Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph
Sunday, December 27, 2020
St. Anselm Church – Sudbury, MA
Readings: Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14; Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:22-40

Good morning! Welcome to the second mass of this double-header long-weekend of Christmas and the Feast of the Holy Family! Kids, did you bring a toy or gift you got this Christmas? Later I will ask you to hold it up and we are going pray that God blesses them.
On Christmas our scriptures reminded us that God chose to enter the world in very ordinary circumstances. Jesus was born in a stable amidst animals. Mary and Joseph were away from home too, so the loved ones weren’t there to support them in that moment. And it was strangers who came to visit them – the shepherds from a nearby field to whom the angel of God appeared to tell them something great had happened that they must go and see.
In today’s gospel, we see Jesus being brought as a baby to the temple by his mother and father. In this way they were just an ordinary family, doing the ordinary and expected ritual. But in that moment they get an extraordinary message, delivered to them by two strangers they meet.
Let’s remember that Jesus enters our ordinary families and circumstances to do extraordinary things too. In fact we must expect that!

Penitential Act:
Lord Jesus, you are Son of God and Son of Mary, Lord have mercy…
Lord have mercy.
Lord Jesus, you are Word made Flesh and splendor of the Father, Christ have mercy…
Christ have mercy.
Lord Jesus, you are mighty God and Prince of Peace, Lord have mercy…
Lord have mercy.

Gloria: Glory to God in the Highest…

Do you have vivid memories of the birth of your first child? Or the birth of your sister or brother? Or maybe when your niece, nephew or godchild was born?
Do you remember how you felt? Ecstatic, joyful, wanting to share the news with EVERYBODY!
I’m in that age group where for the last ten or fifteen years so I am constantly receiving the happy news from friends of a marriage, a pregnancy, a birth a second birth, a third!
Then come the invitations to weddings, baptisms, chaotic children’s birthday parties! Also a flood of pictures and videos on social media and the now-obligatory Shutterfly family picture Christmas cards.
Beneath all of these outward signs of joy and celebration, are also a lot of normal worries. Were any of you scared to be parents for the first time? What mother did not wonder about the pain of child birth? Who did not worry about doing everything right when caring for their newborn? Who was grateful for the help of a sister or brother, the grandparents, maybe even an older child of yours, or neighbors and friends for advice, or babysitting, or for some help with the endless responsibilities of caring for a little one.

For me I vividly remember the birth of my little brother.  Late at night grandma and grandpa sending mum and dad off in the car to the hospital, with blankets and pillows in case he was born on the way!  I remember the next day, Dad coming to pick me up from grandma and grandpa’s care to be taken to the hospital to see Andrew for the first time.  I remember walking into the room, and peering over the edge of the crib and seeing that little baby and mum saying “that’s your brother, Andrew!”.  I was five years old then.  

I ask you to think about your own memories of birth and babies and how families go through these stages in life because I think you can feel just how HOLY they are.  How precious they are.  Yet how ordinary they are.  And they’re NOT free of worry or suffering either.  Yet they are holy and you know it.

In the gospel today, Mary and Joseph do what Jewish parents were meant to do when they give birth to their firstborn son.  They were to make a trip to the temple in Jerusalem to dedicate him to the Lord and offer a sacrifice there.  As family with very limited means they made the minimal sacrifice of a pair of doves. In this simple journey and religious act – not so unlike our own memories of baptisms of the children in our life – a surprising thing happened to them.  

They meet two strangers – the prophetess Anna and the holy man Simeon.  By their description in the gospel, I bet many would have judged them to be fanatics or ‘church mice’.  

Anna had been widowed at a very young age and since then had stayed in the temple almost all the time praying and prophesying.
Simeon, an old man, had some intuition or mystical experience, we might presume, that before he died he would see the Messiah come – the savior of his people. And so he waited in the place that was the holiest – the temple.

God did not disappoint Anna or Simeon.
God did not disappoint Mary and Joseph either.

It’s interesting that we don’t hear much about the ritual sacrifice they made in dedicating Jesus to God. That, we can assume went off pro forma.  The highpoint is what happened around that ritual:

How shocked Mary and Joseph must have been when approached by Simeon and Anna – these strange, elderly, religious ascetics who spent their days praying in the temple. Depictions of this encounter in art show Simeon swooping in, taking the baby Jesus into his arms, and speaking excitedly to a rather disconcerted Mary and Joseph.

But Simeon was playing part of God’s plan, to proclaim that in Jesus God’s promise had been fulfilled. “Now let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled,” Simeon prays out loud to God, “My eyes have now seen the salvation you prepared in the sight of all peoples – revelation to the gentiles and glory for your people Israel”. … Could this little baby be God’s message of salvation not only to the Jews, but to all the gentiles? Or is this the delusion a crazy man? …Mary and Joseph must have wondered.

Anna, the holy woman directed her proclamation to the crowd, telling anyone who would listen that this child Jesus was God’s redemption for the world, arrived in their very midst: the covenant fulfilled, justice born & peace alive to us.

But the message wasn’t all joyful… Simeon looked Mary in the eyes and reveals just a bit more of what her commitment to God would imply. He says: “This child is destined for the rise and fall of many. He will be a sign which is contradicted. You yourself a sword will pierce.” … Simeon predicts that this son of hers was going to excite the hatred of powerful people, and she would suffer because of this. Certainly the death of one’s own child must be one of the greatest sorrows a human can bear.

Yet this is NOT to say that God wants us to suffer. Remember what Simeon did before he predicted Mary would suffer: He blessed Mary and Joseph – he declared them blessed. They had received a special gift from God to be parents to Jesus.

This closeness of blessing and suffering is a mystery that reminds me of a friend’s story. Laura had a rocky family life growing up, involving a tough divorce of her parents and lots of resentment in the family, which festered for decades, preventing some from even talking to one another. It took Laura a lot of her own spiritual and emotional labor – over years — to find healing and peace in her own heart, even though very little seemed to change outwardly in her family.

A few years ago her mom Annette became very sick with a terminal illness. The doctors prescribed treatment, but they didn’t believe this would give her more than a few months to live. Yet amazingly she hung on for three more years. On the face of it, her suffering looked intense and humiliating, and yet this became the circumstance in which she and her family experienced a healing that was previously unimaginable.

Annette moved into the home of Laura’s sister. Slowly Annette’s whole temperament changed. While you might expect illness would make her more bitter, she softened. And the siblings started to come together again, around the woman who had brought them into the world. Slowly but surely the ice melted in strained relationships, and the fires of old conflicts died down.

Laura’s daughter and son-in-law meanwhile became pregnant with their first child, so Annette, now had something more to live for: the birth of her great granddaughter. She struggled through, shocking the doctor’s with her endurance through what seemed like an eternal illness that only became more complicated over time.

When the little girl was born, the baby and her great grandma bonded. It was like a fresh chance to love, to savor the gifts of God, to do what matters most. Maybe Annette was brought back to those memories of holding each of her children for the first time, memories of the overwhelming miracle of life and love. Annette and her great granddaughter had six months together, and they completely delighted in one another.

In Annette’s last few days, she and Laura had some final heartfelt conversations that brought deep reconciliation and healing between mother and daughter. Laura told me following her mom’s death: “I am so blessed, so grateful”. … This family experienced nothing short of a miraculous return to the gift and blessing God had intended them to be for one another.

This is not just a beautiful story, but it’s a pattern of how God works in our lives:

  • We hear the proclamation of God’s promise in many ways – through prophets like Malachi who announced the messiah, or through the mouths of wise women and men like Anna and Simeon, or the hope that’s renewed in us by the birth of a child.
  • And God’s loving promise elicits a response. We can respond by committing ourselves in love, or we may reject it for fear of the unknown. In truth we all do both. But commitment in love sees us through to redemption, and helps us to face any pain that may come in-between.

For Jesus and Mary, the pain of his crucifixion and death, and her great sorrow, were redeemed by Jesus’ glorious Resurrection. For my friend Laura and her family, their long-born wounds were bound up, kissed, and healed in the end – as they rediscovered that the love they had for each other could overcome the ways they had hurt one another.

Perhaps as Annette finally passed from this world to the next, her thoughts were much like Simeon’s: “God, let your servant go in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation!”

Where in your life have you seen God’s salvation?
Long for it, commit to it, savor it, and give thanks for it.