Our Holy Family

by Roger Karban

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As far as we can tell, nothing in Scripture was written exclusively for cloistered religious. We assume our sacred authors had ordinary married people and their children in mind when they composed our biblical writings. The spirituality and theology expressed in them were meant to be lived in a real world populated by real people: husbands, wives, children, grandchildren, men and women who related to one another on a normal, human level. We especially must keep this in mind when we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family.


The Holy Family of
Jesus, Mary and Joseph
Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14

Psalm 128

Colossians 3:12-21

Luke 2:22-40

It's important to remember what Raymond Brown said about biblical annunciations. The late Bible scholar held that such passages were used by our sacred authors to indicate the deeper meaning of what's happening in their writings.

A scriptural annunciation is a literary device, akin to Shakespeare's soliloquies in his plays. Annunciations are inserted into the text for the sake of the audience, not for the sake of the actual people saying or receiving them. If Shakespeare didn't employ soliloquies, we, the audience, would never know what Hamlet or Macbeth was thinking. Without annunciations, we, the readers, would never know what God was doing behind the biblical scenes.

If we presume the annunciations to Joseph and Mary took place literally, they become so different from us that we can't possibly identify with them, especially as a family. Scholars put today's "Canticle of Simeon" into this category. In Brown's classic book The Birth of the Messiah, he both explains the origins of Luke's canticles and demonstrates what the evangelist is trying to accomplish by employing them at strategic points in his infancy narrative.

Addressing some first-century Jewish criticism that Jesus and his parents were bad Jews, Luke first depicts Mary and Joseph as deeply observant Jews, fulfilling all the Mosaic regulations pertaining to a mother's ritual purification after giving birth, and the symbolic offering of the firstborn male to Yahweh.

But then he quickly follows this with the family's encounter with Simeon, highlighting the words the aged servant of God pronounces over the baby and then directs to his mother.

Luke doesn't want his readers to miss the point of what this child will eventually accomplish, even as he describes his earliest days. Neither does he want his readers to overlook the necessity of dying in God's plan of salvation. "Behold," Simeon tells the child's mother, "this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be contradicted -- and you yourself a sword will pierce -- so that the thought of many hearts may be revealed."

Luke's reference to the sword probably has little to do with Mary's anguish at witnessing Jesus' death. (Mary isn't present at Golgotha in Luke; John alone places her there.) Lucan scholars suggest that, in this situation, a sword piercing someone's heart refers to discerning what God's doing in someone's life, and his or her willingness to follow through on the painful consequences that flow from such discernment. A discerning person sees things others miss, and therefore suffers through things other people refuse to do.

This seems to be why the author of Colossians spends so much time and space addressing interpersonal relations. That's where the "faith action" lies, where the discerning sword most pierces our hearts. Our decisions on how we relate to others are how we declare our faith in Jesus as our savior, for good or for ill.

As a faithful disciple of Paul, our author leads his community into the nitty-gritty of family relations, encouraging them to avoid creating bitterness and discouragement.

In stressing proper family relations, our Christian sacred authors are simply mirroring the example set by their Jewish predecessors -- with one basic difference: The vast majority of those predecessors, like Sirach, knew nothing of an afterlife as we know it. In today's pericope, for instance, Sirach is simply trying to help his readers understand that building good family relationships will help them experience a fulfilling, happy life right here and now.

Without annunciations, we can presume Joseph, Mary and Jesus had lots of things to work out during their time together. But we can also presume they did so with lots of faith, faith in God and one another, constantly discerning what each needed and what each was able to give. If they hadn't, we wouldn't be referring to them today as "holy."

But then again, aren't all of our families called to be just as holy?

[Fr. Roger Vermalen Karban is pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Renault, Ill.]

A version of this story appeared in the Dec 19, 2014-Jan 1, 2015 print issue under the headline: Our Holy Family.

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