he would not die before setting his eyes on the Christ of the Lord. As the parent of Jesus brought the Holy Child into the Temple Simeon realised immediately that this was The One he had been waiting to see and he took the Child Jesus into his arms and blessed God in those wonderful words, known as the Nunc Dimittis, which is now recited daily at Evening Prayer in the Church of England and at Night Prayer in the Catholic Church: `Now, Master, you can let your servant go in peace, just as you promised; because my eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all the nations to see, a light to enlighten the pagans and the glory of your people Israel.` The words of Simeon proclaim that this Child, the Messiah is not just the fulfilment of Israel but, indeed, for ALL NATIONS! These are words of triumph, fulfilment, and hope but they are swiftly followed by warning. As we might say today, Mary and Joseph were gob-smacked at what Simeon was doing and saying as he blessed them and then said to Mary, `You see this Child: he is destined for the for the fall and the rising of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is rejected – and a sword will pierce your own soul too – so that the secret thoughts of many will be laid bare.`
As if this were not enough the prophetess, Anna, now eighty-four years old, a consecrated widow who spent all her life in fasting and prayer in the Temple began praising God and spoke of the Child to all who looked forward to the deliverance of Jerusalem.
Holy Mother Church tells us that we should take the Holy Family as the perfect example of Family Life but they are hardly the Family next door though, increasingly it seems, children are conceived out of wedlock fairly frequently in our own age. Jesus was certainly conceived out of wedlock but then His Father was the first person of the Holy Trinity and he was conceived in the womb of Mary His Mother by the power of the Holy Spirit with Joseph manfully stepping in at God`s invitation as his protector and foster-father.
We have been prepared for the unusualness of the situation by the story of Abram and Sarai his wife and the miraculous birth of their Son, Isaac, showing that nothing is impossible to God and the obedience of Abraham. Yet there is the record of Abram, as it were, complaining to God that He had left him and his wife Sarai without an heir! God tells Abram. `Look up to heaven and count the stars if you can. Such will be your descendants. Abraham trusted God and the Lord dealt kindly with Sarah, as he had said he would and she conceived and bore to Abraham their son Isaac. the short reading from Ecclesiasticus chapter 3 reminds us of how the Lord upholds the right of a mother over her sons and has some wonderful things to say about how children are to treat their parents.
In the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews we hears of how the faith of both Abraham and Sarah had made possible the beginning of the Israel of God – the Chosen People and how it was by faith that Abraham, when put to the test was prepared to offer his son Isaac in sacrifice and how that God, as it were, brought Isaac back from the dead, when he provided a ram in the thicket for a sacrifice to take Isaac`s place. And it is indeed through Isaac and Jacob that Abraham`s name is carried on in the Children of Israel!
This is perhaps why we know so little about the life of Jesus, apart from the Holy Family`s exile in Egypt, the return to Nazareth from the age of twelve, after His being found in the Temple, to about the age of thirty. We hear no more in scripture about the foster-father of Jesus, St. Joseph, though it is likely that Mary had become a widow and Jesus, in loving-obedience both to the Law of Moses and to His earthly parents carried on the small family carpenter`s business to sustain both Mary and himself in compassion and obedience until his baptism, reluctantly, by Cousin John in the waters of the River Jordan from which time, after the seclusion of forty days in the Wilderness of Judea, where he was, apparently, discerning the will of His Heavenly Father, for the three-year ministry he was to carry out, for the most part, in Galilee which, we forget, was at the centre of an international trading area from north to south and east to west. The Lord`s ministry was not just to the Chosen People but, by its very location, having an international influence.
All the readings are, in fact, about response and loving obedience. Firstly, the call of the Old Testament, and then that of Mary and Joseph who in one sense, having accepted that call to bring into the world the Son of God, got on with the business of the Jewish Rites of purification and of the redemption of their child who is truly in his Divine Nature the second person of the Holy Trinity and then the years in exile in Egypt until the death of King Herod in AD 6 or even after.
The lesson for us is very much the same lesson that came to Mary and Joseph in so many ways in the time that both led up to the birth of the Son of God and, indeed, the revelations they received to protect him from Herod and to escape into Egypt. The lessons are simple, that we must have faith, discernment to understand and perceive what God is asking of each one of us – and, perceiving, to obey His divine will. It is this kind of obedience that will set us up in the right way as we approach this New Year and as we give thanks for the blessings and the trials of the past year and look forward in hope for what God , in His mercy, has in store for each of us.