Commentary on the Readings
Feast of the Holy Family – December 30
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 people 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 Sir 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 Sira, from whom the book takes its name, is a wise rabbi who lived in 200 B.C. 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 capture 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 Sira 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 of 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 Sira 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 Sira 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 Sira 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 seeing 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 Sira enumerates five.
The love of parents—he says—atones for sins (vv. 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 think 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 Sira 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 the 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 an 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 a 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 Sira, he has a word for parents: beware not to fall into authoritarianism that does not educate, but stiffens, creates distrust and exasperates the children.
In the first part of the passage (vv. 22-24) the episode of Jesus’ Presentation in the Temple is narrated. The Jewish law prescribed that all the firstborn, both of men and animals, were to be consecrated to the Lord (Ex 13:1-16). Since children could not be sacrificed, they were redeemed with the offering of a clean animal that was sacrificed in their place. Wealthy parents handed to the priests a lamb, the poor a pair of doves or turtledoves.
Mary and Joseph have fulfilled this requirement of the Torah. Luke takes the opportunity to point out that the Nazareth family belonged to the category of the poor. They were not able to offer a lamb. God’s love for the last ones, the sinners, the impure persons is a theme dear to the evangelist. With a tinge of almost imperceptible language he, from the beginning of his Gospel, places the family of Jesus not only among the poor but also among the unclean.
According to the law of Israel (Lev 12) only the new mother had to submit herself to the purification rituals. Luke speaks instead of “their purification” (v. 22), as if, in solidarity with the sinful humanity, the entire holy family had gone to the temple in search of purification.
A second theme interests the Evangelist: the scrupulous observance, by the holy family, of the requirements of Lord’s law. It is confirmed with an almost pedantic insistence: “according to the law of Moses” (v. 22); “as it is written in the law of the Lord” (v. 23); “as ordered in the law of the Lord” (v. 24); “to do him according to the custom of the law” (v. 27); “required by the law of the Lord” (v. 39).
Luke wants to point out to his communities Jesus as the model of adherence to the will of the Father from the first moments of his life. This harmony with the designs of God is possible only to those who, like the members of the holy family, have chosen the word of Holy Scripture as guide to their steps.
Mary and Joseph know that the child they carry in their arms is not theirs: he was entrusted by God to their care but remains God’s. They will guard him with care until the day in which he will inaugurate the extraordinary mission he is destined to. It is a mission not revealed to them and is completely shrouded in mystery.
They take him in the temple and consecrate him to the Lord: they recognize that he is the Lord’s. They will never withhold him for themselves; they will prepare him to deliver him as a gift to the world—in the time appointed by God.
They are a model for all the parents to whom God entrusts his children. These are not creatures on which one folds up with possessive love. They are Heaven’s gift to give to the world. Parents are called to consecrate them to the Lord: to discover the mission which the Heavenly Father has destined them and put them in a position to carry it out.
The second part of the passage (vv. 25-35) is the center of today’s Gospel. The scene takes place in the temple. The vast esplanade that Herod the Great has just finished building is teeming with pilgrims. They are visiting the holy place to pray, to receive instructions from the rabbis seated on the porch of Solomon, to offer burnt offerings. They are religious and devout people. They seem, therefore, in the ideal spiritual condition to recognize and welcome the expected envoy of the Lord. Yet when muddled up in the crowd, Joseph and Mary enter the holy place holding the son, no one realizes the extraordinary event that is taking place. No one can imagine that that baby is the light of the world.
Only Simeon, when he notices them, is caught by a sudden shudder, by an uncontrollable emotion. He makes his way among the people, heads towards them. Upon reaching the child, he takes him from the arms of his parents. He raised him up to heaven moved and exclaimed: “Now, O Lord, you can dismiss your servant in peace, for you have fulfilled your word and my eyes have seen your salvation” (vv. 29-30).
Simeon, the godly man who has spent many days of his life in the Lord’s temple pondering the scriptures, how was he able to recognize in the newborn the “light of the people”? What made him different from the other Israelites present in the temple? He was not an old man—as he is customary depicted. Luke describes him thus: “he was upright and devout, waiting for the time when the Lord would comfort Israel” (v. 25) and further on he was a man “led by the Spirit” (v. 27).
These are the interior dispositions that characterize the contemplatives, those who can discern the true reality, those who find themselves beyond the appearances of this world. It’s not enough to be pious and religious people to see the men and the world with God’s eyes.
Simeon is an exemplary man. Throughout his life he has chosen the Spirit of the Lord as confidant; he has kept alive the certainty that God is faithful to his promises and lived in the light of the Holy Scriptures. For this, he is peaceful and happy. His view extends beyond the narrow horizons of the present time; he contemplates his fate far and asks the Lord to welcome him into his peace.
There are people who, as they advance in years, become sad, and sometimes also hard to deal with. Their dissatisfaction often depends on sickness, the decline of forces, but other times it comes from not having spent their lives for lofty ideals and by fear of death. In a last attempt to cling to this world, they even withdraw in themselves, complain if they are not the center of attention if not all are ready to meet their demands.
Not so Simeon. He does not think of himself but of others, to all humanity, to the joy that men will experience when the kingdom of God will be established. He does not regret the past. He realizes that evil existing in the world is enormous, he does not cultivate a pessimistic vision of the present and the future. He converses with God and looks forward. He knows that, in a short term, nothing will change. However, he is happy all the same because he was lucky enough to contemplate the dawn of salvation. He rejoices as the farmer who, at the end of the sowing day, already dreams of the heavy rains, and then the bountiful harvest.
He is the symbol of the faithful remnant of Israel that for many centuries has been waiting for the Messiah. He does not limit himself to welcoming Jesus in his arms, but takes him to offer Jesus to the world, to present him to everyone as “the light.” He understood that the Messiah does not belong only to his people, but was sent to bring salvation to all nations, to be the light of all the nations (vv. 30-32).
Simeon makes a second prophecy, this time, directed to Mary: Jesus will become a sign of contradiction (vv. 34-35). The image of the sword that will pierce the soul was sometimes interpreted as the announcement of Mary’s sorrow at the foot of the cross. That is not so. The mother of Jesus is understood here as a symbol of all the people. In the Bible, Israel is pictured as a mother-woman who will give the world the Savior.
Who, better than Mary, could portray this mother-Israel? It is to Israel that Simeon—sensing the drama that awaits him—turns. He announces the appearance of a deep, inevitable tear within her. In front of the Messiah sent from Heaven, some Israelite open the mind and heart to salvation, many others will close themselves in denial and so decreed their destruction.
In the third part (vv. 36-38) Luke introduces Anna, the elderly prophetess who recognized the Lord in the child considered by all a common newborn.
Who gave her this spiritual sensitivity? From where does this piercing look come from?
Anna—the evangelist explains—was a woman intimately united to the Lord. All her life she had always thought of him: “She had been continually about the temple serving God as a widow night and day, in fasting and prayer” (v. 37). She was eighty-four years old and this number—which is equivalent to 7×12—has a symbolic meaning: 7 indicates perfection, 12 the people of Israel. Anna is the holy people that come to full maturity, delivering the awaited Savior to the world.
She belonged to the tribe of Asher, the smallest and most insignificant of the tribes of Israel.
Luke notes this decisively marginal detail because he is the evangelist of the poor, of the last ones. He wants that the Christians of his community be convinced that they are the best prepared to recognize Jesus as the savior. Anna had remained faithful to her husband to the point of not remarrying. Her choice has a theological significance for the evangelist.
Like Simeon, Anna represents the faithful Israel. In her life, the bride-Israel has had only one love. Then she lived in the mourning of widowhood until the day when, in Jesus, she recognized her husband, the Lord. Then she again rejoiced, like the bride who finds her only love. Anna did not depart from the temple because it was the home of “her husband”.
They do not need other gods; those who live in intimacy with the Lord do not look for lovers. Like Anna and like all lovers, they do not speak of the loved one.
The passage ends (vv. 39-40) with the return of the Holy Family to Nazareth and with the notation concerning the growth of Jesus. He was not different from the other children of his village in any way except for the fact that he increased in wisdom and age, and in divine and human favor.
There is a video available by Fr. Fernando Armellini with commentary for today’s Gospel: http://www.bibleclaret.org/videos