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The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph

Scripture Readings
First: Sir 3:2-6, 12-14 or Gn 15:1-6; 21:1-3
Second: Col 3:12-21 or 3:12-17 or Heb 11:8, 11-12, 17-19
Gospel: Lk 2:22-40 or 2:22, 39-40

Prepared by: Fr. Lawrence J. Donohoo, O.P.

1. Subject Matter
(The following notes are restricted to the readings from Genesis and Hebrews, which are proper
to Cycle B.)
• First Reading: Seeking only an heir from the Lord, Abram receives instead a nation—or
rather, the nations—as his inheritance.
• Second Reading: Summarizing Abraham’s deeds from the perspective of faith, Hebrews
underscores his ultimate sacrifice in subordinating even his deepest human attachments to
the divine mandates.
• Gospel: The priestly prescriptions of purification and consecration for Mary and Jesus
respectively become the occasion of Simeon’s prophecy of Christ as the fulfillment of Israel
and the nations.
• In a word, today’s readings approach the mystery of the family through the lens of God’s
salvific plan for the nations—a plan that presupposes the transmission of life and faith from
generation to generation in the family.

2. Exegetical Notes
• Gen. 15:6 plays a key role in St. Paul’s theology of faith (see Gal. 3:6), a teaching reflected
and developed by Hebrews with reference to Abraham’s other praiseworthy acts of trust.
• “Besides the Nunc Dimittis. . .Luke has used as a source for this section the narrative of
Hannah and Elkanah in 1 Sam 1-2. . . .Luke has expanded these sources with his themes of
fulfillment of promise, temple, universalism, rejection, witness, and women.” (NJBC)
• Luke “structures his story as follows: 2:21-24 is the setting for the dual witness of Simeon
and Anna in 2:25-38 and 2:39-40 forms the conclusion. The theological centerpiece of the
whole is found in 2:29-32.” (NJBC)
• “Jerusalem is a very important theme and symbol in Luke for God’s blessings and continuity
between promise and fulfillment, between Judaism and reconstituted Israel, which journeys
forth from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.” (NJBC)
• The pairing of Simeon and Anna—man and woman--calls to mind that of Joseph and Mary,
and Zechariah and Elizabeth. Simeon and Anna “are equal in honour and grace, they are
endowed with the same gifts and have the same responsibilities” (Flender).

3. References to the Catechism of the Catholic Church


• 146 Abraham thus fulfills the definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1: “Faith is the assurance of
things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”: “Abraham believed God, and it was
reckoned to him as righteousness.” Because he was “strong in his faith,” Abraham became
the “father of all who believe.”
• 2570 When God calls him, Abraham goes forth “as the Lord had told him”; Abraham’s heart
is entirely submissive to the Word and so he obeys. Such attentiveness of the heart, whose
decisions are made according to God’s will, is essential to prayer, while the words used
count only in relation to it. Abraham’s prayer is expressed first by deeds: a man of silence, he
constructs an altar to the Lord at each stage of his journey. Only later does Abraham’s first
prayer in words appear: a veiled complaint reminding God of his promises which seem
unfulfilled. Thus one aspect of the drama of prayer appears from the beginning: the test of
faith in the fidelity of God.
• 145 The Letter to the Hebrews, in its great eulogy of the faith of Israel’s ancestors, lays
special emphasis on Abraham’s faith: “By faith, Abraham obeyed when he was called to go
out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing
where he was to go.” By faith, he lived as a stranger and pilgrim in the promised land. By
faith, Sarah was given to conceive the son of the promise. And by faith Abraham offered his
only son in sacrifice.
• 2572 As a final stage in the purification of his faith, Abraham, “who had received the
promises,” is asked to sacrifice the son God had given him. Abraham’s faith does not weaken
(“God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering.”), for he “considered that God was
able to raise men even from the dead.” And so the father of believers is conformed to the
likeness of the Father who will not spare his own Son but will deliver him up for us all. Prayer
restores man to God’s likeness and enables him to share in the power of God’s love that
saves the multitude.
• 529 The presentation of Jesus in the temple shows him to be the firstborn Son who belongs
to the Lord. With Simeon and Anna, all Israel awaits its encounter with the Savior-the name
given to this event in the Byzantine tradition. Jesus is recognized as the long-expected
Messiah, the “light to the nations” and the “glory of Israel”, but also “a sign that is spoken
against”. The sword of sorrow predicted for Mary announces Christ’s perfect and unique
oblation on the cross that will impart the salvation God had “prepared in the presence of all
peoples.”
• 583 Like the prophets before him Jesus expressed the deepest respect for the Temple in
Jerusalem. It was in the Temple that Joseph and Mary presented him forty days after his
birth. At the age of twelve he decided to remain in the Temple to remind his parents that he
must be about his Father’s business. He went there each year during his hidden life at least
for Passover. His public ministry itself was patterned by his pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the
great Jewish feasts.
• 489 Throughout the Old Covenant the mission of many holy women prepared for that of
Mary. At the very beginning there was Eve; despite her disobedience, she receives the
promise of a posterity that will be victorious over the evil one, as well as the promise that she
will be the mother of all the living. By virtue of this promise, Sarah conceives a son in spite of
her old age. Against all human expectation God chooses those who were considered
powerless and weak to show forth his faithfulness to his promises: Hannah, the mother of
Samuel; Deborah; Ruth; Judith and Esther; and many other women. Mary “stands out among
the poor and humble of the Lord, who confidently hope for and receive salvation from him.
After a long period of waiting the times are fulfilled in her, the exalted Daughter of Sion, and
the new plan of salvation is established.”
• 711 “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” Two prophetic lines were to develop, one leading to
the expectation of the Messiah, the other pointing to the announcement of a new Spirit. They
converge in the small Remnant, the people of the poor, who await in hope the “consolation of
Israel” and “the redemption of Jerusalem.”
• 695 Jesus is God’s Anointed in a unique way: the humanity the Son assumed was entirely
anointed by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit established him as “Christ.” The Virgin Mary
conceived Christ by the Holy Spirit who, through the angel, proclaimed him the Christ at his
birth, and prompted Simeon to come to the temple to see the Christ of the Lord. The Spirit
filled Christ and the power of the Spirit went out from him in his acts of healing and of saving.
Finally, it was the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead.
• 618 Jesus desires to associate with his redeeming sacrifice those who were to be its first
beneficiaries. This is achieved supremely in the case of his mother, who was associated
more intimately than any other person in the mystery of his redemptive suffering.
• 2201 The conjugal community is established upon the consent of the spouses. Marriage and
the family are ordered to the good of the spouses and to the procreation and education of
children. The love of the spouses and the begetting of children create among members of the
same family personal relationships and primordial responsibilities.
• 2202 A man and a woman united in marriage, together with their children, form a family. This
institution is prior to any recognition by public authority, which has an obligation to recognize
it. It should be considered the normal reference point by which the different forms of family
relationship are to be evaluated.
• 2203 In creating man and woman, God instituted the human family and endowed it with its
fundamental constitution. Its members are persons equal in dignity. For the common good of
its members and of society, the family necessarily has manifold responsibilities, rights, and
duties.
• 2204 “The Christian family constitutes a specific revelation and realization of ecclesial
communion, and for this reason it can and should be called a domestic church.” It is a
community of faith, hope, and charity; it assumes singular importance in the Church, as is
evident in the New Testament.
• 2205 The Christian family is a communion of persons, a sign and image of the communion of
the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. In the procreation and education of children it
reflects the Father’s work of creation. It is called to partake of the prayer and sacrifice of
Christ. Daily prayer and the reading of the Word of God strengthen it in charity. The Christian
family has an evangelizing and missionary task.
• 2206 The relationships within the family bring an affinity of feelings, affections and interests,
arising above all from the members’ respect for one another. The family is a privileged
community called to achieve a “sharing of thought and common deliberation by the spouses
as well as their eager cooperation as parents in the children’s upbringing.”
• 2207 The family is the original cell of social life. It is the natural society in which husband and
wife are called to give themselves in love and in the gift of life. Authority, stability, and a life of
relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity
within society. The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral
values, begin to honor God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into
life in society.
• 2212 The fourth commandment illuminates other relationships in society. In our brothers and
sisters we see the children of our parents; in our cousins, the descendants of our ancestors;
in our fellow citizens, the children of our country; in the baptized, the children of our mother
the Church; in every human person, a son or daughter of the One who wants to be called
“our Father.” In this way our relationships with our neighbors are recognized as personal in
character. The neighbor is not a “unit” in the human collective; he is “someone” who by his
known origins deserves particular attention and respect.

4. Patristic Commentary
• St. Athanasius: “[I]t was not to confer grace on himself that Christ was made man and
circumcised in the flesh, but to make us gods through grace, that we might be circumcised in
the Spirit. So it is for our sakes that [Jesus] is presented to the Lord, that we also might learn
to present ourselves to the Lord.”
• St. Cyril: “O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! He offers victims,
who in each victim is honored equally with the Father. The Truth preserves the figures of the
law. He who as God is the maker of the law, as man has kept the law.”
• St. Gregory of Nyssa: “It was not surely worldly happiness that the prudent Simeon was
waiting for as the consolation of Israel, but a real happiness, that is, a passing over to the
beauty of truth from the shadow of the law. For he had learnt from the sacred oracles that he
would see the Lord’s Christ before he should depart out of this present life. Hence it follows,
‘And the Holy Spirit was in him,’ (by which indeed he was justified,) and he received an
answer from the Holy Spirit.”
• Origen: “If you will touch Jesus and grasp him in your hands, strive with all your strength to
have the Spirit for your guide, and come to the temple of God. For it follows, ‘And when his
parents brought in the child Jesus, (i.e. Mary his mother, and Joseph his reputed father,) to
do for him after the custom of the law, then he took him up in his arms.”
• Theophilus: “The old man received the infant Christ, to convey thereby that this world, now
worn out as it were with old age, should return to the childlike innocence of the Christian life.”
• Greek Ex: “Mark the wisdom of the good and venerable old man, who before that he was
thought worthy of the blessed vision, was waiting for the consolation of Israel, but when he
obtained that which he was looking for, exclaims that he saw the salvation of all people. So
enlightened was he by the unspeakable radiance of the child, that he perceived at a glance
things that were to happen a long time after.”
• St. Gregory Nyssa: “Though these things are said of the Son, yet they have reference also
to his mother, who takes each thing to herself, whether it be of danger or glory. He
announces to her not only her prosperity, but her sorrows; for it follows, “and a sword shall
pierce through your own heart.”

5. Examples from the Saints and Other Exemplars


• St. Margaret of Scotland placed her family and her family work in the service of the kingdom
of Christ. Mother of eight children and wife of Malcolm, King of Scotland (and slayer of
Macbeth), she also devoted herself to public works of charity. Margaret founded several
churches, including the abbey at Dunfermline in order to house a relic of the true Cross.
Active in works of charity, she frequently visited and cared for the sick, and built homes for
the poor. She took Jesus at his word by holding feasts, especially during Advent and Lent,
for as many as 300 commoners in the royal castle.
• A few tidbits from the life of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton provide a modern rendition of the same
graced capacity to serve family within the Church. Elizabeth and William Magee Seton
brought five children into the world. When her husband died in Pisa in 1803, Elizabeth was
left a 29-year-old widow with five young children, all of them under eight years of age. As
their sole parent she faced many challenges and frequently had to relocate into less
expensive housing. When visiting New York in 1806, Rev. Louis William Dubourg, S.S. met
Elizabeth and told of his longstanding desire to found a congregation of religious women to
teach girls in Baltimore. With the support of Bishop John Carroll, he invited Elizabeth to
Baltimore with the assurance that the Sulpicians, who were émigrés in Maryland, “would
assist her in forming a plan of life which would be in the best interests of her children.”
(Emmitsburg Area Historical Society)

6. Quotations of Pope Benedict XVI

• “At the moment of Jesus’ death, the function of the old temple comes to an end. It is
dissolved. It is no longer the place of God’s presence, his ‘footstool,’ into which he has
caused his glory to descend. Theologically, the visible destruction of the temple has already
been anticipated. Worship through types and shadows ends at the very moment when the
real worship takes place: the self-offering of the Son, who has become man and ‘Lamb,’ the
‘Firstborn,’ who gathers up and into himself all worship of God, takes it from the types and
shadows into the reality of man’s union with the living God.”
• “So we cry to her: Holy Mary, you belonged to the humble and great souls of Israel who, like
Simeon, were ‘looking for the consolation of Israel’ (Lk 2:25) and hoping, like Anna, ‘for the
redemption of Jerusalem’ (Lk 2:38). Your life was thoroughly imbued with the sacred
scriptures of Israel which spoke of hope, of the promise made to Abraham and his
descendants (cf. Lk 1:55).”
• “[T]he family is the living home in which humanity is nurtured, which banishes chaos and
futility, and which must be protected as such. . .The individual family cannot survive; it will
disintegrate unless it is kept safe within the larger family which guarantees it and gives it
security. So. . .we set out once again on our twin paths: we set out on the path to the new
city, the new family, the Church, and dedicate ourselves irrevocably to her, to our heart’s true
home; and then, on the basis of this family of Jesus Christ, we can proceed to grasp what is
meant by the human family and by the humanity which sustains and protects us.”

7. Other Considerations

• “The Church honors the Holy Family today to emphasize the function of the family in our own
human development and growth, to stress the role of the Holy Family in deepening our
relationship with God, and to remind us how the Holy Family serves as an enduring icon of
that external exchange of love which is the Blessed Trinity.” (Cameron)
• “The Gospel shows us the Holy Family doing three things that manifest their holiness and
that invite us to emulate them. We first meet them worshiping in the temple. . . .Second, we
also see the Holy Family together accepting suffering in their life. . . .Third, however, the Holy
Family’s love is not inward and exclusive. It reaches out to the world.” (Cameron)
• The Gospel embraces six major themes: presentation, sacrifice, light, transition from the Old
to the New Covenant, Israel and the Gentiles, and suffering (sword piercing).
• Simeon portends that it will be the same with Jesus—and his mother—as it was with the
Law. Two offerings are prescribed: the first is a sin-offering that leaves nothing of sin; the
second is a holocaust that leaves nothing of self.
• The Gospel presents an embarrassment of paradoxes: (1) The Redeemer of the Chosen
People and the nations is presented in the Temple, whose rite is designed to redeem him.
Jesus is redeemed as the first-born under the Law, but He has come to redeem us from the
Law. (2) The turtledoves offer their lives to redeem the woman, the Immaculate Conception,
from impurity. (3) The old man carries the child, but the child sustains the old man and his
prophecy as his Lord and God. (4) The old man has awaited the consolation of Israel, but
now he offers a disconsolate revelation of a piercing sword. (5) Mary and Joseph come to
present their child to fulfill the Law’s prescriptions, but Simeon comes to present the child
with his destiny. The mother of the New Covenant fulfills the Law’s prescriptions; the aged
prophet awaiting the consolation of Israel reveals the future destiny and mission of the child.
(6) The child is destined to be a light to the Gentiles and the glory of God’s people Israel, but
he will be a sign that will be opposed.
• It was a dove that first announced that redemption was again at hand, that Noah could once
again step out of the ark onto dry land, and eventually, could step back into the ark of the
covenant. For this reason, the lover recalls the dove in the spring song of the Song of Songs:
“For see, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of pruning the vines has come, and the song of the dove is heard in our land.” But in
the Temple the song becomes a scream: one turtledove becomes a holocaust, the other a
sin-offering. Life becomes death. Both birds stand in for the New Eve. They die to take her
sin away who knew no sin. Their exchange or sacrifice is all the more poignant because it is
to no purpose at all.
• The child as the first-born is presented for redemption since every first-born male–human or
animal–that opens the womb is sacrificed—really or vicariously--because the first-born of
Egypt were sacrificed. They were sacrificed because Pharaoh sinned; they were sacrificed
so that Israel might go free. The child, then, is redeemed because the Egyptian first-born
were sacrificed for Israel, but one day the child will sacrifice for them.
• In sum, “[Jesus was] presented and redeemed as one whose life was forfeit by sin, and as
defiling rather than engracing the Mother that bore Him.” (Tyrrell).
• God allows his sinless and sinless creatures–turtledoves, the prophet and prophetess, the
Temple, Joseph and Mary–to share in the work of ransoming the child, of redeeming the
redeemer. We imitate their work by “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the
sake of his body, that is, the church.”

Recommended Resources
Benedict XVI. Benedictus: Day by Day with Pope Benedict XVI. Edited by Peter John Cameron.
Yonkers: Magnificat, 2006.
____________. Spe Salvi.
Brown, Raymond A., Joseph A. Fitzmyer and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical
Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: 1990.
Cameron, Peter John. To Praise, To Bless, To Preach - Cycle B. Huntington: Our Sunday
Visitor, 2000.
Thomas Aquinas, St. Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels. Works of the Fathers.
Vol. 3, Pt. 2. London, 1843. Reprinted by The St. Austin Press, 1997.