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The Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph (Friday, December 30)
Genesis 15:1-6.21:1-3; Luke 2:22-40)
A popular modern sculpture of the Holy Family challenges traditional sentiments. It shows St. Joseph embracing Mary with Jesus in her arms. What outrages some is the physical contact between Joseph and Mary. Pious artists of the past were careful not to hint of physical intimacy.
Scripture asserts that Mary conceived of Jesus as a virgin and never indicates that she had sexual relations. St. Jerome, the preeminent Biblical scholar of the Patristic era, held that Joseph also was a virgin. The two – Mary and Joseph – obviously were of the same mind and heart as the gospel today indicates, but they did not share the same bed.
What then are we to make of those who criticize the contemporary Holy Family statue? Are they fuddy-duddies or do they maintain a sense of right order? Mary and Joseph model many virtues that are necessary for us as citizens of both earthly and heavenly society. Compassion, courage, and charity name but a few. To see them as exemplars of self-restraint in our age of over-indulgence seems not just valid but very helpful.
The Fifth Day in the Octave of the Nativity of the Lord (Thursday, December 29)
(I John 2:3-11; Luke 2:22-35)
A well-published scholar once ignited a holy man’s ire by calling John’s letters, “New Testament baby-talk.” The scholar only meant to say that John’s letters possess simplicity and directness as if they were written for children. We see this in today’s first reading. “Whoever loves his brother remains in the light...,” John writes, “Whoever hates his brother remains in darkness...”
John is not challenging Christians to love those who hate them here. Nor is his meaning that Christians have to love blood brothers and sisters. He is simply reiterating Jesus’ commandment to his disciples that they love one another. It may sound easy, but hard feelings can sprout like weeds in a vegetable garden when humans associate. Disputes have originated in the Altar and Rosary Society and among Knights of Columbus as if these organizations were bands of pirates. Everyone feels frustration, envy, and even enmity in community at times. John is saying that we must overcome these troublesome sentiments.
John would be oversimplifying, however, if he means that Christian love may stop at the church door. Rather it is the case that we learn toleration, respect, and compassion in the family and in community so that we may, in turn, go out and love even those who hate us.
The Feast of the Holy Innocents, martyrs (Wednesday, December 28)
(I John 1:5-2:2; Matthew 2:13-18)
In Europe you might find your car’s tires flat today. Or perhaps there will be three unordered pizzas delivered to your door. The Feast of the Holy Innocents is Europe’s equivalent to America’s “April Fools Day.” It is prime time to play practical jokes on good-natured people.
It may offend sensitive people to entertain frivolity on a day commemorating the slaughter of children. But perhaps Holy Innocents Day jokesters just take to heart the belief that the infants have gone to God. “So why not rejoice?” they might ask. Somehow, however, that is just too facile an attitude. It does not recoil at the injustice of the blood of children. It also begs the question, “Why live at all?”
The answer to the last question is obvious for older folk. The Baltimore Catechism used to teach, “We live to know, love, and serve God in this world and to be happy with him in the next.” The tragedy of people dying young is that they cannot come to know God very well. Yes, they should receive the beatific vision in heaven, and there is something marvelous about the prospect of seeing God through children’s eyes. But just as an entomologist will appreciate the subtleties between different types of insects in ways that escape the average person so growing in wisdom through the years will make us more enthralled at God’s glory. There should be no regret then in becoming old then if we accordingly grow in wisdom. Conversely, it is sad when one dies young.
Feast of St. John, apostle and evangelist (Tuesday, December 27)
(I John 1:1-4; John 20:1a.2-8)
Once a disillusioned pilgrim returned from the Holy Land lamenting the conditions he encountered. Not only was there strife between Jews and Arabs, but hawkers constantly besieged him with souvenir trinkets. Even in Bethlehem there was conflict. The man marveled at how times have changed, but he only had to read the Scriptures closely to realize that trouble is nothing new to the area.
Although the Gospel of Luke depicts a tranquil setting for Jesus’ birth, there is much evidence of turmoil during New Testament times. In John’s gospel Jesus conducts a running debate with the Jews who try to kill him. The Letters of John report a feud between the community of the beloved disciple and a secessionist group who apparently believed that morals do not matter. Of course, there is the acrimonious debate between Jesus and the Pharisees which is believed to reflect trouble between the first Christians and their Jewish compatriots.
In spite of all this conflict, the writer of the First Letter of John offers a testimony of hope. Much more than a dream or vision, the testimony involves a real person – one he looked upon with his eyes, heard with his ears, and touched with his hands. He is saying that despite the tumult we face today, Jesus, the Word of life, is on hand promising eternity for faithful followers.
Feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr (Monday, December 26)
(Acts 6:8-10.7:54-59; Matthew 10:17-22)
The play Murder in the Cathedral tells the story of the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1170. Half-way through the play, the archbishop delivers his Christmas sermon. He asks the congregation, “Is it an accident … that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ?” No, the Church deliberately places the Feast of St. Stephen on the day after Christmas to remind the faithful that God’s Son came into the world to die for their sins.
Unless people think that the dual sentiment of Christmas is the invention of the Medieval Church, the same duality is found in both Luke’s and Matthew’s Nativity accounts. In Luke after Jesus is born his parents take him to the Temple where Simeon prophesizes that Jesus will be a sign to be contradicted or, more colloquially, to be done in. In Matthew the horror is more palpable. Jesus’ birth occasions the jealousy of King Herod who has thousands infants murdered to protect his kingship.
We must take to heart the cross sentiments of Christian life. Our happiest celebrations, like the birth of a child, should not make us forget that infants around the world die of malnutrition. Similarly, our most intolerable burdens, like the loss of a loved one, should not go without faith in Christ’s victory over sin and death. We live both the death and the resurrection of the Lord deep in our hearts everyday.