SUNDAY IN THE OCTAVE OF CHRISTMAS (Cycle A)
FEAST OF THE HOLY FAMILY

Readings:
Sirach 3:2-7, 12-14
Psalm 12:1-5
Colossians 3:12-21
Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

All Scripture passages are from the New American Bible unless designated NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: The Holy Institution of the Family
God instituted marriage and the family when He created the first man and woman.  He blessed marriage and the family and endowed both with their necessary function for the common good of its members and the good of society as a whole.  Both marriage and the family have had an important role in God's plan for man's salvation.  The "promised seed" of Genesis 3:15 from which the promised Redeemer-Messiah was to come was generated and protected down through salvation history by marriage and the family.  The line was protected and flourished in the families of the descendants of Seth, son of Adam and Eve, and his descendant Abraham and his wife Sarah.  Their son Isaac continued the line of the "promised seed" in his marriage to Rebekah as God continued the Abrahamic covenant through their son Jacob-Israel.  St. Matthew and St. Luke traced that family line in Jesus' genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew 1:1-18 and the Gospel of Luke 3:23-38.  It is a line that culminated in the Holy Family of Joseph and Mary of Nazareth and Mary's son, conceived by the Holy Spirit, the "promised seed" sent to undo the work of Satan; He who is the Redeemer-Messiah, Jesus Christ. 

In the ecclesial community, we experience the Christian family which constitutes a specific revelation and realization of that which is called the "domestic church."  The Christian family is a communion of persons in the Body of Christ; it is "a sign and image of the communion of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit" (CCC 2205).  In the procreation and raising of children in the Christian family, it reflects the Father's work of creation.  The spiritually re-born children of God in the Christian family still have a mission to fulfill in salvation history.  The Christian family is called to partake of the prayer and sacrifice of Jesus Christ and to fulfill the mission to evangelize within the family and outside the family to the human families in the world.

The First Reading Sirach 3:2-7, 12-14 ~ The Duty of a Child Toward His/Her Parents
2 GOD sets a father in honor over his children; a mother's authority he confirms over her sons.  3 Whoever honors his father atones for sins, and preserves himself from them.  When he prays, he is heard; 4 he stores up riches who reveres his mother.  5 Whoever honors his father is gladdened by children, and when he prays he is heard.  6 Whoever reveres his father will live a long life; he obeys his father who brings comfort to his mother.  He who fears the LORD honors his father, and serves his parents as rulers.
12 My son, take care of your father when he is old; grieve him not as long as he lives.  13 Even if his mind fails, be considerate of him; revile him not all the days of his life; 14 kindness to a father will not be forgotten, firmly planted against the debt of your sins, a house raised in justice to you.

The first three of the Ten Commandments instruct us in the conduct of our relationship with God.  The last seven characterize our relationship with our "neighbor/fellow man-woman," the foremost of which is our conduct toward our parents (Ex 20:12; Dt 5:16).  The inspired writer reminds us of this fourth of the Ten Commandments: Honor your father and your mother, that you may have a long life in the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you in verse 6Significantly, it is the only one of the Ten Commandments that is associated with a promised blessing for obedience and that blessing is long life.  In our passage, the inspired writer establishes the theme of this passage when he equates "fear of the LORD" with respect for one's parents (6b).  He tells us that our signs of honor and respect toward our parents are promised blessings beyond a good life.  So important is one's conduct towards parents that God promises that the prayers of an obedient and caring child will always be heard by God, and acts of kindness towards one's parents will atone for personal sins (verses 3 and 14). 

Jesus spoke of the duty to honor one's parents and to be grateful to them in Mark 7:10-13a when He condemned the actions of the scribes and Pharisees, saying: "For Moses said, 'Honor your father and mother,' and 'Whoever curses father or mother shall die.'  Yet you say, 'If a person says to father or mother, "Any support you might have had from me is qorban"' (meaning dedicated to God), you allow him to do nothing more for his father or mother. You nullify the word of God ...." Notice that the fourth commandment and Jesus' statement does not demand that we love our parents.  God knew there would be bad parents who would fail to image His relationship as a divine, loving Father.  However, having a bad parent does not negate the command to behave in a caring and respectful manner to one's parents.  Jesus' statement supports our passage in Sirach in that one who truly revers God will respect and care for his parents because it is a standard of behavior that God asks of those who love Him.

Responsorial Psalm 128:1-5 ~ The Happy Home of the Just
The response is: "Blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways."
1 Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD, who walks in his ways!  2 For you shall eat the fruit of your handiwork; blessed shall you be, and favored.
3 Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the recesses or your home; your children like olive plants around your table.  4 Behold, thus is the man blessed who fears the LORD.  5 The LORD bless you from Zion: may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life.

A repeated refrain in the Old Testament is the admonition to "fear the LORD and to walk in his ways," meaning to revere God and to be obedient to His commands.  Reverent fear of offending God is a spiritual healthy condition.  It assures that one will avoid the causes of sin and that fellowship with God will be carefully cherished.  In this psalm we have the promise that God will faithfully bless the reverent (verse 1).  His blessing includes a happy home life, prosperity, a fertile spouse and abundant children (verses 2-4).  The last verse extends God's blessing of the reverent to all people of the faith community, which is also called in Scripture the "household of God" our heavenly Father (Gal 6:10; Eph 2:19).

The Second Reading Colossians 3:12-21 ~ Rules of Christian Behavior towards One's Neighbor and within One's Family
12 Put on, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.  14 And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.  15 And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body.  And be thankful.  16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God the Father through him. 17 And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.  18 Wives, be subordinated to your husbands, as is proper with the Lord.  19 Husbands, love your wives, and avoid bitterness toward them.  20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord.  21 Fathers, do not provoke your children, so they may not become discouraged.

In this passage St. Paul lists a set of virtues for "God's chosen ones" that contrast the list of vices in 3:5-11: heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.  The result of exhibiting such virtues is that we act with love in bearing with one another and forgiving one another.  In St. Paul's letters, these terms not only refer to human virtues but also to the acts of God the Father and the acts of God the Son (for example 2 Cor 6:6; Gal 5:22; Eph 2:7Phil 2:1; etc.).  Those who exercise these virtues Paul says are emulating divine love by letting "the peace of Christ control your hearts" (verse 16; also see Eph 4:3).

Verses 15-16 are the key aspects of Christian behavior: And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body.  And be thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you ... That we are "called in one body" repeats the concept that in Christ we are called as God's "chosen ones" in the same way God called Israel to be His covenant people at Mount Sinai (see verse 3:12).  This is one of five references St. Paul makes to the Church as the Body of Christ in Colossians (see 1:18-20, 21-22; 2:9-10, 19).  If a Christian is living in imitation of Christ within the Christian community and the world, he must be kind, gentle and loving with others.  It is the love of Christ that is "the bond of perfection" for the Church.    

Verses 16-17 provide a description of a faithful Christian community in whom the "word of Christ dwells richly."  In such a community in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God the Father through him. 17 And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Next St. Paul turns from the "household of God" to the "household" of marriage and the family using three pairings in his teaching: husband and wives, children and parents, and fathers and their children.  In verse 18, reflecting the cultural norms of the times, Paul urges wives to submit to the decisions of their husbands as the head of the family.  In Ephesians 5:21-22 the verb Paul uses is softened to suggest mutual submission of husbands and wives.  The comparison Paul makes is that a wife should be willing to obey her husband as the Church obeys the Lord as the head of the Body of Christ.  Paul softens his teaching by reminding husbands not to abuse their leadership in the family but to love your wives, and avoid bitterness toward them.  Paul's command "to love" one's wife also implies the command "to respect" the wife as a person with her own feelings and ideas.

The second pairing is between children and parents: 20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord.  The importance of obedience of children is rooted in the fourth of the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:12; Dt 5:16; also cited in Eph 6:2).  It is interesting to note that St. Paul addresses children directly in verse 20; they were obviously expected to be present in the assembly when Paul's letter is to be read to the faith community.

The third pairing is between fathers and children: 21 Fathers, do not provoke your children, so they may not become discouraged.  This is the second reminder to men not to abuse their leadership role in the marriage and in the family.  Greco-Roman society at the time Paul wrote his letter gave an extreme form of power to fathers and husbands, the extent of which is shocking to modern standards.  Paul is reminding fathers and parents in general that children are precious to God who is their heavenly Father.  Fathers are to nurture children and encouragement them in Christian virtues in the same way God loves and encourages all His human children to choose the right path in their faith journeys.  It is also St. Paul's gentle reminder of the important role of the Christian family in the life of the Church.

The Gospel of Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23 ~ The Holy Family's Flight to Egypt and their Return
13 When they had departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Rise, and take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you.  Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him."  14 Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt.  15 He stayed there until the death of Herod, that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled, "Out of Egypt I called my son." 
19 When Herod had died, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, "Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead."  21 He rose, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.  22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go back there.  And because he had been warned in a dream, he departed for the region of Galilee.  23 He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He shall be called a Nazorean."

For a second time an angel came to speak to Joseph in a dream (see Mt 1:18-25).  Joseph was immediately obedient to the angel's message that the child Jesus was in danger and he must take Jesus and Mary and flee to safety in the land of Egypt.  Verse 15 is the third fulfillment formula statement in Matthew's Gospel.  The fulfillment statement is a quote from Hosea 11:1, and it is an allusion to Exodus 4:22-23 when Yahweh instructed Moses to tell the Pharaoh that Israel is God's "first-born son" and to "let my son go that he may serve me," identifying Jesus with the nation of Israel and the story of the Exodus liberation.

In referring to this passage in Exodus, Matthew is showing the parallel between Jesus' life and the life of Israel, the covenant people of God.  The children of Israel were reborn on the Exodus out of Egypt.  They were transformed from a slave people who served the Egyptian Pharaoh to a free nation created to serve Yahweh their great King.  Jesus has come to lead a new exodus out of slavery to sin, to create a new Israel and a re-born people to serve Christ the King of the everlasting Kingdom of God.

It was not unusual for the angel to command Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to sanctuary in Egypt.  The nation of Egypt was a traditional place of refuge in the Bible:

Travel to Egypt by the ancient roads from Bethlehem to the Wadi el-Arish, "River of Egypt" (1Kng 8:65; Jdt 1:9), took about 3-4 days for the c. 100 mile journey (Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, Jesus and Paul: Parallel Lives, page 14).  The expensive gifts of the Magi (Mt 2:10-11) probably provided for the funds they needed for the journey and establishing a life in Egypt.

Matthew 2:19-23 ~ The Holy Family Returns from Egypt
When Herod had died, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, "Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead."  21 He rose, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.  22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go back there.  And because he had been warned in a dream, he departed for the region of Galilee.  23 He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He shall be called a Nazorean."

When Herod died, the angel appeared to Joseph a third time and told him to return to his homeland.  Like the children of Israel who were the firstborn sons of God out of the nations of the earth (Ex 4:22) who returned to the Promised Land after their sojourn in Egypt, the Holy Family returned their homeland as God called "His firstborn Son out of Egypt" (Mt 2:15, 20-21).  Again, Joseph was obedient, but he did not return to Bethlehem for two reasons.  He feared Herod's son Archelaus, and the angel told him to go the Nazareth in the Galilee.  When the Great Herod died, the Romans honored Herod's will and appointed his son Archelaus to rule from Jerusalem as ethnarch over the regions of Judea, Samaria, and Idumaea, while Herod's son Herod Antipas became tetrarch of the Galilee and Perea.  Archelaus was every bit as cunning and cruel as his father but with none of his father's administrative skills.  He ruled Judea for only about 2 years before the Romans removed him and made Judea a Roman province administrated by a Roman procurator under the authority of the Roman legate of Syria. 

Matthew 2:23 ~  He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He shall be called a Nazorean."
Verse 23 is the fourth fulfillment formula statement in Matthew's Gospel.  This passage has mystified Biblical scholars since there is no clear text in the Old Testament that states the Messiah would be called a Nazorean.  However, unlike the other quotes which refer to what is spoken by "the prophet," this passage does not refer to a single prophet but to "what had been spoken through the prophets" plural; and therefore, Matthew may not be referring to a single text but to a larger theme in the prophetic texts.  He may also be making a word-play on the Hebrew word netzer, which means "branch," and it may be the root word for Nazareth in Hebrew, which is Nazara/Nasrat.   Netzer, "branch," is a Messianic title most notably in the prophetic passage in Isaiah 11:1 ~ But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud [netzer] shall blossom.  It is a prophecy that identifies the Messiah as coming from the family of Jesse, son of Obed, son of Ruth and Boaz who is also the father of the great King David.  It was with David that God made an eternal covenant that promised his throne would be forever secure and that the Messiah would come from the family of David (1 Sam 7:16; 23:5; Ez 34:23-24).  

Families have always been important in God's plan of salvation, beginning with the family of Adam and Eve from which the human family was born, to the family of Abraham and Sarah that gave birth to the nation of Israel, to the family of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus the promised Redeemer-Messiah.  Your family also plays a role in God's plan for the salvation of mankind.  It is your children who will continue as Jesus' emissaries to the world, carrying on His mission to spread the Gospel of salvation and to prepare the next generations for the return of Christ our Savior.

Catechism References:
Sirach 3:2-7, 12 (CCC 2218)
Colossians 3:14 (CCC 815, 1827, 1844); 3:16-17 (CCC 1156, 2633); 3:16 (CCC 2641); 3:18-21 (CCC 2204); 3:20 (CCC 2217); 3:21 (CCC 2286)
Matthew 2:13 (CCC 333); 2:15 (CCC 530); 2:19 (CCC 333)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2013