Today, still in the bright glow of Christmas Day, we mark the Passover of one of the spiritual giants of the 20th century and after – Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, a man who in the words of President Obama became the moral compass of the world. Almost diminutive in physical stature, Tutu towered above his contemporaries for his Christian witness, his humility, courage, and gentleness. His non-violent opposition to the cruel apartheid system in his native country was relentless and reached its culmination with the election of Nelson Mandela as president, a leader Tutu had championed for decades. His name will be a blessing or ages to come.
In the liturgical cycle, we are celebrating the first Sunday in the octave of Christmas, Holy Family Sunday. In a world where families are so frequently torn apart at the borders of too many countries where they are seeking asylum, where spousal abuse still too frequently reigns, where child brides are still bought and sold, where children are forced to work in mines and dumps, where families perish of hunger and malnutrition, and so many are killed by warfare and criminal violence, we need the moral compass of God’s word more than ever to guide us in a better direction than that we too easily follow.
Nor should we forget that according to Matthew’s gospel the Holy Family we celebrate today had to flee from Bethlehem and
seek refuge in Egypt to escape the murderous intent of King Herod the Great. Luke’s gospel provides a different perspective, one that takes place years later, when the family had returned to Palestine and located in the village of Nazareth. But it, too, is not devoid of anxiety and loss.
Following their custom of walking to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, Joseph and Mary become separated from the boy Jesus. Because men and women were grouped separately, his absence was not noticed for hours, probably at nightfall when families reunited for the night. Each no doubt thought Jesus was with the other group, which given his age would not have been unusual.
In what seems to have been a panic, the couple return to Jerusalem, frantically searching for the boy. When they finally come upon him in the Temple yeshiva, Jesus is engaged alongside other youngsters in questions and answers with teachers of the Law. He appeared to be unsurprised that Mary and Joseph were so worried. After all, that was where they had last seen him and where, he said, he ought to be. Dutifully, he returns with them to Nazareth and the obscurity of a peasant youth growing to maturity in a devoutly religious household.
Luke simply tells us Jesus “went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” [Luke 2:51-52].
In his letter to the Christians in Colossae, St. Paul seems to have had something like this in mind, and it is still excellent advice when he urges mutual love, obedience, and forbearance, including a wry and always pertinent bit of counsel: “fathers, do not nag your children lest they lose heart” [Col 3:21]. The beautiful passage from the Book of Sirach used as our first reading presents us with whole litany of good counsel regarding family life. It is worth noting that it is mainly about grown children’s abiding respect for their parents, especially when they are aged and in need of support. This recalls the seminal passage from the Book of Exodus, the mainstay of a godly life: “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” [Exodus 20:12. See also Deut. 5:16]. While we may bridle in an increasingly post-patriarchal age at some of St. Paul’s injunctions regarding spousal values, the overarching message remains unchanged: harmony, love, and respect should prevail in the family home.
As the New Year approaches, we may regard the near future with some trepidation. But after the pandemic, when sanity returns to the political scene, when peace settles at last like a gentle snowfall on a wrecked landscape, our moral compass should not need to be reset. But if it does, we have the guidance of God’s abiding word and the example of saints like Desmond Tutu to help us set it right again.
May you have a healthy and joyful New Year.