On the Feast of the Holy Family we have a special occasion to consider prayerfully our own family relationships with our children and parents, our spouses, and ultimately with God.
Demonstrating just and kind respect for one’s elders, and in particular for one’s parents, even when they begin to fade away, is an increasingly common challenge for adults today. Physical or mental diminishment during old age, together with depleted financial resources, often rob elderly people of their dignity and limit the living choices available to them. Considering these factors, as well as the busy lifestyles of many of their adult children, elderly people at times feel as though they are a burden on the younger generation on whom they depend.
For Sirach, the inspired author of the first reading today, parents clearly hold a special place in each person’s rapport with God; near the beginning of his discourse on respect for one’s elders he writes: “the Lord sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons” (Sir 3:2). The honor, reverence, and obedience encouraged here by Sirach are all commended frequently in the Bible as appropriate and necessary offerings or dispositions of heart for believers to bring before God. Sirach teaches that the same dispositions should be shown to one’s father and mother since God’s authority rests with them, and respect shown to them is ultimately directed toward the Lord.
A similar point, though with a wider aim, is found in the second reading today, from the Letter to the Colossians. There we read: “Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Col 3:12). From the context of Paul’s letter one sees that he describing the manner in which we must conduct ourselves with respect to all of our brothers and sisters in the Lord, not simply to our friends and favorites. If this sort of respectful and forgiving attitude is to be shown to strangers—and indeed it should be—then we must all the more so demonstrate it within our own families through our interactions with our children, siblings, and other relatives.
Next comes a harder passage to encounter, though one which is worth taking on: the Church actually gives the celebrant at mass the option of deleting this text from the reading! It begins: “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them” (Col 3:18-19). When I have preached on this passage at mass men in the congregation often nudge their wives with a smile upon hearing the first sentence of that reading, and then look a bit sheepish after hearing the second. The point is that the love and humility shown to one’s spouse, whether husband or wife, is shown to God. This should not be the cause of childish resentment or a defeated spirit, but rather a source of joy, over the beautiful union between our relationship with our spouses and our relationship with God.
Bringing these thoughts together, in the gospel account of the presentation of the Lord in the Temple we discover in the wise elder Simeon a note of great trust and respect, reflective of his mature faith, and evoked by a family whom he barely knew yet who exemplified for him the unity, love, and self-giving of the one true God of Israel. On the Feast of the Holy Family may we imitate Simeon’s perceptive wisdom and nourish in our own families the same spirit of Christian charity and mutual respect that thrived in the family of Nazareth, and that will draw us ever closer to the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and our entire heavenly family.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.