Commentary on the Readings
FEAST OF THE HOLY FAMILY – December 31
THE ELDERLY: BUILDERS OF A YOUNG WORLD
The sons of Eli, the priest of the Lord at Shiloh, were depraved and did not pay any attention to the calls of the father (1 S 2:12). One day a man of God appeared to Eli who told him: "In your household no one will live to a ripe old age" (1 S 2:32). It was not the promise that his descendants would be freed from the hassles related to the care of elderly and sick people, but the announcement of a terrible calamity. Educators of new generations, the guardians of the sacred traditions, the leaders the transmission of the faith would be forever missed. His grandchildren would never have experienced the commotion of the psalmist who exclaimed, "With our ears, O God, we have heard: our ancestors have declared to us the works you did in their days " (Ps 44:1-2).
In Israel there was the commandment "Honor your father and mother", however, the formation of new generations was often marked by tension and conflict. There were spoiled, arrogant and judicious young people (1 K 12:8). There were wise old men who watched, with serenity and trust, beyond the narrow horizons of their time. There were also dull old peole who fought for a nostalgic return to the past, trying in every way to curb the impulses toward the future.
The prophets indicate that generational reconciliation is the sign of the advent of the Messianic era. The Old Testament closes with the announcement of the return of Elijah who will reconcile parents with their children and children with their parents (Mal 3:24). The New Testament opens with the words of the angel to Zechariah: "Elizabeth will bear you a son; he will be great in the eyes of the Lord; he will reconcile fathers and children" (Lk 1:13-17).
In families where there is no elderly person, life can, at times, be easier, but it is certainly the poorest of humanity.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
"Even when my strength lessens, my heart will remain young."
Sirach, a book of the Old Testament, contains many good and useful counsels for many different situations in life. It teaches how to deal with friends, with guests, with women, how to manage money, rapports to maintain with the leaders, with the servants, with the disciples ... A good part of the book is devoted to family life, to the duties of husband and wife, the obligations of children to their parents and vice versa. Some delightful verses can be usefully read such as Sirach 30:1-13 and 42:9-14, although some of its teachings can no longer be applied to the letter: some educational methods are definitely outdated.
The author, a certain Ben Sirah, from whom the book takes is name, is a wise rabbi who lived in 200 BC. He is a scholar of the Bible who has assimilated the message and from which he draws counsels for all.
At the time of Jesus, Sirach, although not included in the holy books of Israel, was used by teachers to educate young people. Even Christians have always appreciated it. In fact, after the Psalms, it was the most widely read book of all the Old Testament. The book was also called Ecclesiasticus in the past. It means “book to be read in the churches.”
The passage mentioned in today's reading speaks of the duties of children towards their parents. We introduce it recalling the first verse of the chapter, not mentioned in the reading. It allows us to caputre the identity of the author. He is a father of the family concerned with teaching his own children the way of life: "My children, it is your father who speaks, listen to me and follow my advice, and so be saved" (Sir 3:1).
To save in the Bible means "to put in a large, spacious place." Its opposite is to enslave, to reduce to straits. Taught by experience accumulated over the years, Ben Sirach knows that young people run the risk of withdrawing into their projects, to think only of themselves. So, for a misunderstood yearning for a complete independence, they can fall into the most subtle of hardship, that of selfishness. There is a way to save them from the narrowness of the heart: to educate them to gratitude, making them sensitive to the needs of others, especially the needs of those from whom they have received life. "Honor your father with your whole heart and do not be forgetful of the sufferings of your mother. Remember that they gave you birth. How can you repay them for what they have done for you?" (Sir 7:27- 28).
In the first part of the reading (vv. 2-6), Ben Sirach summed up with the term to honor the behavior that the children should have towards their parents. He repeats this verb five times and applies it equally to both the father or the mother. In a world in which women were still discriminated and considered inferior to men, this is no recent news. This is not an absolute novelty, because Ben Sirach has inherited it from the holy books of his people. The first commandment that appears, after those pertaining to God, is that: "Honor your father and your mother" (Ex 20:12; Dt 5:16).
The first, most obvious and immediate meaning of the verb to honor is to render honor. The children are asked to lead a good, whole and correct life so that parents can feel proud of them.
The second duty of children expressed with the verb to honor is to provide financial assistance to parents when they are in need. At the time of Ben Sirach the elderly did not receive pension. After a lifetime of hard work and sacrifice, they were sometimes forced to live in straitened, humiliating circumstances. No child should endure to see their parents in such conditions.
Finally, there is a third meaning of the word honor. In Hebrew it means: to have weight. Parents are to be honored, while continuing to give them the weight they deserve. It is a dramatic experience for older people to feel snubbed, sometimes even derided and to realize that their words, advice, recommendations and gestures of affection no longer have any weight.
The love of children for their parents is something God appreciates. This is clearly evident from the promises of blessings given to those who take care of father and mother. Ben Sirach enumerates five.
The love of parents—he says—atones for sins (v. 3.14). It does not mean that God reduces the debt that one may have against him in proportion to the services rendered to the parents. To show their attention to their parents, giving them love and care is an opportunity not to let go. It makes one mature, helps to discover the true values of life, detaches from what is ephemeral and away from sin.
Love of parents makes one acquire treasures before God (v. 4). Maybe before people it makes one lose time, reducing the chances of success and accumulating wealth in this world. The assessment to take into account is not that of people, but that which the Lord gives at the end of life.
Those who honor their parents will in turn be honored by their children (v. 5). Wise judgment! Children, as we know, learn with their eyes more than with the ears. They see and do not forget the behavior of their parents towards their grandparents.
The attention given to children can also be manifestations of possessive love, the ones given to the grandparents, especially when they are in need of everything, can never be misunderstood. They are unrivaled life lesson.
The prayer of one who honors the parents will be granted (v. 5). The love of parents produces an inner feeling, brings closer to God. When this love is lacking, the rapport with the Lord becomes a formality, a cold and heartless religious practice not to God’s interest.
Finally, those who honor their parents will have a long life (v. 6). Only much later (in the second century b.C.) the belief in a life after death started in Israel. Before they thought only in terms of this earthly life, so that the highest good was to die as Abraham "in a good old age, after a full span of years" (Gen 25:8). The promise of blessing for those who take care of their parents could not be missed (Dt 5:16; Ex 20:12).
In the second part of the reading (vv. 12-14) how to behave towards elderly parents is suggested. It is possible that the weakening could not only be physical but also mental. To take care of one who lost his memory, who repeats the same boring and sometimes even offensive phrases, is very heavy. That's the time to show up the depth of one’s affection.
The reading speaks only of the duties of the children and it is understandable ... Ben Sirach is an old man. Rightly, the children would like to address a word to their parents because—as we know—they are not always exemplary. Should they be "honored" anyway?
True love is always free and unconditional. A person is not loved because he is good but he becomes good by loving him. If this applies to all, it especially applies with regards to parents. Loving them does not mean favoring their flaws and limitations, endorsing their caprices, but to understand and help them. They are not "honored" if one does not try to get them overcome certain rude behaviors, certain obnoxious habits, certain ways of impolite speaking.
When they create irrecuperable situations ... then all that remains is patience.
The dress is important. It differentiates us from the animals that go naked. It is an extension of our body. It reveals our tastes and our feelings, shows if we are happy or in mourning, having a day of celebration or business. It cannot be imposed, because everyone has the right to choose the image one wants to give of oneself.
In biblical language, the dress is the symbol of the works that externally manifest the interior disposition, the choices of the heart.
The Christian who in baptism has risen with Christ to new life, cannot continue to wear old habit. "You must give up your former way of living, the old self, whose deceitful desires bring self-destruction" (Eph 4:22-24)—Paul recommends. The same image occurs at other times: "Put on the Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom 13:14), "have put on Christ" (Gal 3:27). The letter to the Colossians also recalls it:: "You have put on the new man" (Col 3:10), and it is developed in the following verses. It is today’s reading.
In the first part (vv. 12-15), Paul lists the characteristics of the Christian habit: "Put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, to bear with one another and forgive whenever there is any occasion to do so." We count the fabrics of which it is made: there are seven and all fine, almost impossible to find.
But the description of the Christian habit is not yet complete. One must also gird oneself with a bond (love) that gives a touch of elegance and finesse to everything else. This cannot be reduced to a vague feeling, but manifests itself in a constant attitude of service to the brother, the willingness to sacrifice oneself for the brethren.
This habit is not reserved only to anyone. Every Christian should wear it; it's the same for everyone: men and women, priests, nuns and lay people. It should be worn day and night and cannot be taken off.
In the middle of reading (vv. 16-17) some ways are indicated to maintain or build harmony among family members.
"Let the word of Christ dwell in you in all its richness" (v. 16). It is an invitation to meditate together on the Gospel. The family that, on a regular basis, finds time to devote to reading a page of the Gospel, provides a solid basis to always be in agreement and makes enlightened choices.
"You teach and admonish one another" (v. 16). When agreement is created by the choice of the word of Christ as a reference point, it is possible to engage in a constructive dialogue. The counsels and comments are not interpreted as undue interference, as constraint in what does not concern us, but as manifestations of loving care for the person one loves.
"With thankful hearts sing to God, hymns and spontaneous praise."
How many tricks, how many strategies we make to achieve that mutual trust, harmony, concord reign in our families. Paul suggests his way: family prayer.
In the third part of the reading (vv. 18-21), Paul applies the law of love to the rapports between members of the Christian family. Above all, he says that women should be submissive to their husbands, then recommends them to love their wives.
Women usually do not like Paul’s language at all and wonder why he did not tell also to the husbands: "Be subject to your wives."
It must be recognized that the wives have good reason to complain, but what Paul really meant to say must be understood. It is true that he does not use the word to serve for the husbands, but employs another one that means exactly the same thing: to love. Does "to love" mean "to become a slave" for a Christian?
The Master has dictated to his men and women disciples, without distinction, the rule that should guide behavior: "And if you want to be the first of all, make yourself the servant of all. Be like the Son of Man who has come, not to be served but to serve"(Mt 20:27-28).
In the concluding verse Paul asks from the sons obedience. Unlike Ben Sirach, he has a word for parents: beware not to fall into authoritarianism that does not educate, but stiffens, creates distrust and exasperates the children.
The Jewish law required that all first-born, both of men and of animals, should be offered to the Lord (Ex 13:1-16). The children, who obviously could not be sacrificed, were redeemed. The parents brought to the priests of the temple a pure animal to be sacrificed in place of the son. The rich were offering a lamb, the poor a couple of turtle doves or pigeons. Mary and Joseph submitted to this provision. Luke did not miss the opportunity to point out that the family of Nazareth was not able to offer a lamb, that they were poor.
After recalling this theme, the evangelist immediately introduces a second: the scrupulous observance by the holy family, of all the requirements of the law of the Lord. Insistently and almost excessively reiterating it (vv. 22.214.171.124.39), he wishes to emphasize that, from the earliest years of his life, Jesus has faithfully fulfilled the Father's will, expressed in the Holy Scriptures.
The message is addressed to all Christian parents. Their duty is not only to give the children an education, work and an insertion into the fabric of civil society. They are called to a most important mission: to consecrate their children to the Lord, from the earliest days of their lives. They should not subject them to special rites, but to instill in them deep convictions. Educating in the faith is more than just teaching prayers and imposing the fulfillment of religious practices. It means putting in the hearts of the children the love for "the way" traveled by Jesus, to offer them to the Lord that they will become builders of peace and a new world.
We know that children learn more with the eyes than with the ears. The Christian life of the parents is the best way to give catechesis to the children. If parents pray at home, the children learn to pray with them; if the parents read the Bible, the children learn to seek the light of their lives in God's word; if parents participate faithfully to the meetings of the Christian community, the children will follow and become committed Christians; if parents practice love, forgiveness, generosity towards the brothers/sisters, the children imitate them. That's how Christian parents consecrate their children to the Lord.
In the second part of the passage (vv. 25-35), which is the center of today's Gospel, an old man, Simeon enters. He is described as "a just man and fears God, awaiting the consolation of Israel" (v. 25 ).
As they years pass by, bittnerness often accumulates and older people like to look back to the past. The days come when one says: "They make me sick!", in which one sleeps little and badly, "the sparrow stops chirping and the bird-song is silenced" (Ecl 12:1-4). Then they willingly take refuge in the memory of youth; abandon themselves to a melancholy regret and exclaim with Ecclesiastes: "Youth and dark hair will not last" (Ecl 11:10).
Simeon teaches how to grow old. He also remembers, but has no regrets; no recriminations on the present, does not complain that "the former times were better" (Ecl 7:10). He remembers God's promises and awaits the fulfillment with unwavering confidence.
It's an old example: He does not want to return a young man because he knows of having fulfilled his own life, leaving himself always guided by the Spirit. He feels his forces decline, and yet he remains capable of cultivating high hopes.
He lives in the light of the Word of God, for this reason, even though he realizes that his days are coming to an end, he does not fear death. He is happy and asks the Lord to welcome him into his peace.
He does not fear the evil he sees around him. He does not let himself be taken by impatience nor despair if the persistence of violence and injustice still occurs, a bit everywhere.
He talks with God and looks forward, conscious that, in a short time, nothing will change. However he rejoices, contemplating the dawn of the new world. He rejoices like a farmer, at the end of the season of sowing, dreams of heavy rains and abundant harvest.
Simeon is not selfish. He does not think of himself, of his own advantage, but of others, of all humanity, of the joy that all will experience when the kingdom of God will be established.
Simeon took the child from the arms of his parents (v. 28). With this gesture, he becomes the image of the people of Israel who, for centuries, has been waiting for the Messiah. He now welcomes him and, with joy, bless the Lord: "My eyes have seen your salvation, which you display for all the people to see. Here is the light you will reveal to the nations, and the glory of your people Israel" (vv. 30-32).
Simeon looked forward to the time when the Lord would comfort Israel (v. 25), surely remembering the Lord's promise: "As a son comforted by his mother, so I will comfort you. You shall be comforted in Jerusalem. At the sight of this, your heart will rejoice" (Is 66:13-14).
Simeon rejoices when he sees and takes the messiah of God in his arms. He now offers him, in the name of Israel, to all peoples.
This moving scene depicts the task of transmitting the faith within each family. Every generation of Christians accepts the Lord, from the hands of their fathers. They hand it to the delighted children and grandchildren, so that it becomes, for them, the light that gives meaning to every event in life.
Simeon continues with a second prophecy, addressed to Mary. Her son will become a sign of contradiction. For someone he means salvation, for others he will be a cause of ruin and a sword will pierce the soul of the mother (vv. 34-35).
Luke, like John, introduces, from the beginning of his Gospel, the theme of conflict caused by the light of God, destined to enlighten all nations. The wicked "hates the morning as their darkest hour, the time for them to fear" (Job 24:16-18).
The image of the sword that will pierce the soul has been interpreted in the past as the announcement of the drama of Mary at the foot of the cross. Not so. The mother of Jesus is understood here as the symbol of Israel. In the Bible, Israel (female name in Hebrew) is a woman, a bride, made fruitful by God. She conceives, and gives birth to her own son. No one better than Mary could represent this mother Israel. Simeon understands the plight of his people. In Israel–he said–a deep laceration will happen. In front of the messiah, the envoy from the sky, some will open up mind and heart and welcome the salvation; others will close themselves in denial, declaring their own downfall.
Luke has in mind the situation of his community in which many believers have been marginalized because of their faith in Christ, by their best friends and by their family members. Later in his Gospel, with a clear reference to this prophecy, he will report the statement of Jesus: "Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on, in one house five will be divided: three against two, and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother; mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law" (Lk 12:51-53).
In the third part of the passage (vv. 36-38) another elderly person appears: the prophetess Anna. She is eighty-four years and this number, which is the result of 7x12, has a clear symbolic meaning: 7 means perfection, while 12 represents the people of Israel. Anna is therefore the woman–Israel–who, having accomplished her mission, gives the world the expected messiah.
This prophetess is of the tribe of Asher, the smallest, the most insignificant of all the tribes of Israel. In fact, in the blessing Moses pronounces upon the people before his death, she appears last (Dt 33:24). The reason why Luke points out that Anna belongs to this tribe is to show, once again, that the poor are better prepared to recognize Jesus as the savior.
Anna is a woman faithful to her husband to the point of not remarrying. Her choice has a theological significance for the evangelist. Like the aged Simeon, Anna is the symbol of the faithful remnant of Israel, the bride of the Lord. In her life she has only one love, then lives as a grieving widow until the day she accepts Jesus as her Lord. She then again rejoices as the bride who finally finds the groom.
Anna has not moved away from the temple of the Lord (v. 37). That's the home of her groom. She does not go looking for lovers, nor wastes time with the idols. She does not go from house to house to pass the night in empty talks, in gossip and slanders. She knows that the days of life are precious and should be spent in intimacy with the Lord and to serve the community.
Older people never feel useless when they live in expectation of the coming of the Lord. They can always perform many humble services that are valuable and bring joy to others. They have, above all, as the old prophetess, the task of talking about Jesus to those who are looking for a way of life. They have enriched themselves with spiritual experience. This is the most precious heritage that must be bequeathed to future generations.
The passage ends (vv. 39-40) with the return of the Holy Family to Nazareth and the record concerning the growth of Jesus. He was no different from the children of his village if not because "he was filled with wisdom and the grace of God was upon him." Despite being the son of God, he accepted in all our human condition and shared since childhood, all of our experiences.