Although garlands if not acres of colored lights still wink and glitter on trees, shrubs, and window frames, and inflatable snowpersons and reindeer graze on frosty lawns, the radio waves began purging Christmas carols on the Feast of St. Stephen, AKA Boxing Day on the east side of the Atlantic: December 26th. Liturgically, for those in the Catholic tradition, the Christmas season began on Christmas eve and lasts until evening prayer on January 12th this year, the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord. Most decorations will be packed away by Twelfth Night, however, the Feast of the Epiphany, or the evening before. (If you’re unlucky, you might look out and find twelve drummers drumming on the front lawn, not to mention 352 assorted partridges, milk maids, leaping lords, and the rest. One for each day of the year, it seems.)
This Sunday, however, while out of step with the times (except perhaps late Christmas sales), Christmas Time is barely five days old and celebrates the Holy Family – traditionally Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus, not merely having arrived safely in Egypt (according to Matthew’s gospel), where they lived in exile as refugees for several years, but after their return to Nazareth up to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, when apparently he left the family home never to return. If we follow Luke’s gospel here, he wasn’t welcome back in his home town anyway.
Later, Jesus had some harsh words to say about family divisions that would arise because of him, much as Simeon had predicted years before:
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” [Luke 12: 51-53. See also Matthew 10:34-37]. Hint for the yet unwary: it’s perilous to discuss religion and politics at the dinner table.
Today, however, the readings focus on family unity and amity. And in today’s world, where family life is in so many cases fragmented and
fractured, we would do well to listen.
Hebrew scripture is filled with injunctions about family respect, harmony, and loyalty, perhaps none so moving as today’s reading from the Book of Sirach. It reflects the decalogue, the ancient charter of faithful living: “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]. The passage from the Letter to the Colossians spells out the early Christian vision in greater detail, some of which grates on contemporary nerve endings. It is easy and perhaps tempting to read such texts in a literal fashion tinged with supposed severity and patriarchal domination. While the passage allows for such an interpretation, and heaven knows has been used to justify abuses, the point is again that concord and love should prevail in the family home. Hint: the letter can be lethal, but the spirit enlivens. Work it out.
The gospel reading describes one of the very few episodes in the early life of Jesus. It extols the care and wisdom of Joseph in protecting Mary and the infant Jesus, but pointedly in the context of their hurried flight from Bethlehem to evade violence and murder as refugees seeking safety in a foreign country. That should give Americans in particular, but not solely, pause for reflection as we witness refused entry and the forced separation of thousands of families of refugees seeking safety from oppression and violence, even murder, in their native villages and towns. The massacre of innocents did not cease when Herod’s militia left Bethlehem. It is present reality.
So as the Christmas season eases us, hopefully, into a new Year in which peace and compassion can flourish with good will toward all, especially refugee children, we would do well also to recall the words of Sirach: “Those who honor their father atone for sins, and those who respect their mother are like those who lay up treasure.” As for the kids,
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’
He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me’” [Matthew 18:1-5].