On this first Sunday of the Christmas season, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family. The Gospel reading this year concerns the moment when Mary and Joseph follow Jewish Law and bring Jesus to the Temple.
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph brought the child Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Mary and Joseph have two purposes for coming to the Temple: a) purification of the mother, and b) redemption of the firstborn.
a) After giving birth, a mother is considered impure and can only return to the worshipping community after 40 days bringing an offering.
b) A firstborn son is designated as holy to God—given back to serve God—but parents may "redeem their firstborn" instead. They make an offering of money in thanksgiving for their son so that their son may choose his own pathway.
We may not completely understand these rituals today, but we understand that Mary and Joseph obey God. For the purification of the mother, they offer the sacrifice of the two birds. But do we hear them redeem their firstborn? In fact, it seems that someone interrupts this redemption:
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God—
It seems like Mary and Joseph plan to carry out the tradition of redeeming their firstborn, but Simeon prevents them from paying the money by taking Jesus in his arms. Jesus is therefore dedicated to God, as, of course, he should be.
But can we imagine this scene? What do his parents think as this old man takes Jesus into his arms? We might expect Joseph to grab the baby back! But he does not. Mary and Joseph share Jesus with this perfect stranger. And in turn, Simeon shares with them his knowledge of this child that can only have come from God, saying,
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
The encounter with Simeon does not end there.
Then Simeon blessed them
He blesses the Holy Family. What does this mean? It is Jewish custom to bless everything, to invite God into each and every moment. Simeon asks God to be with this family. He prays for them.
Then he speaks directly to Mary, saying,
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel,
—with this child, all will become level—
and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
What?? Why does he say this? Why does St. Luke include this? We know that Mary suffers when Jesus dies, but what does he mean by including this here now?
Perhaps we can learn that being part of the Holy Family includes suffering. A holy life does not mean a life free from struggle and sorrow. It is good to be aware of this, because when suffering occurs, we can be at peace knowing it does not mean we are somehow failing. We can know that the Holy Family knows exactly how we feel and shares our struggles.
In fact, the encounter of the Holy Family with Simeon can teach us quite a lot about being part of the Holy Family of God. The Holy Spirit brings people together to share an encounter with Christ that leaves each person knowing more. They bless each other with the gift of themselves, and the gift of prayer. We can do this, too, as we encounter people each day.
The Holy Family carries Christ with them and shares him with Simeon. Do we also carry Christ with us? Do we also share him with people we meet? Do other people share him with us? How can we know?
Actually, Simeon's words as he praises God can help us discern how we carry and how we meet Christ in our daily lives. Simeon's words have become part of Night Prayer, prayed by Catholics each day all around the world. See how these words can invite the Holy Spirit to reveal Christ to us:
Now, Lord, you let your servant go in peace
We give thanks to God for the gift of rest at the end of the day. Peace is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, a sign of the presence of God. By saying this, we know that we rest in the presence of God.
Your word has been fulfilled.
We acknowledge that God's will is done in our life, even though we may not have noticed.
My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people
God prepares salvation in our lives. We have seen it today, but where? We allow the memory of our day to filter through our thoughts, asking God to help us see it with God's eyes.
A light to reveal you to the nations
Today, how did we carry Christ the Light to others? How did they share the Light with us? We can admit the times when we did not share the Light, and the times when we chose not to receive the Light.
And the glory of your people Israel.
We end our prayer by looking forward to the Parousia, when the Holy Family is complete, and all people are God's people Israel.