Holy Family Sirach 3:2–6, 12–14 (Year A); Colossians 3:12–21 (Year A); Luke 2:41–52 (Year C)
Who is this angel? The traditional teaching of the Church about angels is clear; it is less insistent on its teaching about guardian angels.
There’s an ancient legend about the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. The story goes something like this.
At one point along the journey, a band of outlaws stopped and surrounded Mary and Joseph. Just as they were about to rob the couple, one of the outlaws, named Dismas, happened to see the child in Mary’s arms.
Dismas was so struck by the face of Jesus that he persuaded the other outlaws to let Mary and Joseph pass unharmed.
Just before the outlaws departed, Dismas leaned over the child Jesus and said, “Remember me, and never forget this hour.’’
The legend goes on to say that the outlaw turned out to be the good thief who was crucified along with Jesus. It was to him that Jesus said, “I promise you that today you will be in Paradise with me.” Luke 23:43
That story, of course, is mere legend. It probably never happened. But it does make two important points.
The first point is that the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt was a dangerous journey. In ancient times most people traveled in large caravans because many roads were controlled by outlaws. It was foolhardy to travel alone, except in an emergency, as in the case of the Holy Family.
The second point is the special protection that God seems to have given the Holy Family in connection with the birth of Jesus.
Matthew says that an angel of the Lord instructed Joseph in a dream to flee to Egypt. Matthew also says that an angel of the Lord instructed Joseph when it was safe to return.
Let’s turn our attention, briefly, to this second point about the angel. Who was this angel in charge of Jesus’ special protection?
Mention the word angel to people today, and you might get an interesting reaction.
A TV viewer might think you’re talking about Michael Landon’s TV hit, “Highway to Heaven,’’ in which Landon plays a disguised angel who goes about helping people in need.
A moviegoer might think you’re talking about The Heavenly Kid, a film in which a young father returns to earth to help a son he fathered out of wedlock.
A Christian might think you’re talking about spiritual beings who protect us in times of danger.
At this point, it might be good to separate two ideas: the idea of angels, in general, and the idea of guardian angels, in particular.
First, take the idea of angels, in general.
Some years back, Billy Graham wrote a book entitled Angels. It was an immediate hit, selling over two million copies. Graham set forth the traditional teaching that angels are spiritual beings.
From a Catholic viewpoint the traditional teaching is that angels are a part of God’s unseen creation. We allude to them in the Creed at Mass when we say, “We believe in one God . . . maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen.’’
We refer to them, also, at the start of Mass when we pray on certain occasions, “I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.’’
We refer to them, also, in the Preface of the Mass when we say, “We join the angels and the saints in proclaiming your glory as we say: Holy, holy, holy . . .’’
Turning to the Bible, we find angels mentioned often, beginning with the Book of Genesis and ending with the Book of Revelation.
Angels are mentioned, especially, in connection with the birth of Jesus. The Bible portrays angels as God’s messengers, as in today’s gospel.
The Bible also seems to use the word angel to refer to a manifestation of God’s presence. For example, in the Old Testament, Hagar refers to an angel of the Lord, saying, “Have I really seen God and lived to tell about it?” Genesis 16:13
This leads us to the idea of guardian angels, that is, spiritual beings assigned to protect us.
The Bible is less clear on this point. But Jesus does say of some children, “Their angels . . . are always in the presence of my Father in heaven.” Matthew 18:10
The Church has never taught that we must believe as a matter of strict faith that every person has a guardian angel.
But the idea of guardian angels does enjoy an honored tradition in the Church. At the very least, it underscores one of the basic teachings of our faith: that God exercises a special love and concern over each of us.
Speaking of this special love and concern, Jesus said to his disciples, “Yet not one sparrow is forgotten by God . . .
Do not be afraid; you are worth much more than many sparrows!” Luke 12:6–7
And so, by way of conclusion, the Church teaches two things about angels.
First, it teaches that angels do exist. They are messengers and, perhaps, manifestations of God himself.
Second, the Church teaches that each of us is the object of God’s special love and concern. The love and concern, at times, seems to take the form of a guardian angel.
But the Church does not teach as a matter of strict faith that every person has a guardian angel.
Let’s close with a poetic quotation from a modern theologian, John Shea. It describes the important role that the idea of guardian angels played in his childhood and the need to communicate this idea to children today. Shea says:
“I laugh to remember / how in the second grade the nun made us slide over to make room for a guardian angel. Since I was fat / and the seat thin, I oozed over the edge like a melted cheese sandwich and was painfully aware of how close God was. But I have outgrown that angel,left him behind / like the sign of the cross before a free throw / in a basketball game.
“Yet / if I could tell a son only one wisdom, I might whisper / that he had an angel his own, not as valet / or imaginary playmate, but as a companion like Tobit had / on his mission of manhood. Otherwise he might forget / his father’s mature faith that the wings of God’s love beat above us all.’’ From “A Prayer of Inheritance,’’ in The God Who Fell from Heaven (Tabor Publishing, 1979) Series II Holy Family Sirach 3:2–6, 12–14; Colossians 3:12–21; Luke 2:41–52
Becoming an adult Like the Holy Family, every family must stretch to understand and to respect one another.
Years ago H. V.Morton wrote a fascinating book called In the Steps of the Master. It describes how he went to the Holy Land and retraced all the steps that the Bible says Jesus took 2,000 years ago.
One Sabbath morning he was walking through the narrow streets of Jerusalem’s Old City. Suddenly he came upon an old synagogue.
Morton went inside and found it arranged just as synagogues were when Jesus lived. The women sat in one section, and the men sat in another.
So, too,Morton found the synagogue service to be much as it was when Jesus lived. It was a blend of prayer, songs, and readings from the Scriptures.
After the service,Morton went outside. There he found a boy of about twelve conversing with some older men with beards. They listened attentively each time the boy spoke.
Sometimes they nodded in agreement. Sometimes they peered over their glasses and frowned in disagreement. All the while the boy stood his ground respectfully. When the conversation ended, the boy gave a little bow to the bearded men and went on his way.
That’s when it struck Morton. The sight he had just witnessed was very much like the one described in today’s gospel:
where Mary and Joseph find Jesus in the Temple, conversing with the teachers.
An ancient Jewish book, called the Talmud, says of a Jewish boy:
“At five he must begin sacred studies; at ten he must learn about the religious traditions of his ancestors; at thirteen he must know God’s law and begin to practice as all adults do.’’
Today, the religious rite of Bar Mitzvah celebrates the Jewish boy’s passage from childhood to young adulthood. Similarly, the Jewish girl’s passage from childhood to young adulthood is celebrated in the rite of Bas Mitzvah.
In modern Israel, the Bar Mitzvah rite often terminates with the boy’s going to the Israeli frontier. There he spends a brief time serving as an armed guard for his country. Or the boy may give blood to be used in transfusions for the sick.
In other words, when the Jewish child reaches young adulthood, the child assumes adult responsibilities.
It is right here that today’s gospel contains a special lesson for all young people and for all adults. For young people, it says that there’s a time in life when we begin to experience the first movements out of childhood into adulthood. We begin to think for ourselves and to ask questions about things that we never thought about before.
From a religious point of view, it says that there is a time in life when we must make our own the faith that we received from our parents.
There is a time when we must begin to make the transition from being Christian by birth to being Christian by choice. In other words, it’s a time when we make the transition from cultural, or childhood, faith to adult, or convictional, faith.
This is a terribly important time for both young people and their parents. And, no doubt, this is one reason why St. Luke recorded the story of Jesus that we find in today’s gospel.
Sometimes the transition from a childhood to an adult faith is reasonably smooth. At other times it is terribly painful. This is because our childhood faith must die before our adult faith can be born.
In his book The Restless Believers, John Kirvan has a moving description of how the death of childhood faith can affect a young person. He quotes a high school student as saying:
“I don’t know what’s gone wrong, but I just don’t believe like I used to. When I was in grade school and for the first couple years of high school I was real religious, and now I just don’t seem to care.’’
The death of one’s childhood faith can make young people feel sick of heart even guilty. This is unfortunate, for they are simply going through an important stage of their faith growth. They are making the transition from childhood faith to adult faith.
Here, even adult Christians need to keep something in mind. It is this: The process of acquiring an adult faith is a process that never ends. It is a process that goes on, to some extent, all of our lives.
This is why even adults experience occasional times of darkness and difficulty in their faith.
This brings us back to today’s gospel. It describes Jesus’ transition from religious childhood to religious adulthood.
And it suggests that this transition was trying not only for Jesus but also for his parents.
It was trying not because Jesus or his parents did anything wrong. It was trying because they had a human side.
In other words, Jesus felt the death of his childhood and the birth of his adulthood, as every human being does. After all, Scripture itself tells us that he was like us in all things but sin.
And Mary and Joseph had to adjust to the death of Jesus the child and the birth of Jesus the adult and that wasn’t easy.
The final paragraph of today’s gospel is especially helpful here. It holds an important lesson for us to grasp on this feast of the Holy Family. It reads:
Jesus went back with [his parents] to Nazareth, where he was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
In other words, both Jesus and his parents lived out the transition from Jesus’ childhood to his adulthood in harmony and understanding.
On Jesus’ side this meant obedience, even when this was difficult in his striving for adulthood and independence. On Mary and Joseph’s side, it meant patience and praying for guidance in this critical period of their child’s life.
This is the lesson of today’s gospel story. This is the message of today’s feast. This is the grace for which we all pray for together in today’s liturgy.
Series III Holy Family Sirach 3:2–7, 12–14 (Year A*); Colossians 3:12–17 (Year A*); Luke 2:41–52 (Year C)
Two virtues We are called to cultivate the virtues of patience and forgiveness.
Clothe yourselves with patience and forgiveness. Colossians 3:12–13 (adapted)
Bill Russell is a pro basketball legend. He led the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA titles.
Five times he was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player. Twelve times he was elected to the league’s All-Star team. Russell grew up in Monroe, Louisiana. There his father worked long hard days in a paper bag factory. But his father was a strong man, and would return home each night still full of energy. Bill writes:
He’d call out to my brother, mother and me. We would follow him to the fields where the grass grew tall as wheat, and the four of us would play hide-and-seek.
When it was time to go home, my father would reach down and pick me up under one arm, pick my brother up under the other, and then lean down so my mother could crawl up on his back. Then he’d run all the way home, carrying his whole family, as if we weighed nothing. Second Wind (1979) There’s something marvelously beautiful about Bill Russell’s father “carrying his whole family, as if [they] weighed nothing.”
It recalls the famous Boys’ Town poster of one boy carrying another boy on his back. The caption reads, “He’s not heavy; he’s my brother.”
That same beautiful spirit radiates from Bill’s father carrying his whole family back home.
That brings us to the feast of the Holy Family. From a practical point of view, the feast of the Holy Family is one of the most important feasts of the year.
The reason? It focuses on the importance of the family, which, in the words of Pope Pius XI, is “more sacred than the state.”
Years ago Alvin Toffler wrote a runaway best-seller called Future Shock. It dealt with the effect that rapid change was having on institutions like the family. He writes:
The family has been called the “giant shock absorber” of society. It is the place to which the bruised and battered individual returns after doing battle with the world.
It is the one stable point in an increasingly flux-filled environment. As the superindustrial revolution unfolds, however, this “shock absorber” will come in for some shocks of its own. Already in his day, analysts were voicing concern about the family.
One said bluntly, “Except for the first year or two of child-raising, the family is dead.” Another warned that the family was on the highway to “complete extinction.”
Rarely do the readings at Mass speak in such a practical, down-to-earth way, as do today’s readings.
The first reading deals with our relationship to elderly parents. It impresses upon us our responsibility to revere and care for them, especially in their failing years.
The second reading deals with both the relationship between spouses and the relationship between parents and children. It stresses the responsibility of all family members to contribute to family life.
Finally, the Gospel reminds us that even the Holy Family itself was not immune to stress and misunderstandings.
Let’s go back and take a closer look at the second reading. There Paul highlights several virtues that all family members need to cultivate. Two of those virtues are patience and forgiveness.
Laura Stafford teaches at Ohio State U. Each afternoon, for years, she joined the long line of cars whose drivers waited patiently and often impatiently to pick up their preschoolers. She says:
I’d watch parents hurry their children into the car so they could beat the traffic home. Typically, a child would greet his mother, proudly carrying his artwork. “Mommy,” he’d say, “look what I made!” And the mother would answer,“No! Not now! I’ll look at it at home.”
She could have said:
“Wow, that looks beautiful! I can’t wait to get home so that we can look at it together more closely. . . .”
There are times when every parent has to tell a child to wait until later. But a persistent pattern of putting them off can leave a lasting negative impact. “Seven Things Smart Parents Never Say” by Harriet Webster, Reader’s Digest (February 1992)
Impatience has always been a challenge to parents. Over four centuries ago, William Shakespeare wrote,“How poor are they who have not patience.” He might have added,“How rich are they who cultivate patience.”
This brings us to the second virtue that Paul stresses: the virtue of forgiving. In a way, it is even more important than the virtue of patience.
A young mother with small children wrote to Ann Landers, explaining that her husband had done something really wrong, and she had separated from him. Ann wrote back, saying:
Don’t be stubborn and proud.Take him back. I promise you won’t regret it.
Years later another woman wrote to Ann, saying she had just buried her husband. She informed Ann that eight years earlier she also left her husband. But she returned to him because of the reply that Ann had given the young mother.
She thanked Ann for her advice, saying their last eight years together were the happiest of their married life.
That beautiful story reminds us of something we tend to forget. It is this: The same Jesus who gave us the command to forgive also gives us the grace to forgive. All we need do is open our hearts to it.
Let’s sum up the spirit of today’s feast with this prayer. Let’s pray it for all families, especially our own.
Lord, bless all families on this feast of the Holy Family.
Help family members open their hearts to the grace you hold out to them when they truly need the patience of Job.
Help them open their arms to those who seek and need their forgiveness after having injured them.
Help them discover the joy of doing for others what you have done for us on so many occasions in our lives.