SUNDAY WITHIN THE OCATVE OF CHRISTMAS
FEAST OF THE HOLY FAMILY (Cycle B)

Sirach 3:2-7, 12-1414 or Genesis 15:1-6; 21:1-3
Psalm 12:1-5 or Psalm 105:1-6, 8-9
Colossians 3:12-21 or Hebrews 11:8, 11-12, 17-19
Luke 2:22-40

Abbreviations: 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 two Testaments reveal God's divine plan for humanity, and that is why we read and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095). 

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 (Gen 1:2-27; 2:21-24).  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.  God protected the "promised seed" of Genesis 3:15 from which the Redeemer-Messiah was destined to come through the holy institutions of 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 descendants Abraham and his wife, Sarah.  Their son Isaac continued the line of the "promised seed" in his marriage to Rebekah, and God maintained 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 through Mary's son, conceived by the Holy Spirit, the "promised seed" and Redeemer-Messiah sent to undo the work of Satan, Jesus Christ. 

The First Reading reminds us of the 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.  Significantly, it is the only one of the Ten Commandments associated with a promised blessing for obedience.  In our reading, the inspired writer establishes the theme of this passage when he equates "fear of the LORD [Yahweh]" with respect for one's parents.  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 one's parents that God promises He will always hear the prayers of an obedient and caring child, and acts of kindness towards one's parents will atone for sins. 

The Responsorial Psalm admonishes us to "fear the LORD [Yahweh] and to walk in his ways," meaning to revere God and demonstrate obedience to His commands.  Reverent fear of offending God is a spiritual healthy condition.  It assures that one who fears God will avoid the causes of sin and will cherish fellowship with the Lord.  We have God's promise that He will faithfully bless those who approach Him in worshipful reverence with a happy home life, prosperity, and children.  God's blessing is also for all the reverent "children" of the faith community, which Scripture calls "the household of God," our heavenly Father (Gal 6:10; Eph 2:19).

In the Second Reading, St. Paul lists a set of virtues for "God's chosen ones." The result of exhibiting such virtues is that we act with love towards one another. St. Paul writes that those who exercise these virtues are emulating divine love when they let the peace of Christ control their actions.  Paul writes that it is the love of Christ that is "the bond of perfection" for the "household of God" that is the Church of Jesus Christ.

Then, St. Paul turns from the "household of God" to the "household" of marriage and the family, writing about a mutual loving submission of husbands and wives to each other and the obedience of children to their parents. The importance of obedience of children is rooted in the fourth of the Ten Commandments, commanding children to honor their parents.  For their part, parents are to nurture their children and encourage them in Christian virtues.  They are to encourage their children 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 Reading recounts baby Jesus' parents presenting Him at the Jerusalem Temple when He was forty-days old, in obedience to the Law of the Sinai Covenant.  At the time of His presentation and Mary's sacrificial offerings, the Prophet Simeon and the Prophetess Anna received a divine revelation of Jesus' true identity.  In their prophecies over baby Jesus, they began the proclamation of the Gospel.  Recognizing the Davidic Messiah, they began to announce His coming to the extended family of His covenant people, moving forward God's Divine Plan for mankind's salvation.

In the ecclesial community, we experience the Christian family which constitutes a specific revelation and realization of what is the "domestic church."  The Christian family is a communion of persons in the Body of Christ, and 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 bringing up of children in the Christian family, we reflect the Father's work of creation.  The spiritually reborn children of God in the Christian family still have a mission to fulfill in salvation history.  The members of the Christian family are called to partake of the prayer and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  They are also called to fulfill the mission to evangelize within the family and outside the family to the other 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.
* "GOD" and "LORD" in capital letters is the Divine Name, YHWH (Yahweh).

The first three of the Ten Commandments instruct us in the conduct of our relationship with God.  The last seven commandments 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 in the 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 associated with a promised blessing for obedience, and that blessing is a 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 one's parents that God promises He will always hear the prayers of an obedient and caring child, and acts of kindness towards one's parents will atone for sins (verses 3 and 14). 

Jesus spoke of the duty to honor one's parents and being 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 do 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 who, in cooperation with God, gave us life.  Jesus' statement in Mark 7:10-13 supports our passage in Sirach in that one who truly shows reverence to 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.
Response:
3 Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the recesses of your home; your children like olive plants around your table.
Response:
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.
Response:

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 one's right fellowship with God will be carefully cherished.  In this psalm, we have the promise that God will faithfully bless those who demonstrate their reverence toward Him and obedience to His commands (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 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 his earlier 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.). 

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 ... Paul writes that those who exercise these virtues are emulating divine love by letting "the peace of Christ control your hearts" (verse 16; also see Eph 4:3). That we are "called in one body" repeats the concept that in Christ we are called as God's elect, His "chosen ones," in the same way God called Israel to be His covenant people at Mount Sinai (see 3:12).  This passage is one of five times in which St. Paul refers 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 Paul writes: 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 also 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 finds its root 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 the faith community heard the reading of Paul's letter.

The third pairing is between fathers and children: 21 Fathers, do not provoke your children, so they may not become discouraged.  Verse 21 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, their heavenly Father.  Fathers are to nurture children and encourage 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 through life.  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 Luke 2:22-40 ~ Joseph and Mary bring Jesus to the Temple
22 When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, they took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, 23 just as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord," 24 and to offer the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.  25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon.  This man was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.  26 It had been revealed to him that he should not see death before he had seen the Messiah of the Lord.  27 He came in the Spirit into the Temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform the custom of the law in regard to him, 28 he took him into his arms and blessed God, saying: 29 "Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel." 33 The child's father and mother were amazed at what was said about him; 34 and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, "Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted 35 (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed."  36 There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.  She was advanced in years, having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage, 37 and then as a widow until she was eighty-four.  She never left the Temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.  38 And coming forward at that very time, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.  40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom and the favor of God was upon him.

When Mary completed the days of her purification according to the Law (Lev 12:1-8), Joseph took Mary and baby Jesus from Bethlehem to the holy city of Jerusalem.  The Fathers of the Church saw baby Jesus coming to the Temple as a fulfillment of the prophecy in Malachi 3:1b: And suddenly there will come to the Temple the LORD whom you seek ... Women who gave birth to male children were required to observe forty days of ritual confinement after which they were to present themselves at the Temple for purification (if it was a girl child, the mother came on the eightieth day).

 The LORD said to Moses, "Tell the Israelites: When a woman has conceived and gives birth to a boy, she shall be unclean for seven days, with the same uncleanness as at her menstrual period.  On the eighth day, the flesh of the boy's foreskin shall be circumcised, and then she shall spend thirty-three days more in becoming purified of her blood; she shall not touch anything sacred nor enter the sanctuary until the days of her purification are fulfilled (Lev 12:1-4).
The seven days plus the additional thirty-three days brings the total number of days for purification to forty days.  On the eighth day after birth, a boy child was circumcised according to the Law since the time of the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen 17:9-14; Lev 12:3; Lk 1:59; 2:21).  After the completion of her days of purification, the new mother went to the Temple of Yahweh in the holy city of Jerusalem.  She bathed in the Temple ritual purification pool (mikvah) and presented a whole burnt offering and a sin sacrifice to the Lord (Lev 12:6-7).  If the child was a firstborn male, the woman was required to dedicate him to God: Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated [or holy] to the Lord, as Luke quotes in verse 23 from Exodus 13:2.  Carrying out this requirement is just one of the ways in which Mary fulfilled the angel Gabriel's prophecy when he told her that her Son will be called "holy" in Luke 1:35.  Mary and Joseph, with the forty-day-old baby Jesus, journeyed the five miles from Bethlehem (located south of Jerusalem on the east ridge of the mountain watershed) up the mountain to Jerusalem.  The city is about 2,500 miles above sea level at its highest point at the top of Mt. Moriah where the Holy Temple of God stood. 

24 and to offer the sacrifice of "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons," in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord
Luke will use the term "law of the Lord" or "Law of Moses nine times in the Greek text; five of those times appear in this chapter (Lk 2:22, 23, 24, 27, 39; 10:26; 16:16-17; 24:44). The sacrifice identifies the Holy Family's humble station. The Law identified it as a sacrifice of the poor (Lev 12:6-8).

Luke 2:25-38 ~ The prophetic statements of Simeon and Anna
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon.  This man was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.
St. Luke describes Simeon in four ways: he is righteous, devout, actively awaiting the coming of the Messiah, and God's Spirit is with him.

28 he took him into his arms and blessed God, saying: 29 "Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel."
The Holy Family was in the outer court when Simeon approached them.  St. Luke uses the Greek term hieron, which includes the whole of the Temple complex but not the inner court and Sanctuary (naos) that is accessible only to priests.  An individual, including a woman, could enter the inner court where the altar of sacrifice stood only when offering a sacrifice. 

The Church calls Simeon's prayer of praise the Nunc Dimittis (in Latin).  It divides into two parts and is followed by a prophecy for Mary.  The two parts of Simeon's prayer include:

  1. The fulfillment of God's promise to Simeon
  2. The prophecy of a universal salvation

Having been told that he will live until he has seen the Messiah, Simeon now identifies Jesus as the promised Redeemer-Messiah not just for Israel but for all nations, proclaiming a universal message of salvation.  Addressing God and using the prophetic language of Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6 from the "Song of the Servant" passages, it is the child Jesus who Simeon identifies as "your salvation."  This declaration may also suggest wordplay on Jesus' name that means "Yahweh is salvation."

38 The child's father and mother were amazed at what was said about him; 34 and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, "Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted 35 (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed."
After blessing Joseph and Mary, Simeon offers a prophecy of opposition and suffering. Simeon's prophecy concerning Jesus is ominous. The child will create opposition, and people will be divided over their response to Him.  It is an ominous prediction because the "falling" comes before the "rising."  Simeon has announced the rejection of the Messiah by His people.

And then turning to Mary, Simeon offers a prophecy, saying, "and you yourself a sword will pierce so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed." Simeon prophesies that Mary will share in her Son's suffering.  The Cross is Jesus' unique sacrifice, and it is also a sacrifice He asks all His disciples to embrace as His partners in the plan of redemption (see Mt 10:38; 16:24; Mk 8:34; 10:21; Lk 9:23; 14:27). Catechism 618 records: "...Jesus desires to associate with his redeeming sacrifice those who were to be its first beneficiaries.  This association is achieved supremely in the case of his mother, who was associated more intimately than any other person in the mystery of his redemptive suffering."  As the embodiment of the "daughter of Zion," Mary will live out the sorrow of her people in their struggle to come to terms with Jesus' mission.  The symbolic mention of the sword may be related to the prophecies in Ezekiel 14:7-8 and Zechariah 12:10.

36 There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.  She was advanced in years, having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage, 37 and then as a widow until she was eighty-four.  She never left the Temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.  38 And coming forward at that very time, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.
The proclamation of the Gospel has begun.  Simeon and Anna the prophetess have recognized Jesus' true identity as the Redeemer-Messiah and have begun to announce His coming to His people.  The paring of Simeon and Anna is the third righteous man/woman combination in the birth narrative: Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, and now Simeon and Anna.  God has always used righteous men and women to move forward His plan for mankind's salvation.

Luke 2:39-40 ~ The Holy Family returns to Nazareth
39 When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.  40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom and the favor of God was upon him.
The Holy Family, having obediently fulfilled their covenant obligations according to the Law, returned to Nazareth.  It is understood, in the context of the narrative in St. Matthew's Gospel, that their move to Nazareth was after King Herod's death when it was safe for them to return from their time in Egypt (Mt 2:19-23).  Verse 40 is the conclusion of Jesus' birth narrative and echoes the description of St. John in 1:80: The child grew and became strong in spirit ...

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2014; revised 2017 www.AgapeBibleStudy.com