Friday, December 30, 2016

An Invitation to Reflect on the Holy Family

The Advent season is behind us and our Christian celebration of the Christmas season continues as we celebrate today the Feast of the Holy Family and approach the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God this weekend. During this precious time in our Church calendar, can we take time to ponder how we are being called to serve in 2017? How can we say yes to God as the Holy Family did -- accepting ourselves as members of holy families just as Jesus, Mary and Joseph were a human family with joys and sorrows, comfort and fears? This blog invites you to take a look at the Gospels of Luke and Matthew (have your Bible handy) and what they tell us about how Jesus came to be born to Mary and to his earthly father, Joseph.  Explore what Pope Francis has to tell us about the yes of Mary and Joseph and why Jesus was born into a human family. What does it mean for us today?

Find a quiet place to settle in for a while. Invite Mary, Joseph, and Jesus into this quiet place with you.

Imagine yourself as Mary. You are a poor girl living in a miserable little town in very difficult political times. You probably cannot read or write though you are likely familiar with the oral tradition of Scripture being shared. You are betrothed to an older man named Joseph. Scholars usually put Mary’s age at 12 or 13 or 14.

And out of nowhere, the Angel Gabriel appears:

What was this young girl thinking as the angel spoke to her? Was she frightened? Disbelieving? Defensive? Overwhelmed? Faithful? Perhaps all of the above.

Most of us would likely be delighted if we were told we had found favor with God. But Mary knew enough about Scripture to know that others who had found favor with God were not just blessed but missioned. To be favored by God, as the prophets were, meant you were indeed chosen but often chosen for a very difficult mission. And yet in the same sentence Mary is told “do not be afraid.” God never finds favor with his beloved sons and daughters without also providing reassurance.

Mary is not shy, as so many artistic renderings of her would have us believe. No, she comes right back at the Angel Gabriel and challenges the very feasibility of her being with child. “How can this be since I have no relations with a man?” Her response is such a human one. Even more so in those times when the cost of being pregnant out of wedlock was one’s very life.
Think about how Gabriel responded to her protest. He says the Holy Spirit will come upon her and the power of the Most High would overshadow her. I don’t know about you, but those words would not comfort me. But if she was familiar with the stories of the Old Testament, of the exodus, of Moses, she would recognize in those words the idea that she may be about to experience something overwhelming but again with the reassurance that God would indeed be with her as the mother of the Son of God.

It’s right after the angel says that Elizabeth is with child “for nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary says the sacred YES, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
On the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Francis said in his homily that Mary’s yes was not halfway. He said that she does not say, sure God, I’ll do it, I’m available now but after this we’ll see. “Hers is a full yes without conditions,” he said, “but we are experts at the ‘half-yes.’ We are good at pretending not to understand what God wants” or saying I can’t or I’ll do it tomorrow. But not Mary. “In all humility, she gives a full and unreserved yes.”

Personally, I have always loved that sequence – that Mary’s yes comes just after she learns of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. What would Mary have thought when she heard that her much older cousin Elizabeth is pregnant and in her sixth month? Does the knowledge of the gift God has bestowed on her cousin somehow provide comfort and encouragement? Is it a sense that she and her cousin will support each other? Does she suddenly have a new soul friend? Does she see it as her duty to take care of Elizabeth?

Mary soon makes haste to travel a long distance to be with Elizabeth. Mary was traveling from Nazareth to a small village south of Jerusalem – about 90 miles! And she was a very young girl. Young girls would never have traveled alone and certainly not that far. So she would first have needed to convince her parents, Anne and Joachim, that she needed to make this journey. Would they have known she was with child? Where was Joseph? Lots we don’t know but we do know that she could not have physically made haste. But in a spiritual sense, she was compelled to be with her elder cousin and she must have moved heaven and earth to make it happen.

Pope Francis explains it another way. He recently preached about Mary during a special weekend dedicated to her as part of the Jubilee Year of Mercy:
The Pope said that Mary’s “first act was to listen to God…” However “it’s not enough simply to listen.” While this is the first step, it must be followed by concrete action. “The disciple truly puts his [or her] life at the service of the Gospel,” recalling Mary’s own actions, pointing to how after the Annunciation, Mary immediately went to her cousin Elizabeth to help her during her pregnancy.

And Elizabeth is a most sacred woman in Scripture, the key figure with Mary in the Visitation scene. The two women encounter each other with such great joy. Two words dear to our Pope’s heart: encounter and joy. In their encounter they are completely present to each other and it’s as if the two unborn sons somehow great each other as well. The Pope is always encouraging us to authentically encounter each other – Mary could have sent a message of support to Elizabeth. Instead she went to great, great lengths to be with her, to minister to her in person.

And Elizabeth proclaims Jesus as her Lord. She is the first to proclaim the identity of Jesus. Women in Scripture ARE perceptive.

Some say that the two women coming together represents a bridge – a link from the Covenant of God in the Old Testament with the people of Israel to the New Covenant born in the baby Jesus and the New Testament – the dawn of Christianity. Mary and Elizabeth did bear the world in their wombs.

And yet both women do so with so much humility. Such authenticity. Such concern for the world around them.

This is of course the Canticle of Mary, the Magnificat, the conclusion of the first chapter of Luke. This hymn of praise acknowledges Mary’s awareness of herself as lowly and unworthy yet nonetheless blessed, or favored, by God. It underscores how God never seeks out the obvious disciple but the most unlikely. And this canticle is radical in its message of God’s justice, and our call to be people of justice and mercy. It turns all our thinking upside down – the people with power will be thrown down; the lowly will be lifted up. The hungry will be filled; the rich will be empty. And we are called, as we have been throughout the past Year of Mercy, to remember God’s mercy – the mercy of God this is indeed divine, surpassing our human capacity for compassion and having no limit. The canticle is not just about Mary, and Jesus coming into her world, but a reminder of how God has saved us all and continues to show us his mercy today. We are called to respond to this mercy by sharing it through our own acts of mercy toward others. We are called to be present to others, with loving care, with fierce protection.

And that brings us to that other key figure in our Christmas story, our protector, the patron saint of my parish, Joseph, ever-present spouse of Mary, loving, earthly father of Jesus.

This is one of the few biblical accounts that we have of Joseph and the only one that tells this particular story. Joseph is asked to act on faith beyond all reason and imagining. Just to clarify that word, betrothal: by Jewish marital customs in those days, Mary and Joseph would have been “engaged” when they were young, an arrangement by their parents. Up until the formal “betrothal,” Mary could have opted out but once betrothed, as they were, it was legally binding. They would even be referred to as husband and wife during the one-year betrothal and to separate would indeed require a divorce. But they would not yet be living together as husband and wife because Mary was too young – too physically immature to be with a husband.

So before the angel comes to Joseph in the dream, Joseph, aware of the pregnancy, is trying to do what a good Jewish man would be expected to do—divorce her quietly. To do so quietly would have been to try to spare Mary not only public humiliation but the very real possibility of execution by stoning, according to Old Testament law. So it’s no small act of faith and courage and humility for Joseph to quietly accept Mary as his wife and Jesus as his foster son, saying yes to God despite what must have seemed a preposterous story of conception by the Holy Spirit. Were it not for Joseph’s extraordinary act of faith, on top of Mary’s, our salvation story might be very different.

Pope Francis has described the mission of Joseph in this way: “Joseph did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took Mary as his wife. These words already point to the mission which God entrusts to Joseph: he is to be the protector. The protector of whom? Of Mary and Jesus; but this protection is then extended to the Church… How does Joseph exercise his role as protector? Discreetly, humbly and silently, but with an unfailing presence and utter fidelity, even when he finds it hard to understand.” The Pope continues, “From the time of his betrothal to Mary until the finding of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem, he is there at every moment with loving care. As the spouse of Mary, he is at her side in good times and bad, on the journey to Bethlehem for the census and in the anxious and joyful hours when she gave birth; amid the drama of the flight into Egypt and during the frantic search for their child in the Temple; and later in the day-to-day life of the home of Nazareth, in the workshop where he taught his trade to Jesus.”

The Jesuit, Fr. James Martin, in My Life with the Saints says Joseph lived a “hidden life” as he raised the boy who must have been full of childlike wonder. We know so little about Joseph yet he had a profound impact on the son he called his own. Along with Mary, Joseph would have been a primary teacher of the faith for Jesus. As a carpenter’s son, Jesus would have been taught the skills of the trade and virtues needed to be a respected craftsman: patience while you wait for the wood to dry; judgment to be sure your lines are straight; honesty to charge a fair price, and persistence to sand the wood smooth. Patience, judgment, honesty and persistence would serve Jesus well in his public ministry, after Joseph had presumably gone home to God.

But it all began with the carpenter’s willingness to hear the message God sent to him in a dream. As Pope Francis says about Mary, Joseph not only listened, he acted. And because he acted, Isaiah’s prophecy could be fulfilled: “the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel,” the name that means God with us. Joseph is told by the angel “do not be afraid” – just like Mary he too is chosen but he is not left alone.

For Joseph, the obedience of faith required him to provide a loving home, protection, and safety for Mary and Jesus – to make a family. That’s the model of faith left for us to emulate today. Within the context of whatever family looks like for you today – a big, loud messy household, an empty nest, maybe you’re even struggling alone – still we are called to see ourselves as holy, blessed, and chosen by God to continue the ministry of Jesus – to listen and to say YES, without condition or lame excuse – and then to act, to personally encounter, to share God’s mercy.

On this feast of the Holy Family, we hear again in Matthew’s Gospel about Joseph’s YES to God’s plan for his young family – he flees to Egypt to save his infant son from the jealous wrath of Herod. The family stays there until the angel returns to Joseph to draw them back to Nazareth where the boy Jesus is raised and prepared for his life in ministry.

In Amoris Laetitia, The Joy of Love, Pope Francis points to one fact that should  leave us breathless at Christmas: God chose to send his only Son into the world to save all humanity as part of a family. A poor family. An obscure family. A family like yours and mine. Here’s what he says:

“The incarnation of the Word in a human family, in Nazareth, by its very newness changed the history of the world. We need to enter into the mystery of Jesus’ birth, into that “yes” given by Mary to the message of the angel, when the Word was conceived in her womb, as well as the “yes” of Joseph, who gave a name to Jesus and watched over Mary. We need to contemplate the joy of the shepherds before the manger, the adoration of the Magi and the flight into Egypt, in which Jesus shares his people’s experience of exile, persecution and humiliation… We need to … peer into those thirty long years when Jesus earned his keep by the work of his hands, reciting the traditional prayers and expressions of his people’s faith and coming to know that ancestral faith until he made it bear fruit in the mystery of the Kingdom. This is the mystery of Christmas and the secret of Nazareth, exuding the beauty of family life! …

The covenant of love and fidelity lived by the Holy Family of Nazareth illuminates the principle which gives shape to every family, and enables it better to face the vicissitudes of life and history. On this basis, every family, despite its weaknesses, can become a light in the darkness
of the world.”  (Article 65-66)

Let us all pray to be the light in the darkness of our world. Amen.

This weekend, we will hear in Luke’s Gospel that as the shepherds announced the good news they had heard, Mary pondered all of these things in her heart.

Take a few moments now to ponder in your heart: How is God trying to act in your life, today, in your present circumstances? Where is God calling you to act?

A prayer to close this reflection, adapted from Little Rock’s Alive in the Word study Mary, Favored by God:

Like Mary, may I create the opportunity to share good news,
embrace a new thing God is doing even when it seems impossible,
and receive God’s word with joyful acceptance.

Like Elizabeth, may I recognize the presence of God in and around me,
foster in my family the desire to proclaim good news,
and humbly fulfill the plan of God in my own life.

Like Joseph, may I place all my trust in God,
give all of myself to being present and attentive to family needs,
and offer my protection and care to all in need.


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