Commentary on the Readings
Feast of the Holy Family – Year C
Neither devalued nor idolized
“All children are a gift of God to the world.” That’s a phrase that sometimes provokes jealousy of mothers, jealousy symptom of a possessive love for the more often only son, overprotected, overpampered and overdefended.
The family is the privileged place for training and education, but not the only one.
There is a community in which the child is integrated into so that in it he grows, matures, meets brothers and sisters and learns acceptance, free availability, collaboration, tolerance, forgiveness.
To narrow the horizons, to fall back on the smug little world of affections and interests, to shut oneself inside the narrow borders that bypass the universal brotherhood is a dangerous idolatry of the family institution.
The family wanted by God is open, is a step 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 they were separated from Jesus. It can be interpreted as rejection and exclusion. In reality it is a leap towards life.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Children are your gift to the world, Lord. We do not reject them and we do not possess them.”
When God presented to man the one who was to be the companion of his life, Adam rejoiced and exclaimed: She will be called Eve—in Hebrew hawwah—which is not a proper name, but it simply means one who gives life.
Life is thus the identity of the woman; everything about her speaks of life, acceptance, availability, of service to life. In her, life unfolds, sprouts, grows and is delivered to the world. The desire to have a child is rooted in the biological constitution of each woman. Rachel, sterile, says to Jacob, “Give me sons or I shall die!” (Gen 30:1).
Like she, like so many other brides of the Bible, Anna too could not generate and for this she suffered immensely. “Why are you sad—her husband Elhanah asked her one day—Are you not better off with me than with many sons?” (1 Sam 1:8). No, not even the tenderness of a gentle and caring husband were able to compensate for his irrepressible need of motherhood.
God heard her insistent prayer and granted her a child, Samuel, destined to perform a decisive role in the history of the people of Israel.
Anna was certainly tempted to consider all hers the only son given to her from Heaven, to keep him for herself. Instead, as soon as he was weaned, she went with her husband to the sanctuary at Shiloh and gave him to the Lord. She reared him until he needed her and was pleased to have done a good job of a mother. Then she entrusted him to Eli, the priest of the temple, who would help him understand the vocation to which God called him.
No child belongs to the parents. He is handed to them just for foster care. A precious gift that must be guarded, helped to grow and prepared for the mission which the Lord destines him.
Parents are grateful to God who has deemed them worthy of such confidence. Aware of the arduous task they do not appropriate the gift received. They are happy to return it to the Lord to be his instrument in the realization of his designs on the world.
Anna and Elkanah—the story notes—took him with them along with a three-year-old bull, a measure of flour and a flask of wine, they brought him to the Lord’s house at Shiloh. (v. 24).
They went to celebrate a feast, not to cry, although they were well aware that they would return home alone.
With parents so sensitive and attentive to God’s plan it’s not surprising that the son, Samuel, then became one of the towering figures in the history of Israel. In the Bible he is called seer, priest, judge, prophet and wisely led Israel in a particularly difficult time.
The life of God that the Christian receives in Baptism is a spiritual, mysterious reality. To describe it, Jesus, talking to Nicodemus, employs a comparison. It is like the wind, no one sees it, no one knows where it comes from or where it goes, but we know it exists, it is felt, we will see the effects.
The divine life in man cannot be verified by the senses, but the signs of its presence are unmistakable. One who has received it becomes a new man, guided by a spirit that is not of this world.
The passage of the Letter of John begins with an exclamation of joy: See what singular love the Father has for us: we are called children of God, and we really are! (v. 1).
In Semitic mentality, children not only gave continuity to the biological life of the father, but it was thought that they really made him present. For this, it was expected that the parents were recognized in them: for external appearance and facial features, of course, but above all for moral integrity, loyalty to God, and the most significant aspects of his character.
The true Christian is in the world, the presence of the divine and, like every child, he reproduces the appearance of the Father who is in heaven. The result—explains John—is that he who does not know God cannot even recognize the children that have been generated by him (v. 1). These make choices in tune with the thoughts and feelings of the Father. They look like him, they are different from others, they are “saints”. It is not surprising then that they are not understood by those who focus their eyes solely on the reality of this world.
This truth is also recalled by Paul to the believer in Corinth. The disciples of the Lord—he said—possess a wisdom, a way to evaluate the reality of this world that is incompatible with the criteria of judgment of people. 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—Even now we are God’s children—the author of the letter invites them to contemplate the radiant fate that awaits them: What we shall be has not yet been shown (v. 2).
The present condition is not final. A veil, made of our earthbound mortal reality, 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 we will understand what we are today.
In the womb, the child receives food and life from the mother, and yet, although depending completely on her, she is not able to see his face. Only after birth she can look and tenderly embrace the one she has generated.
In this world man lives the gestation period in expectation of the moment of delivery. He lies in the womb of God who is father and mother. “For in him we live and move and have our being”—Paul reminds the Athenians (Acts 17:28), but we cannot see his face. Yet when he appears in glory, we know that we shall be like him for then we shall see him as he is (v. 2).
The similarity with our biological parents is an image of the vocation to which we are called: to be like the Heavenly Father, who makes his sun rise on both the wicked and the good, and he gives rain to both the just and the unjust (Mt 5:45).
Faced with so sublime a goal we are tempted to resign ourselves to failure.
Although we strive to live it consistently, we realize that we remain sinners, and John reminds us at the beginning of his letter: “If we say, ‘we have no sin,’ we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn 1:8).
If we make a balance of our life, we are forced to admit to have made so many mistakes. We realize that we have been conditioned by defects and habits that we are not able to correct. That is why we cannot free ourselves from the thought that even God rejects and condemns us, as does our heart.
To these doubts and anxieties the reading responds with one of the most moving statements of the whole Bible.
If we engage ourselves in practical love to the brethren, we no longer have to be afraid of our misery, fragility and even the severe judgment pronounced by our heart. Of whatever thing it condemns us, we can reassure it, because “God is greater than our heart” (v. 20).
The most devious, diabolical temptation is what makes us worship a God who, in reality, is smaller than our heart, a God who one day will appear as a severe and inflexible judge, to punish those on whom he will not see the image of his only Son, Jesus Christ shining clearly.
Our heart constantly reminds us of our identity as children of the heavenly Father and condemns us when this identity is disfigured. This reproach is healthy, but we to forget that God is greater than our hearts.
To our families, we are sure, a lifestyle better than that of the family of Nazareth cannot be offered. However, the fact recounted in today’s Gospel is quite disconcerting. Mary and Joseph forget the son in Jerusalem and for one day they peacefully walk without worrying about him. Jesus moves away from his parents without asking permission. When the mother asks for an explanation of his behavior he seems to even answer her badly. Mary and Joseph do not understand his words; only at the end the passage recalls that Jesus returns to Nazareth and, from then on, he remains obedient to them. This is a great decision but how do you explain his previous “disobedience”? It is true 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 in a very different way, if he or she has never been seen or has become the best friend. Luke does not write his Gospel the day after the events occurred, but fifty years after Easter. The faith in the risen Christ appears on every page of his work. The death and resurrection of Jesus have made him and the Christians of his community understand what Mary and Joseph, seventy years ago, could not even guess. In a twelve-year-old child, he recognizes the Christ, the Son of God, the Savior, the one who is obedient to the Father even to the gift of life.
After this introduction let delve into today’s passage.
The law of Israel prescribed (only for adult men) the three times a year pilgrimage to Jerusalem during the main holidays (Ex 23:17; Deut 16:16). For those who lived far away, however, it was virtually impossible to observe this precept. Many Jews already considered it a great fortune to be able to fulfill the holy journey even once in a lifetime. Mary and Joseph, living in Nazareth, were about three days’ journey away from Jerusalem. They went up every year to celebrate Easter.
The fact narrated in today’s gospel happens on the occasion of one of these pilgrimages. Jesus was twelve years old, is therefore almost an adult (at thirteen years in Israel one becomes an adult and is required to comply with all the precepts of the law).
The temple is a beautiful building, surrounded by large porches under which the rabbis and scribes explain the holy Scriptures, recite Psalms and distribute their pious advice to pilgrims. Jesus is eager to discover the will of the Father and knows where to find it: in the holy books of his people, in the Bible.
That’s the reason why he stops in Jerusalem. He wants to understand the word of God. Walking around the temple during the feast, maybe he is impressed by the explanations given by some well prepared and more pious master than others. He wants to hear it again, ask him some questions and clarify his doubts. The pilgrims who hear him converse with the rabbis, stop, amazed and admired his precocious and extraordinary intelligence. It is not easy to find a boy his age that shows so much love for the Bible and is able to raise such profound questions.
The purpose of Luke’s account is not to emphasize the intelligence of Jesus, but to prepare the reader to understand the answer he gives to his mother, worried and surprised by his behavior. These are the first words he speaks in the Gospel of Luke. Then—for the evangelist—they are of particular importance, as the program throughout his life are. The answer is formulated with two questions: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (v. 49).
The children usually put countless questions, even Jesus has certainly addressed many to his parents. This is the first time that they are not able to give an answer, for this their amazement is noted: “They did not understand this answer” (v. 50). They realize that he begins to distance himself from the narrow family environment and opens himself to a wider horizon. He is born in a family, but he does not belong to it. He is a citizen of the world and, like every child is a gift from God to all mankind.
In apparent contrast to what we are saying, the last part of today’s Gospel (vv. 51-52) points out that Jesus returns to Nazareth and is obedient to his parents. It would seem that after the escapade… he gets better in exercising judgment. The meaning of the statement, however, is different. In Israel there is a commandment that requires “to honor the parents.” This implies a duty to help them in their old age, but, above all, to follow their religious faith. Parents are instructed to tell their children what the Lord has done for his people (Deut 6:20- 25). To obey the parents means to welcome their teachings and imitate their loyalty to God.
In this sense, Jesus honored his parents, has assimilated their deep faith in the God of Abraham and the love for the word of God to which he will make constant reference throughout his life.
We could end here, but biblical scholars invite us to read deeper into this passage. They believe that Luke wrote it to recall, since the beginning of his Gospel, in a symbolic way, the facts of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Which ones? I will mention a few.
First both episodes occur in Jerusalem during the feast of Easter. Both times Jesus goes to Jerusalem to fulfill the will of the Father and both times all return to their homes and leave him alone. The parents leave and do not understand that he must be about his Father’s business. The apostles abandon him and do not understand how the gift of life introduces into the glory of the resurrection (Lk 24:12).
As in today’s Gospel, in the stories of Easter Jesus must do the will of the Father (Lk 24:7,26,44). The women desperately look for him. They do not find him, and hear the same question: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Lk 24:5). Jesus (resurrected) is met on “the third day”. The disciples (as Mary and Joseph) do not understand neither the incident nor the words that are put to them. On Easter Sunday Jesus sits as a teacher and asks questions about the Scriptures (Lk 24:44). He teaches the word of God in order to “warm the heart” and enrapture his listeners (Lk 24:32), just as he did as a child.
In the temple the rabbis put questions to Jesus. They, who also know the Bible well, cannot grasp the ultimate meaning. There is only one person who can illuminate the darkness of those texts, Jesus. In fact it is he who, after the resurrection, opens the minds of his disciples to understand the Scriptures (Lk 24:32). The Old Testament becomes comprehensible only when read in the light of the death and resurrection of Christ.
If these references to the events of Easter are—as biblical scholars believe— intentional, then the purpose for which Luke has included this episode in his Gospel becomes clear. He wants the Christians of his community not to be discouraged if they still neither understand nor welcome the Father’s plan. It is not easy to accept the idea that life passes through death. He urges them not to escape, but return to Jerusalem where, observing and listening to the Master, they will gradually leave their heart open to the will of the Father.
Faced with the often inexplicable and incomprehensible events there is only one correct attitude: “To keep all these things in our hearts”, as Mary did and ponder them in the light of the Word of God. It was not also easy for her to understand and accept the path to which God wanted his son to tread.