Reading 1: 1 Sm 1:20-22, 24-28
Responsorial Psalm: 128:1-2,3, 4-5
Reading 2: Col 3:12-17
Gospel: Luke 2:41-52
Some will remember the popular depictions of family life by Norman Rockwell that graced the covers of magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post. Around Thanksgiving or Christmas there would be portraits of a (very) happy extended family gathered at the dinner table, either with heads bent saying gracing or beaming with anticipation while Dad carved the turkey at the head of the table.
This Sunday after Christmas we celebrate the Holy Family and through them offer thanks to God for the gift of family life, in which Jesus himself was formed and where he no doubt found comfort and safety.
The Lectionary for today offers us alternate readings. Some of them move in the Norman Rockwell direction, while others reflect the circumstances of the real families we all experience—moments of love and joy but also times of tension and anxiety.
For example, one choice for the first reading is a passage from the Book of Sirach which speaks in glowing terms about the reverence due one’s father in his role as head of the family. Reflecting the traditional view of family in the world of the Bible, it calls for honoring the father who “confirms the mother’s authority over her sons.” The adult child who honors his father will be “gladdened by children,” have his prayers “heard,” will “live a long life,” and, in honoring the father, will “bring comfort to his mother.”
But the alternate first reading from 1 Samuel reflects a more challenging reality. We learn that Hannah, the wife of Elkanah, has conceived a child (the future prophet Samuel who will anoint David as king), but the previous chapter was a story of heartbreak. Hannah desperately wanted a child but was sterile. Her husband was understanding but his other wife (this was in the days of old) mocked her. In a famous scene Hannah prays at the shrine of Shiloh, disconsolate and weeping. Fortunately, the prayer of Eli the priest at the shrine gave her the hope of new life and wondrously she conceived a child.
There is also a choice for the Responsorial Psalm. Psalm 128 is bursting with praise about the beauty of family life enjoyed by those who “fear the world and walk in his ways.” The wife shall be “like a fruitful vine;” one’s children like “olive plants around your table.” Such a fortunate family will “see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life.”
The alternate Psalm 84 is not so sure. The psalmist “yearns and pines for the living God,” longing to find God and crying out, “O Lord of hosts, hear our prayer; hearken, O God of Jacob!” This is the voice of those who have known suffering and anxiety—looking to find solace in God’s presence.
The two New Testament readings for today also reflect a more nuanced experience of family life.
The selection from the Letter to the Colossians urges the recipients to live a life of “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another…as the Lord has forgiven you.” Each of these virtuous acts assume the lived experience of family life—not ideal, sometime failing, yet striving to live together in the spirit of Jesus.
And, finally, there is the remarkable glimpse into the life of the Holy Family through Luke’s account of the visit of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to Jerusalem for his bar mitzvah. Of course, Luke wants to highlight Jesus’ exceptional gifts even as a young boy and depicts him in the temple dazzling the teachers gathered there. But this is also a story of parental heartache and anguish triggered by a lost child and the lingering misunderstanding even after he is found: “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”
The account ends with Mary pondering “all these things in her heart.” And so should we—giving thanks to God for the gift of our families, asking forgiveness for our failings, and striving to live in a spirit of love.