For most Christians the family is the first school of spirituality. In that context we learn (or do not learn) the basics of morality and religion, and we develop our sense of responsibility and mutual respect. On Christmas Day we celebrated the birth of Jesus, through whom we believe that we have entered upon a new relationship with God. We are God’s children alongside the Son of God. This means that we should respect one another as God has respected us. The theme of our identity and dignity as God’s children runs through the readings for Holy Family Sunday.
Today’s text from Sirach 3 is an instruction for adults to care for their aging parents. That plea is based on the commandment to “honor your father and mother,” which was addressed originally to adults rather than to young children. We are to honor our aging parents not only out of gratitude for their gifts of life and care, but also because as children of God they deserve our respect and love.
In the household code from Colossians 3, husbands are exhorted to love their wives and avoid bitterness toward them. Likewise, parents are urged to avoid nagging their children, lest they become discouraged. Even within the patriarchal family structure assumed in the passage, there is an overriding emphasis on respect based upon our common identity and dignity as God’s children through Christ.
Luke’s account of the child Jesus teaching in the Temple area prefigures Jesus’ activities as an adult. He goes up to Jerusalem on Passover, engages the Jewish sages in dialogue and claims the Jerusalem Temple as his Father’s house. Yet there are some disturbing features. Jesus fails to inform his parents of his whereabouts, and he answers them in a “fresh” manner.
The child Jesus’ behavior reminds us that while the human family is an essential context of spirituality, it is not an absolute. Sometimes one’s obligations to God can supersede natural family duties (Luke 9:59-62). Later in Luke’s Gospel (8:21; 11:28) Jesus redefines his family as those who hear God’s word and act upon it. Of course, the one character who fits that definition perfectly is Mary the mother of Jesus. The final sentences in today’s reading affirm that Jesus participated fully and flourished in his family.
Christian family life begins with the recognition of our common identity and dignity as God’s children through Jesus the Son of God. It should help all the members grow in wisdom and grace, and encourage them to hear God’s word and act upon it as Mary did.
The readings for the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God (Jan. 1) invoke the Jewish high priestly blessing upon us as we start a new calendar year (Num 6:22-27), explain how we have become God’s adopted children through Jesus (Gal 4:4-7) and tell how the child born of Mary came to be named Jesus and how Mary fulfilled her role as Jesus’ perfect disciple (Luke 2:16-21).
• Have you ever considered the commandment about honoring one’s parents as directed to adults? What difference does that make?
• How does the emphasis on common dignity and mutual respect relativize the patriarchal character of the biblical household codes?
• What is distinctive about the Christian approach to the family? What implications might it have for you?