(See the readings for the feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Dec. 31)
On a cold night in November 1933, Bob and his wife Karen and their eight-year-old son Patrick had a simple dinner. It was the Great Depression. After the meal, the three sat by the wood-burning stove to keep warm. They were talking about Christmas, which was less than a month away.
Bob and Karen had spoken earlier in the year of their shared financial concerns. That night they told Patrick that there would be no store-bought gifts for Christmas this year; rather, they would make drawings of the presents they would like to get for each other.
As the weeks went by, Bob and Karen did just that. Bob drew pictures of a fur coat and a diamond necklace for his wife. Karen drew a fancy car and a speedboat for her husband. Together they drew a number of toys and even a swimming pool for Patrick.
Bob and Karen had saved a little money and bought a small tree. They planned to open their “presents” on Christmas morning and then hang them as ornaments on the tree.
When Christmas arrived, Bob and Karen gave their drawings to Patrick, then exchanged their drawings with each other. They were happy, laughing at the possibilities the homespun pictures presented.
Patrick then said, “You didn’t ask for my gift.”
“We were waiting to the end,” Karen replied. “Yours is the most important.”
Patrick ran to his room and from under his bed he brought forth a small envelope, which he gave to his parents.
Bob opened it and unfolded the paper within. He smiled as he handed it to Karen, who looked at it and began to cry.
It was a drawing of a husband and wife, with “Dad” and “Mom” written above their heads. They were holding hands with a small boy, “Patrick.” Underneath the three in large writing were the words “MY FAMILY.”
Sometimes children have the ability to get to the heart of things in a simple yet profound way. Such was the case with Patrick. He was not concerned with material things or gifts; he was happy to have a loving family. So were Bob and Karen; they just got distracted by expectations of the day.
Patrick’s gift reminded them of what they already had and how great a gift it was – a gift no money could buy.
Today we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The celebration reminds us of the importance of family through the lens of faith. Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem to present their firstborn son to the Lord. The very act of presenting Jesus is a thanksgiving to the Father of all for the gift of their son. They recognize that Jesus is a gift, as is every child, spouse and parent. The ritual presentation expresses their gratitude.
Simeon and Anna likewise give thanks to God. They recognize, in the child Jesus, the dawn of salvation. In his canticle of praise, Simeon says: “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory for your people Israel.” God’s saving activity first unfolds in the life of the family – Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
At the conclusion of this gospel passage, we are told that the Holy Family returns to their own town of Nazareth where “the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”
It is in these so-called “hidden years” that the life of the family is central to Jesus and his mission. He is being prepared for his public ministry and for the ultimate act of love – his passion, death and resurrection.
This is alluded to in today’s account when Simeon says to Mary, “Behold, this child will be 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 thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” As Jesus grows, he learns how to love through the love that Mary and Joseph share with him, and he in turn shares with them.
Through Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, we are joined together into the family of God. In Baptism, we are united with Christ Jesus and become adopted children of God, brothers and sisters with Christ and with each other. This adopted status is foreshadowed in God’s promise to Abraham that his offspring will be as numerous and bright as the stars in the dark night (see today’s first reading, option two – Genesis 15:1-6; 21:1-3; see also the second reading, option three – Hebrews 11:8, 11-12, 17-19).
The life of faith is formed and nourished through the family. The knowledge and experience of salvation is fostered through the relationships of spouses with each other, parents with their children, children with their parents and siblings among themselves.
Sirach extols and exhorts his hearers to develop their relationships through out life (see today’s first reading, option one, Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14). St. Paul does likewise in his Letter to the Colossians (today’s second reading, options one and two, Colossians 3:12-21). This reading gives us a succinct but direct instruction to building those relationships which are so essential in the life of faith: “Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord as forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful.”
In the story above, little Patrick recognized in his family the greatest gift he had. In the Holy Family, we recognize the greatest gift we have.
In our families, we share that gift with each other.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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May God bless all families with peace and unity.